Legendary naturalist John Muir once penned, “Trees go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!” Founder of the Sierra Club, Muir’s life was a virtual testament to how it was to be among the trees – and advocated the activity as something all people should embrace.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” Muir exhorts us. He has a kindred spirit in TLVC’s James Wapotich, a local writer who makes it his business – and his narrative – to wander the byways of our splendid Gold Coast hiking trails. With pen and camera and a will to lead, he blazes a trail so that the intrepid among us might follow in his – and Muir’s – example. In this, the first of a series, James leads us to the virtual trailhead. We leave it to our readers to pull on a pair of boots and follow, each at their own pace.
Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon
Photos by James Wapotich
There are many great places available in Ventura County where one can take in the scenery; we have both the ocean and the mountains close by, and so it can be hard to know just where to start. If you’re into hiking and backpacking, there is a surprising number of trails to choose from. The good news is that almost all of them lead somewhere interesting.
One of the more versatile trails locally is the Matilija Trail through Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon. The trail follows the creek and is about 15-20 minutes north of Ojai, has year round water and is suitable for almost all ages. The trail is also long enough with several trail camps to make it a satisfying backpacking destination as well.
The Matilija Trail leads through the upper reaches of Matilija Creek and because of the year round water is rich with both chaparral and riparian plants; and allows one to craft a hike of almost any length and explore our local backcountry. To hike to the campsite at Middle Matilija for example is about 8 miles roundtrip.
To get to the trailhead from Ojai take State Route 33 north to Matilija Canyon Road, about 5 miles past Ojai; as you pass the Ojai Rock Quarry look for the road on your left. Matilija Canyon Road winds above Matilija Lake and offers some nice views of the lake before dropping down into the canyon and following the creek. The hike begins where Matilija Canyon Road arrives at a locked gate. Parking is found along the road.
From the gate, follow the road as it passes through Matilija Canyon Ranch, please respect private property along this trail easement. The road then becomes unpaved, and at about the half mile mark arrives at the turnoff for Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon on your right. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far as just a short way further along the road on your left is the trailhead for Murietta Canyon. Both trails are well marked with trail signs.
From here the Matilija Trail crosses Matilija Creek and enters Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon; it is also here that one officially enters the Matilija Wilderness. The canyon itself is striking with its defined opening and beckoning mystique. There is something powerful about a place that has year round water, such places are often favored by wildlife and were utilized by the Chumash.
According to some, Matilija takes is name from the Chumash word mat ilha, which means division and is probably a reference to the watershed that divides the Santa Ynez River drainage which flows west and the Matilija which flows more or less east before becoming the Ventura River. The Chumash village of Mat Ilha was located somewhere along Matilija Creek.
The trail is well maintained and easy to follow and even suitable for horses all the way to Middle Matilija. The trail crosses the creek numerous times, which on a hot day can be a welcome relief. At about the 1.25 mile mark the trail arrives at the first campsite, Matilija, which has two shaded sites near the creek. Through much of this section the trail is graced with riparian trees such as Cottonwood, Alder and Sycamore along the creek and Ceanothus, Oak and Toyon when moving through the chaparral. The Matilija Wilderness is one of the areas of our local backcountry that was not affected by the recent forest fires-the last fire through this particular area was back in the 1980s.
At about the 3 mile mark the trail climbs above the creek offering some great views of the canyon stretching out towards the south. It is impressive to consider how long this canyon has been here, carved out from the mountains and home to so much life and activity. In fact the further up the canyon one travels the more timeless it can seem.
At about the 4 mile mark one arrives at Middle Matilija which makes for a good return point for a day hike as well as great place to camp as part of an overnight backpack trip. Middle Matilija is situated under several large oak trees near the creek and has two campsites to choose from, each with a grated stove and fire ring.
From Middle Matilija the trail continues up the canyon still further, becoming more overgrown in places as fewer people travel it. Here too the trail climbs out of the canyon for a stretch, again offering a contrasting perspective of the canyon. And at the 5.5 mile mark the trail arrives at Upper Matilija Camp. One of the nice things about the Matilija Trail in terms of backpacking is that the number of campsites all having water makes it easy to change and select destinations during the hike. At Upper Matilija there is one campsite situated under a small grove of Bay Laurels near the creek.
From Upper Matilija the trail becomes more challenging, the trail is still easy to find but it is much more overgrown, often requiring one to duck under and push through brush. And with such efforts come great rewards as the next camp, Maple, is a site worth seeing. As the trail gains altitude the flora starts to include Blue or Mountain Oaks and Big Cone Douglas Fir. Through this section you will also see much more evidence of wildlife, as if the animals have all realized that most of the human activity happens downstream from Upper Matilija.
Maple Camp is about 7 miles from the trailhead and is best visited as part of a backpacking trip. The camp is aptly named as it is situated in a clearing under several large Maple trees near the creek. There is one campsite and generally water available in the creek and its remoteness can give it an almost otherworldly sense.
Regardless of how far you hike you will get to see some of our incredible backcountry.
James Wapotich is an experienced backpacker and has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry. He is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service, has led groups into the wilderness and is the author of the weekly hiking column Trail Quest in the Santa Barbara NewsPress. If you have a favorite hike, a trail you're curious about or questions about the local backcountry, send them to James at firstname.lastname@example.org.