Santa Paula Canyon
- Location: Thomas Aquinas College, between Ojai and Santa Paula. From the intersection with Highway 33 in Ojai, take Highway 150 east for 12 miles. Just before the entrance to the college, look for a small, unsigned entrance to a dirt lot on the left side of the road. From Santa Paula and Highway 126, take Highway 150 northwest for 5.8 miles. Just past the college entrance, look for the entrance to the dirt lot. The approximate coordinates for the trail head are N 34.4272, W 119.0904.
- Agency: Los Padres National Forest/Ojai Ranger District
- Distance: 7.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Distance, navigation, terrain, trail condition)
- Suggested time: 4 hours
- Best season: October – June
- USGS topo map: Santa Paula Peak
- Recommended guidebook: Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura
- More information: Trip description here; Yelp page here; area trail map here; Map My Hike report here
- Rating: 7
Not many hikes offer a tour of a college campus, a stroll through a serene canyon, a remote trail camp and an off-trail scramble to a waterfall, but Santa Paula Canyon provides all of the above. The 25-foot waterfall is a popular destination for a moderate day hike; backpackers can extend their trip on either fork of the canyon. Sadly, the area’s popularity has led it to be desecrated by graffiti and trash, at the waterfall in particular. The effort required to reach the waterfall makes the vandalism there particularly head-scratching; nevertheless the hike is an enjoyable one and hikers can give back to the area by packing out some of the trash. Santa Paula Canyon is a nice place for a casual stroll but to reach the waterfall, one must look out for some unmarked junctions and be ready to do some rock scrambling. If you aren’t confident with your navigational skills, consider doing this hike with someone who’s been here before, or at least using downloading a GPS track to your phone (or be willing to leave trail ducks for yourself to mark the way).
Begin by walking a few dozen yards on the wide shoulder of Highway 150, exercising appropriate caution. Enter the college campus and follow the signs to the trail. The mountains make an attractive backdrop for the campus and its Spanish mission-style architecture. At 0.7 miles, bear right onto another road and follow it past a few private residences and some oil rigs. At 1.4 miles, you reach Santa Paula Creek and the East Fork Trail.
Ford the shallow creek and pick up the East Fork Trail on the opposite side. Vague in spots but overall not too difficult to follow, it threads between a wire fence and the north bank of the creek. You pass a junction with a service road and continue to follow the creek on the north bank. The trail becomes somewhat obscure at this point as it enters a narrow creek paralleling the main one (watch out for poison oak here) but by simply heading up stream and staying close to the north wall of the canyon, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding your way.
The trail then enters the floodplain, where you are treated to views of the Topatopa Mountains to the northeast. During the fall and early winter, changing colors on sycamore trees add to the appeal. Follow the trail to a T-junction (2.3 miles) and bear right, continuing up canyon. (If you are following a Google Maps-based GPS track, it will now show you as being back on the East Fork Trail, from which you digressed for a little while before).
Shortly after, the canyon narrows. At 2.5 miles, look for an unsigned spur leading down to the creek (approximate coordinates: N 34.4447, W 119.0693.) Cross Santa Paula Creek and pick up the trail on the opposite side. The trail follow the creek’s south bank before ascending through some narrow gaps in the rocks to a junction (2.8 miles, approximate coordinates N 34.4443, W 119.0651.) On Google Maps, it will appear as if you are once again rejoining the East Fork Trail at an S-curve.
Take a hard right (this will seem counter-intuitive because it will look as if you are heading backwards) to stay on the East Fork Trail. If you find yourself having descended back down to the flood plain, retrace your steps–unless you are willing to do a difficult, nearly mile-long scramble up the canyon to the waterfall. The East Fork Trail is an easier and more scenic option. Follow it as it makes an uphill S-curve, climbing up the south wall of the canyon. The next half mile is easy, save for one spot where the trail is washed out, requiring a potentially tricky dip through loose and rocky terrain. Following this obstacle, you are treated to some good aerial views of Santa Paula Canyon as the trail continues to hug the south wall.
At 3.3 miles from the start, the trail again becomes washed out; if there have been recent rains, prepare for mud. The trail makes another S-curve. (A few side trails have been added here but the main route should be pretty clear. After climbing through the washed out section, the trail enters an enjoyable corridor of oaks before arriving at Big Cone (3.5 miles from the start).
Big Cone Campground sits in the shade of some tall big cone pines and oaks and it also offers a cliffside view of the canyon below. From this vantage point, you can get a glimpse of the waterfall and decide if you want to make the extra effort to reach it. If there have been heavy rains, the waterfall can be impressive, but the rocky descent into the canyon can be potentially treacherous, as can the traverse through the canyon itself. The campground is a good turnaround spot for hikers who aren’t confident with their rock scrambling abilities.
For those who want to continue to the waterfall, the trail continues out of the campground’s western end. It makes a few switchbacks as it descends to the creek before basically fading into the rocks. Descend the rocks down to the bank of the creek and then cross it, briefly following the north wall, working your way down canyon. Shortly, a tributary comes in on the right from the northwest. Scramble a few dozen yards up this tributary to reach the waterfall. Following rain, the water shoots through a narrow gap in the rocks, plunging 25 feet into a large sandy pool. Despite the graffiti (one item reads, “RIP Grandma” – I’m sure she’d be proud) and trash, the waterfall is an attractive spot to relax before retracing your steps upstream and up the steep trail back to the camp. From Big Cone Camp, simply return via the same route, keeping an eye out for the key navigational points.
Text and photography copyright 2016 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.