Thursday, October 18 , 2018, 6:25 pm | Fair 74º


Dan McCaslin: Murrieta Trail to Murrieta Spring Will Have You Stepping Back in California History

According to legend, famed bandito Joaquín Murrieta used area as a hideout, and relatively short hike reveals ruggedness of its landscape

The Murrieta trailhead lies at the end of dusty Matilija Canyon Road outside of Ojai.
The Murrieta trailhead lies at the end of dusty Matilija Canyon Road outside of Ojai. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Myth might be defined as an imaginary effort to explain some event or occurrence, real or imagined, that excites the myth-maker’s curiosity.

The lurid myths about Joaquín Murrieta aroused the interest of many in pre-Civil War-era California, and it is true that his severed head toured California for more than 30 years in order to “prove” the famous bandito was really dead. His violent life excited horror and fear and romanticized legends about his exploits.

The trailhead for this moderate 9.6-mile jaunt lies at the end of dusty Matilija Canyon Road, just like the last hike I described. There were no other cars in the crude parking area where the bar obliges one to park, and we swiftly strode through Matilija Canyon Ranch, noting the very cool “No Hunting” sign next to a tall conifer.

My teaching colleague, Ryan, and I began hiking at 5:55 a.m. when the late July sun had just begun to rise behind the Topatopa Mountains in the east. After road hiking through the private Matilija Ranch and listening to the screeching peacocks, at 0.8 miles you break left off the dirt road into the brush: This is the signed Murrieta Trail, and it’s easy to spot. This turnoff comes just after you see the big sign for “North Fork Matilija Trail” (pass on by).

Our well-worn trail surprisingly heads south toward Santa Barbara for a while, and you walk at least 10 minutes before running into a smaller tributary of Murrieta Creek. Here. the path trends appropriately more to the west, and after another half-mile or so you encounter the huge channel and wash of Murrieta Creek itself.

The rocky watercourse is an important tributary of the even bigger Matilija Creek below, but of course in our fifth year of drought, Murrieta is bone dry. Oak trees and hard chaparral abound, and alders and sycamores in the stony creekbed are mixed with masses of reddened poison oak and some tangles — I recommend long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brim hat, boots, hiking poles and plenty of water (I carried 4.5 liters).

In this entire area, not more than 15 miles from downtown Ojai, the sense of a mythical “other” can overwhelm hikers — we never saw another human the entire day (except at the end near my truck).

Ryan wondered about the predominance of the Murrieta name, and the local lore and contradictory myths are interesting today. In addition to Murrieta Creek and Canyon, there is the Murrieta Divide well above us at 3,450 feet; it will be the high point and apex of our weekday jaunt — if we really want to hike 4.8 miles to get there.

Joaquín Murrieta (or Murietta or Murieta, spelled variously) was a semi-legendary bandit and Mexican “Robin Hood” figure from the 1850s, notorious in Northern and Central California mining camps.

A “No Hunting” sign stands next to a tall conifer at privately owned Matilija Canyon Ranch.
A “No Hunting” sign stands next to a tall conifer at privately owned Matilija Canyon Ranch. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo lived between 1829 and 1853, and he had a confusing life story. The so-called “Robin Hood of El Dorado,” Mexican contemporaries saw him as a generous patriot, while the ’49ers and invading anglos considered him a vicious bandit and bloodthirsty murderer.

He was very slippery, and it’s likely there was more than one “Joaquín Murrieta,” and even his death is controversial; this Matilija area is one of several he and his men used for hideouts, and we learned on our hike how rugged the landscape is around here, with many secluded places with some water.

It’s fact that in 1853 the Legislature viewed him as a “criminal” and one of the so-called “Five Joaquí​ns” specifically named in a bill passed into law in 1853. This law created the California Rangers, hard-bitten veterans of the American war of expansion called the Mexican-American War (1848). Twenty of them were paid to hunt down the “Five Joaquíns” and their thieving gangs.

Ryan and I kept on hiking along the Murrieta Trail and above the dry rocky creekbed of Murrieta Creek, enjoying shade given by the many alders, until we arrived at shady Murrieta Camp. This large camp has several flat spots for tents and would be ideal for student groups — or exhausted desperadoes.

At this point you’re only 1.7 miles from your vehicle. There are no tables, but the site boasts three iron grills, although currently no open fires are allowed due to strict summer fire conditions.

Ryan is from Connecticut and wants to charge on up the trail and bag the “divide.” The Murrieta Divide dominates the near landscape at 3,440 feet, although farther off we could often see Divide Peak and Old Man Mountain (5,500 feet).

This jumble of rocks demarcates the two major drainages around us. The Ojai and Matilija Canyon side drains to the Ventura River and spills into the ocean there. The Murrieta Divide formation also diverts precipitation west and south into the Santa Ynez River and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Shady Murrieta Camp is large with several flat spots for tents and three iron grills, but no tables.
Shady Murrieta Camp is large with several flat spots for tents and three iron grills, but no tables. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Tiny Santa Ynez Camp (past the Divide about one mile) marks the headwaters of the Santa Ynez River, which runs down to Jameson Reservoir, Gibraltar Dam and Bradbury Dam (and our shrunken Cachuma Reservoir) and finally empties into the sea near Lompoc.

Did Joaquín Murrieta know, or understand, or care about any of this topography? His fame and these names stem from mid-19th-century Joaquín Murrieta myths. The way from Santa Ynez over the Divide and through the Murrieta Trail to North Fork Matilija Trail was a route into the interior that bypassed the more easily guarded coastal route.

Since the United States had only won California (and much more) from Mexico in the 1848 conquest, surely bandits like any one of the “Five Joaquí​ns” might have been supported by local Mexicans as a patriotic rebel, and likewise hated by the new California rulers.

California entered the United States officially as the 31st state in September 1850. One Mexican man’s patriotic guerilla is another anglo man’s bloody brigand. The Yankees also practiced a western “genocide” on the various Native American tribes in the West, completely eradicating some of them (see Benjamin Madley’s 2016 book, An American Genocide published by Yale University Press and available at Chaucer’s Bookstore).

We hiked on and ascended another 0.8 miles of the Murrieta Trail, which abruptly rejoins the same fire road (5N13) we were on originally. Trudging steadily upward, I hoped to find the Murrieta Spring, which Bryan Conant marks on his Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness Backpacking Guide map.

The July heat soared, but we had started out very early and many road segments were still in deep shade. Despite the five dry years, after another 1.7 miles of road hiking, sure enough Murrieta Spring was still flowing next to the road and surrounded by ferns, although it was down to a trickle (filter before drinking).

Dappled shade covers fire road 5N13, which rejoins the Murrieta Trail.
Dappled shade covers fire road 5N13, which rejoins the Murrieta Trail. (Dan McCaslin photo)

It’s a steep ascent up the final 0.6 miles from this spring to the brown ridge of the Murrieta Divide formation. At the top, we rested for about 10 minutes after our 4.8-mile trek, enjoying the stupendous 360-degree views, including ocean fog visible out past the long Santa Ynez Valley near Lompoc, the Topatopa Range and particularly striking Divide Peak (4,700 feet). We had climbed almost 2,000 feet from our parked vehicle.

Madley retells many stories of anglo ’49ers driving Native Americans and local Mexicans from gold claims they were working in Northern and Central California. Supposedly, the “original” Joaquín Murrieta (if there was an original) was driven from his legitimate gold claim by the aforesaid yanquis, his family assaulted, and therefore he began his brigandage against “the Americans.”

If he did, in fact, hide out in this area, Murrieta Creek is very tough going down in the watercourse, and when flowing offers several places to lay up and wait for allies to bring in more supplies.

Around 1919, writer Johnston McCulley created his Zorro pulp fiction character from an 1854 book about Murrieta titled The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge.

Whenever Murrieta really died, the State of California believes three of the five Joaquíns, including Murrieta, were killed by the California Rangers in 1853: You can see the official plaque — California Historical Landmark No. 344 near Coalinga — at the intersection of Highways 33 and 198.

It’s a long haul of almost five miles back to the vehicle, but we were back in coastal Santa Barbara well before noon despite a 9.6-mile workout.

I do not recommend this long, dusty hike for children, although keeping it to a 3.4-mile Murrieta Camp-and-back hike would be great for kids.

Another alternative is to run this as a mountain bike trip, although you won’t get to enjoy the Murrieta Trail in the shade below the road.

4-1-1: Murrieta Trail to Murrieta Spring and Divide

Distance: About 8.4-mile round trip from the end of Matilija Canyon Road past Murrieta Camp to Murrieta Spring (trickle is left); to make it on to the actual Mureieta Divide it becomes a 9.6-mile round trip.

Driving directions: From Santa Barbara take Highway 101 south to Ojai via Highway 33; at the Y when you get to Ojai, go left toward Nordhoff High School and continue on Highway 33 for five miles when you see Matilija Canyon Road turnoff on the left; drive to the bar at the end, and proceed slowly since there are children playing along this road.

Map: Bryan Conant’s Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness Backpacking Guide.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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