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Dan McCaslin: Piedra Blanca Camp an Easy 2-Day Backpack

Trail in Ventura County begins at Sespe Creek and winds through some spectacular rock formations

Spectacular rock formations are the hallmark of the Piedra Blanca Trail in Ventura County.
Spectacular rock formations are the hallmark of the Piedra Blanca Trail in Ventura County. (Dan McCaslin photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: Click here for a related article.]

This simple and mild 2.9-mile backpack from the slow-moving Sespe River up to well-watered and flower-bedecked Piedra Blanca Camp exemplifies the goal of all my future On the Trail columns: portray a recent backpack or day hike into our local wilderness and inspire readers to leap out of their chairs, escape urban ennui, snatch up the kids, and drive to a nearby trailhead and begin hiking.

For the very leisurely Piedra Blanca backpack — highly suitable for sturdy children over 4 — the Sespe River is low and thus easy to ford, the trails are very well signed, and while late April blazed hot, I knew it would be nothing like August’s onrushing inferno.

Cinching up my lightly loaded backpack (27 pounds total), I amble down the path to the glistening Sespe River, and have no trouble with crossing the flow in three places — when I day-hiked here in November 2014, I was unable to ford the Sespe without soaking my legs up to the knees.

Considering our drought, the water was good for midspring, and I spotted a great swimming hole for kids and adults.

You ascend immediately after the last crossing and soon encounter clear trail signs: Go west (“left”) with the arrow for “Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trail”, and a bit later you see the carved “Sespe Wilderness” wooden sign.

The overwhelming beauty of the natural piedra blanca rock formations can distract you from studying your footpath and looking out for rattlesnakes — 6,000 foot Pine Mountain looms above the haunting “playground” shapes, including the elephantine monster in the photograph.

A pool beckons to hot hikers on the Piedra Blanca Trail. (Dan McCaslin photo)

You hike on and cross over the relatively low white formation into more familiar hard chaparral and blossoming blue and white ceanothus bushes, with their intriguing lilac fragrance.

Since there had been only two cars back in the parking lot, and most hikers take the Sespe River Trail turnoff (hot springs!), I anticipated zero human interactions, and in fact only met one guy on my return the following day.

Walking slowly, you begin to hear muttering Piedra Blanca Creek after another mile, and this water music in a desert zone cheers one up immediately: There will be water at Piedra Blanca Camp!

I see some startled mule deer, and later spot the horned toad shown in the picture.

Distinctive rock formations are the hallmark of the Piedra Blanca Trail. (Dan McCaslin photo)

There are a few “free camps” down by the gurgling water, but it’s best to remain on the trail that migrates more deeply into the green riparian ravines at the entrance to Piedra Blanca Camp.

Sylvan Piedra Blanca Camp surprises the visitor with two very large sites graced by giant logs to sit on, separate fire rings with iron grates, and a tall leafy oak canopy that provides heavy shade — a godsend on sunny days in the Sespe Wilderness.

The creek flows copiously, and when you fetch water, you enter an even deeper green cave.

Since we’re in a Stage III fire condition, that means no open fires at all, and the dry yang hillsides all around oppress the camper a bit.

Lush riparian growth is seen along the creek. (Dan McCaslin photo)

I wouldn’t dream of making wood fires in such drought conditions, and I used a tiny white gas stove with extreme care.

(Click here to obtain the necessary and free California campfire permit allowing you to operate portable stoves.)

Certainly I was hoping for solitude and free time to ponder and allow the “western mind” to take some wilderness rest. Freeing up available brain space for contemplation is easier in the backcountry.

During parts of four decades spent roaming around our local federal wildernesses, and the eastern High Sierra, I’ve witnessed California’s extreme urbanization as well as the paradox that fewer families go camping or backpacking than in the 1960s and ’70s.

A horned toad suns itself just off the trail. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Yet solitude, cascading water, deep shade and abundant green foliage create a soulful, restorative experience. Occasionally the purifying forces of nature help the media carpet-bombed 21st-century mind re-enchant itself and return to town feeling cleansed and recharged.

When I pulled my old Ford Ranger truck into a spot near the shrunken Sespe River, Marcus Mumford chanting Dylan’s “Kansas City,” sipping hot Earl Grey tea from the metal thermos bottle, 27 pounds of gear laid out in the back ... it was a hot Tuesday, and the relative silence already had begun to subdue jagged nerves from a teacher’s hectic life in Santa Barbara.

The Sespe sound of running natural water excites the imagination, and I learn from Bryan Conant that while some of the deep springs have gone dry, the lower creeks still flow because of the recent albeit light rains.

There are spectacular vistas as you return to your vehicle, and you realize the backside of the glorious Piedra Blanca sandstone ridge is as weird and wild as the frontside formations.

Among several lovely plants, the tall purple yerba santa (eriodictyon crassifolium) stands out, and the local Chumash simmered its leaves and drank the tea for throat and lung ailments, including asthma.

Yerba santa blooms along the trail. The local Chumash made tea from its leaves and used it as an elixir. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Piedra Blanca Hike 4-1-1

Hike: Gentle backpack from Sespe Creek (3,100 feet) to Piedra Blanca Camp (3,500 feet), and possible free hike .3 mile extension to Twin Forks Camp

Distance: 6.5-mile round trip (5.8 of this backpacking) with one overnight at green Piedra Blanca Camp

Maps: Tom Harrison Maps — Sespe Wilderness Trail Map; most of this hike is on the Gene Marshall National Trail in the Sespe Wilderness

Driving directions: It’s 61 miles from Santa Barbara’s Westside to the parking lot called “Piedra Blanca Trailhead”: Take Highway 101 south to Highway 33 at Ventura (It’s 41 miles to Ojai). At Ojai, stay on Highway 33 toward “Meiner’s Oaks/Wheeler Gorge/Rose Valley Recreation Area” for another 14 miles, then turn (right) at the “Rose Valley Recreation Area” sign, and drive six miles to the end. Park here at Sespe Trailhead and Piedra Blanca Trailhead.

— 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.

Piedra Blanca Camp is just under three miles from the trailhead, making it a great weekend backpacking destination. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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