The trailhead for this slog up Middle Matilija Creek is 55 miles from Santa Barbara’s Westside, at least that’s what my old truck’s trip odometer read after my friend and I arrived there at 5:50 a.m. in mid-July.
While the first 1.5 walking miles are easy going on an old road and then a wide trail, after “Flat Rock” you clamber down “in,” joining the narrow stream bed for some gnarly bouldering up to West Falls and Matilija Falls.
Matilija Falls, 4.8 miles up-creek, isn’t the major goal, and be aware you cross over some private property; check Bryant’s map.
The huge iron bar across Matilija Canyon Road makes it very clear that you have to stop and park, and there’s ample space for at least 15 cars at the end of the remote canyon road.
It’s been hot in the Ojai backcountry, so an early start is crucial; carry plenty of water (don’t drink from the creek itself), and hope to get back by noon or 1 p.m., thus avoiding the worst of the incandescent July heat.
After leaving the vehicle and walking around the big bar, you hike on the dirt road continuation of Matilija Canyon Road through the public access kindly granted by the private Matilija Sanctuary Ranch (note their sign).
After a pleasant 0.7-mile road hike, you spot a prominent trail sign on the right: the only official U.S. Forest Service trail into the 29,000-acre Matilija Wilderness, the Upper North Fork (Matilija) Trail, is here.
Shunning this option, you continue on the dirt road, staying left, and after another 0.4 mile you encounter a T-junction with confusing signage.
In this dry garden of forking paths, you either go left, ascending the wide fire road 4.0 miles to the 3,450-foot Murietta Divide, or head right, against the direction of the misleading white arrow shown on the sign there.
This sign, with the handy topo map torn out, reads “ALL U.S.F.S. ROADS + TRAILS” with the aforesaid arrow, which is technically correct.
However, our chosen unofficial trail into the relatively new federal wilderness leads north, obliging this right turn and leading us through and alongside the privately owned Blue Heron Ranch.
The Matilija Wilderness was created just 24 years ago, and only contains two major drainages: North Fork Matilija Creek and Middle Matilija Creek, with Middle Matilija being the largest, and I generally call it “Matilija Creek.”
It’s wild and crazy way up in Matilija Creek, and in the battles between nature and humans, the fabulous Matilija wins. Please note, you will not see any trail marked on the Conant Map noted in the 4-1-1 (but you can see “Blue Heron Ranch” clearly marked).
After your turn right to the north and a short amble beneath tall trees, you enter a “sacred” wooden portal and are now skirting Blue Heron Ranch and hiking on a wide trail that parallels Matilija Creek.
It truly felt like some “wildness” started right here as the hand of man disappears, and we immediately startled several California mule deer, and caught a rare glimpse of a young, spotted fawn.
Please be very quiet and respectful as you cross private property, and stay on the trail.
Many locals love heading up this Middle Matilija – the main creek – and at the first “free camp” sites next to the flowing creek we saw plenty of camping evidence, and also a disturbing amount of “little” trash, which said locals blame on “outsiders.”
You hike on, and the narrowing trail keeps moving closer and closer to Matilija Creek, more free sites appear, and they are in better shape, and invite a future backpack.
You begin to hear the water-music, and notice the cottonwood and sycamore trees towering above the riparian zone. Looking up, you realize the gorge will continue to narrow ahead, and you gaze up at the tall cliff walls around you.
North and west you pick out the ridgeline of Old Man Mountain at 5,550 feet.
When you reach the huge “Flat Rock,” with its enchanting pool and 5-foot depths, you’re now in full Matilija mode, mythic and dark since it’s only 7:15 a.m., and here hikers finally drop into the darkened riparian corridor itself.
At Flat Rock – shown on Conant’s excellent map – you are 2.2 miles from your vehicle.
Mat’ilha was a known Ventureño Chumash village site somewhere in this wilderness, and noted ethnobotanist Jan Timbrook informs us that the ingenious Native Americans went to the mat’ilha area to collect their most important fiber plant, Indian-Hemp (Dogbane), Apocynum cannabinum, which grows well in these damp places like Matilija Canyon, Cuyama, and Sitoptopo (now Topatopa).
They also collected pine pitch while gathering piñon nuts in these narrow damp corridors surrounded by desert (her excellent 2007 Chumash Ethnobotany, pp. 31 and 145).
“Damp” is important, and in the fifth year of our drought, Matilija Creek runs strong despite some reduction, and there are still some fine swimming holes for the kids there today!
The water flow improved after we dropped down into the shady creek zone, and we were hiking in cool green shade with lots of scrabble and loose rock.
The footing is somewhat treacherous in places, and it was easy to slip on the scree piled at the base of the narrowing gorge’s cliff-walls. Twin trekking poles or at least a single stick seem very useful, and I found my poles absolutely crucial (and still tumbled a couple of times).
In Irus Braverman’s prescient “Wild Life — the Institution of Nature,” she writes that “the current generation of conservation practitioners grapples with both the attachment to, and the need to let go of, the ideal of human versus nature.”
Thus, we have to analyze some of this lamentable Anthropocene era’s nature “management” practices. Among these practices, we’ve blithely approved extermination of the local grizzly bears (and other species), intense urban development (look at Goleta!), and the recovered California condor.
Yet, more condors are held ex situ than fly free in situ. Now a conservation group wants to “rewild” part of California by re-introducing grizzly bear to the Sierra Nevada (L.A Times 7/12/16 story by Jason Song).
When we accept that we humans really do manage the entire planet, like it or not, we realize we now dwell in “Zooland” (another Braverman book).
We also realize it’s fine to plunge on into the noble Matilija Wilderness zone and feel OK with the loss of some species.
When studying Conant’s map, you see some white rectangles centering on Middle Matilija Creek, and these are private ranch lands.
Tough slogging “down in” the tightening gorge and rocky Matilija creekbed after Flat Rock, and after another mile I decided my knees had had enough bouldering action.
At the pool shown with the green reflection, we halted for a light brunch, a rest, and turned our hike around.
We were a bit over three miles into the longer 4.8 mile trek to West Falls and Matilija Falls, but the entire last 1.5 miles is very slow going down in the boulder-strewn “wash”, and even entering the water at times it is so constricted by the tapering walls of the gorge.
We may be losing our planetary-wide wilderness zones at a frightening rate, but with Braverman we can seek to retain some “wildness” if not so much pristine “wilderness”
Lovers of Henry David Thoreau enjoy quoting his famous line from “Walking,” “In Wilderness is the preservation of the World.”
But he actually and carefully wrote, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” and it is a meaningful distinction. The mule deer, lizards, birds and flora are wild as can be in the Matilija Wilderness: Go there and hike and swim with your kids!
BOOKS; Irus Braverman, “Wild Life — the Institution of Nature” (Stanford U. Press 2015)’ and Jan Timbrook’s “Chumash Ethnobotany” (S.B. Museum of Natural History, 2007) are both available at Chaucer’s Books.
4-1-1: Big Matilija Creek and Canyon Day Hike
Distance: About 6.2 miles round trip from the end of Matilija Canyon Road; suitable for children 5 and up; to make it on to Matilija Falls proper, it’s a 9.6-mile round trip.
Driving directions: From Santa Barbara take Highway 101 south to Ojai via Highway 33; at the Y when to get to Ojai go left toward Nordhoff High School and continue on Highway 33 for five miles until you see the Matilija Canyon Road turnoff on your left; drive to the end and do 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 email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.