Posted by: James Wapotich | November 9, 2009

Middle Matilija

Recently I went backpacking into the Matilija Wilderness [October 24-25] with my friend, her son, my sister and a friend of hers. Originally we had considered visiting the Manzana Narrows, but due to time constraints we settled on Middle Matilija. Because of its relative closeness this made for an ideal day of sleeping in, hiking and swimming. The five of us set off Saturday morning after a hearty breakfast, and drove from Santa Barbara, past Ojai, to the trailhead (a little over an hour total).

From the trailhead we hiked in four miles to Middle Matilija Camp on Upper North Fork Matilija Creek. And although there were numerous cars parked at the trailhead, we soon discovered there was only one other group camping in the entire canyon. The trail is easy to read and with trail camps at the 3, 4, 5.5 and 7.5 mile marks one can even decide on their destination while en route.

What makes the Upper North Fork Matilija a compelling destination, beside it’s closeness, is that even in October there is still running water. Many places in the backcountry begin to run out of water around June and either dry up all together or make you grateful to find little pockets of water here and there, and so in many ways it feels like a rare treat to see continuously flowing water in the fall. Other compelling reasons of course are the scenery. There is dense chaparral and riparian plant life as this area was not hit by recent wildfires. In fact the last fire through this area was in the mid 1980s.

Los Padres National Forest Matilija Hike Ojai Santa Barbara

Middle Matilija

More pictures at

Recent rains have only made the place more magical adding little green patches of wild grass. I also think the recent rains helped revive the fly population (not that it was suffering). At the end of the trip I counted no less than 55 bugs bites. I also learned that thing to look out for is not your regular fly who is in love with your eyes and ears and misses you dearly, but the little “no-seeums” which are about half the size of regular flies and who are much fonder of nibbling. The escape from these flies is hiking or swimming and of course colder weather. Other wildlife included evidence of bears, deer, and coyote, as well as the bats who came out right after dusk.

For me the real highlight was sleeping under the stars beneath a huge grandfather oak. It’s amazing how being in the woods turns waking up in the middle of the night from some kind of inconvenience into a rare gift.

The year before, in October I backpacked this same trail and both Middle and Upper Matilija camps were full. That year the weather was noticeably warmer and there was also a preponderance of frogs in the creek. One could literally sit by the creek and after staring at the rocks begin to see countless little frogs tucked into every conceivable nook and cranny of the boulders staring back at you.

The Matilija became a recognized wilderness area in 1992. From the trailhead there are actually several destinations one can visits. To the “left” is trail to Murietta and points beyond, “straight ahead” is Matilija Canyon and to the “right” is Upper North Fork Matilija. How it came to be so named is unclear, although one source says Matilija comes from mat ilha meaning “division” after a Chumash village of the same name on Matilija Creek. 


  1. I loved the swim hole at Middle Matilija (see photo) – perfect after a hot sweaty hike. The food was great, as was the scenery. Our guide was, of course excellent!

    Tu hermanita

  2. What a great article. I love the part about the frogs. Your writing is enchanting. Thank you!

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