Posted by: James Wapotich | February 10, 2013

Trail Quest: North Fork Matilija Trail

In many ways Santa Barbara is ideally located for exploring the Los Padres National Forest. Most of the trails that let us access the Santa Ynez Mountains, if not close to town, are within 30-45 minutes of Santa Barbara. And many of the trailheads that let us visit the backcountry and designated wilderness areas in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties are within just one to two hours of Santa Barbara.

One such place is the Matilija Wilderness. This 29,600 acre wilderness area was created in 1992 along with the Sespe Wilderness, and four other wilderness areas in the Los Padres National Forest. Matilija Wilderness has one maintained trail, North Fork Matilija Trail, which offers both hiking and backpacking opportunities. The trail has two trailheads, one of which is roughly an hour from Santa Barbara.

North Fork Matilija Trail starts from the trailhead in Matilija Canyon and follows Upper North Fork Matilija Creek almost in its entirety, passing through several trail camps before climbing out of the canyon and arriving at the trailhead along Cherry Creek Road. The creek generally has water in it year round, making the canyon a popular hiking destination.

To get to the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north. The route follows the Ventura River upstream towards the confluence of Matilija Creek and North Fork Matilija Creek, which form the beginning of the Ventura River.

Continue on State Route 33 past Ojai Rock Quarry and look for Matilija Road on your left. This paved road climbs over a small ridge and joins Matilija Canyon offering views of Matilija Lake and the dam.

Matilija Dam was built in 1946 for water storage and flood control, but because of set backs and controversy surrounding the dam, construction wasn’t completed until 1948. And then because the area was in the midst of a drought, the lake didn’t fill to capacity until 1952. However like several of our local reservoirs the lake began to fill with sediment. The original carrying capacity of the lake was around 7,000 acre-feet, later notching in the dam lowered its capacity to around 3,800 acre-feet, and now today with sedimentation the lake supports only 500 acre-feet of water.

The dam is slated to be torn down as it is no longer capable of providing either water storage or flood control due to the volume of sediment. The removal of the dam will also help support the restoration of native steelhead trout which once thrived in our area.

Matilija Canyon Road follows Matilija Creek and it’s interesting to note that the southern side of Matilija Canyon is the Santa Ynez Mountains, and that this stretch of the mountains represents the easternmost end of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Matilija takes its name from the Chumash word mat ilha, which means division and is probably a reference to the the watershed that divides the Santa Ynez River drainage which flows west and Matilija Creek which flows more or less east before becoming the Ventura River.

Matilija Canyon Road ends at a locked gate, where the hike begins. Parking is found along the round.

From the gate, follow the road as it passes through Matilija Canyon Ranch. Please respect private property along this trail easement. The road continues west up Matilija Canyon and at about the three-quarter mile mark one arrives at the trailhead for North Fork Matilija Trail, on your right. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far as just past this trailhead, there is a second trailhead on your left, this one for Murietta Trail, which leads through nearby Murietta Canyon. Both trailheads are well marked.

From the trailhead North Fork Matilija Trail crosses Matilija Creek, which is often dry here, and enters Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon. It is here that one officially enters Matilija Wilderness and the trail starts to follow Upper North Fork Matilija Creek.

The trail crosses the alder-lined creek numerous times along its course, providing lots of opportunities to explore the creek. After the first couple of these crossings the trail arrives at the first trail camp, which is simply named Matilija Camp. The camp has several campsites with easy access to the creek and is located about 1.5 miles from the locked gate at the beginning of the hike.

From here the trail continues up the canyon, leading through a good mix of riparian and chaparral plants. In fact, Matilija Canyon is one of the easier places to see how our local creeks in many ways form an oasis amidst the dryer chaparral. From the creek one can often see the marked contrast between the trees growing along the creek and the dense blanket of brush growing on the hillsides of the canyon.

At about the 3-mile mark the trail passes an undesignated campsite, crosses the creek and climbs a set of switchbacks. Here the trail rides above the creek and offers some dramatic views back down the canyon.

The trail then rejoins the creek, and at about the 4-mile mark arrives at Middle Matilija Camp. The camp has two sites, located under the oaks near the creek. Both sites have a klamath-style stove. Middle Matilija can make for a good return point for a day hike or an easy overnight backpacking trip.

From here the trail continues north through the canyon. The trail starts to become more overgrown in places, as fewer people hike it. The trails rides above the creek portions of the way, again offering views of the canyon, before arriving at Upper Matilija Camp.

Upper Matilija Camp is about 5.5 miles from beginning of the hike and is located under a small grove of Bay Laurel trees near the creek. The site has a fire ring and one Ice Can stove and can make for a nice backpacking destination.

Past Upper Matilija the trail becomes noticeably more overgrown and less used as it continues towards Maple Camp – the next and last designated camp along Upper North Fork Matilija Creek.

It’s interesting to note that through these more remote sections of the trail that one can find more evidence of bears including bear sign on the trees, suggesting that the bears prefer the solitude of the upper reaches of the canyon.

At about the 7.25-mile mark the trail arrives at Maple Camp. Maple is aptly named as it is situated in a small clearing with several large maple trees. The camp has a fire ring and two ice can stoves nearby. There is often water in the creek at or below the camp. The camp generally sees far fewer visitors than those downstream.

Past Maple Camp, North Matilija Creek Trail crosses the creek one last before climbing out of the canyon. Here the creek itself turns west, and along the north face of the canyon one can find a small forest of spruce trees. The trail climbs a series of switchbacks our of the canyon towards Ortega Hill and the trailhead along the Cherry Creek Road. The hike out of the canyon provides both a vigorous workout and on a clear day amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.

At the 9-mile mark the trail arrives at Cherry Creek Road. Cherry Creek Road is accessed from State Route 33 on the way to Pine Mountain Summit. The road is currently only open in the fall.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to enjoy one of the nicer areas of our local backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of February 10th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] sunny winter day in February after being inspired by a friend’s newspaper article about a hike in the Matilija area, we set out to hike up to Divide Peak via Murietta Creek in Ojai. […]

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