Posted by: James Wapotich | January 18, 2014

Trail Quest: Divide Peak

Our local Santa Ynez Mountains run east-west, behind Santa Barbara, and parallel to the coast. On a clear day, from the top of the mountains one can enjoy views out towards the Channel Islands. And behind Santa Barbara, views inland across the backcountry.

The are a variety of ways to reach the top of Santa Ynez Mountains, the easiest being of course, State Route 154, which crosses the mountains at San Marcos Pass.

But what if one was wanting to visit the highest point within the range? That would be a different challenge. The highest point in the Santa Ynez Mountains is an unnamed summit east of Divide Peak with an elevation of 4,864 feet. And it’s somewhat surprising that there isn’t a trail to the top, and that the peak is unnamed.

Murietta Canyon Creek Spring Road Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Ojai hike trail Divide Peak

Murietta Canyon is seen from Murietta Road

A worthy alternative is nearby Divide Peak, which is 4,707 feet in elevation, and is the highest named peak in the range. And although steep at times, there is a route that is easy to follow that leads to the peak.

The route to Divide Peak leads through Murietta Canyon, near Ojai, to Murietta Divide, and from there along Monte Arido Trail to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The hike from the trailhead to the peak is about 13-miles roundtrip and leads through a rich variety of scenery. For this hike you’ll want to get an early start and bring plenty of water as there is very little along the route.

To get to the trailhead, from Ojai, take State Route 33 north about five miles to Matilija Canyon Road, which is on the left. Matilija Canyon Road continues west, past Matilija Lake and ends at a locked gate. Parking is found along the road.

Divide Peak trail map Santa Barbara Ojai hike Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

From the gate, continue west along the road, through Matilija Canyon Ranch, please respect private property. The unpaved road, which now becomes Murietta Road, continues up through Matilija Canyon.

At about the .75-mile mark from the parking area, you’ll arrive at the turnoff for Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon, on the right. Upper North Fork Matilija Trail leads north into Matilija Wilderness and the trail camps found along Upper North Fork Matilija Creek.

From the turnoff for Upper North Fork Matilija Trail, continue straight along Murietta Road, another a tenth of a mile, and look for the turnoff for Murietta Trail on your left. Both trailheads are well marked.

Monte Arido Trail Divide Peak Jameson Lake Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Ojai Hike

A view towards Jameson Lake from Monte Arido Trail

Murietta Trail continues south and leads through chaparral and then, as it approaches, Murietta Creek transitions into riparian plants. The trail crosses the creek, which is currently flowing intermittently. This time of the year, the crossing is quite picturesque as the creek bed is carpeted with alder leaves and catkins.

At about the 1.75-mile mark from the parking area, the trail arrives at Murietta Camp. The camp is tucked under a group of oak trees near the creek, and has three metal fire rings with grills.

The camp is named after the bandit Joaquin Murietta, who was rumored to have used the canyon as a hideout. And standing there, one can easily imagine a band of outlaws galloping into camp and taking refuge in this out of the way canyon.

From Murietta Camp, Murietta Trail continues up the canyon another three quarters of a mile before rejoining Murietta Road. From Murietta Road one can make a loop back to the beginning of Murietta Trail for a shorter hike of about 5 miles roundtrip from the parking area. The route includes a variety of scenery and modest elevation gains that can make for a fun hike.

Ocean View Trail Casitas Lake Divide Peak Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Ojai Hike

Casitas Lake is seen from Divide Peak OHV Route near Ocean View Trail

For the hike to Divide Peak, continue west along Murietta Road as it climbs towards Murietta Divide. The road is partially shaded and offers great views out across Murietta Canyon.

At about the 4.25-mile mark from the parking area, the road passes Murietta Spring, appearing as a small side creek, on the right, filled with ferns.

Past the spring, Murietta Road becomes noticeably steeper as it makes the final half-mile push to reach Murietta Divide.

Murietta Divide sits along the low point of the ridge that separates two of the main river drainages in our area. To the east is Murietta Creek, which joins Matilija Creek, and flows into the Ventura River, and to the west is the beginning of the Santa Ynez River.

Murietta Creek Canyon Trail Camp Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

Alder trees line Murietta Creek

At Murietta Divide the road branches. To the right, Monte Arido Road continues north towards Potrero Seco and ultimately arrives at State Route 33 near Pine Mountain. Straight ahead, Murietta Road continues towards Jameson Lake and eventually connects to Romero-Camuesa Road. Many of these unpaved Forest Service roads can make for great mountain bike rides.

To reach Divide Peak, continue along Murietta Road towards Jameson Lake. Just past the turn off for Monte Arido Road, look for the beginning of Monte Arido Trail on your left. The trail climbs steeply to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains tracing the ridge between the Ventura and Santa Ynez River drainage basins, and offers great views in both directions. The trail is in good shape and follows what appears to be an old fuel break.

At about the 5.5-mile mark from the parking area, the trail arrives at unpaved Divide Peak OHV Route. To the left, Divide Peak OHV Route continues east another half mile before ending. And to the right, Divide Peak OHV Route continues west along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and eventually connects with Romero-Camuesa Road, which can be reached from East Camino Cielo Road.

Divide Peak OHV Route is open to registered off highway vehicles and is an alternate way to reach Divide Peak. From Romero-Camuesa Road it’s about 12 miles along Divide Peak OHV Route to Divide Peak.

From Monte Arido Trail, continue west another .75 miles along Divide Peak OHV Route. The route curves around the north side of Divide Peak and arrives at two large metal water tanks.

The water tanks actually sit at the intersection of two historic trails, Ocean View Trail and Rincon Trail. Ocean View Trail ran along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and connected with another historic trail, El Camino Cielo Trail, which led down from the eastern end of the mountains to the Ventura River. Divide Peak OHV Route follows this same route along the top of the mountains, but ends about a mile east of Divide Peak, where one can still find Ocean View Trail. The trail is overgrown, but remnants of the old tread can still be found along the top of the mountains.

Similar to Franklin Trail, Rincon Trail connected the Carpinteria area with the backcountry, and traveled from the foothills to the top of the mountains. Access to both Franklin and Rincon Trails was closed to the public in the 1970s. Perhaps one day both Rincon and Ocean View Trails will be cleared of brush and re-opened for hiking.

From the water tanks it’s a short hike, east, to the top of Divide Peak. From the peak one can enjoy nearly 360 degree views of the surrounding area, including views out across Carpinteria towards the Channel Islands and along the coast. It is one of the few spots where one can stand and on one side see Lake Casitas and on the other see Jameson Lake.

Although Divide Peak is the tallest named peak in the Santa Ynez Mountains, it is not the highest point in the range. That distinction falls to an unnamed summit about a mile east of Divide Peak. There is no trail to top of this summit, but one can improvise a route from Divide Peak OHV Route to the top, if they’re willing to push through brush and scramble over rocks. The unnamed summit is noticeable from Murietta Canyon and Monte Arido Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 18th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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