Posted by: James Wapotich | February 14, 2014

Trail Quest: Dry Lakes Ridge

If you’re looking for a new trail to explore, the hike through Dry Lakes Ridge Botanical Area in Los Padres National Forest may be the answer.

Located in the backcountry behind Ojai, the “dry lakes” is a series of four basins or depressions along Dry Lakes Ridge that include a mix of plants that are either rare or uncommon to the area. Views from the ridge extend out across the Ojai-Ventura backcountry, and out towards the Pacific Ocean.

The 400-acre site was designated as a Special Interest Area by the forest service in the late 1980s. Special Interest Areas can include those with unusual historical, geologic, botanical, or other unique characteristics.

Dry Lakes Ridge Botanical Area Ojai Hike trail Los Padres National Forest

Great Basin Sagebrush dotted with Ponderosa Pines fill the second basin

The trail along Dry Lakes Ridge is not maintained, however a fuel break has been cut along the ridge several times, most recently during the 2006 Day Fire, which provides a route to the area.

The hike to furthest basin is about 5 miles round trip. And although sections of the trail are steep and overgrown, the variety of scenery provided by the route can make the hike worthwhile.

To get to the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north. The route follows North Fork Matilija Creek passing Wheeler Gorge Campground and Ranger Station, before starting its climb out of the canyon. As the road winds its way to the top of the Matilija drainage, you’ll start to notice a prominent mountain ridge on your left overlooking the valley. This is Dry Lakes Ridge and the trailhead is located near the eastern end of the ridge line.

Dry Lakes Ridge Botanical Area map trail hike Ojai Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

Eventually, State Route 33 crests the top of the Matilija Creek Drainage and passes the turnoff to Rose Valley, on your right. From here it is a mile to the trailhead. Be on the look out for a pullout on your left that also offers the last view out across Matilija Canyon that is available from State Route 33 as one heads north. Straight ahead one can notice the trail climbing the hillside. Just past the first pullout, is a second pullout on the right; and past that the views transition, overlooking Sespe Valley as State Route 33 continues north towards Pine Mountain and Cuyama.

From the trail head, the route climbs the small spur ridge that leads up to Dry Lakes Ridge. Here, the unmaintained trail has the appearance of a social trail leading through the chaparral. This is the steepest part of the hike as the route gains roughly 700 feet over the first quarter mile.

The trail then transitions onto the main ridge and starts to head west, continuing to climb. Here, the fuel break is more evident as the trail threads its way through regrowth from the chaparral that was cut when the fuel break was made.

From the ridge line the views extend north towards Pine Mountain, east out along Sespe Creek, and south towards Nordoff Ridge, Matilija Canyon and out towards the Pacific Ocean.

Dry Lakes Ridge Botanical Area Trail Ojai Hike Los Padres National Forest

Pines and wild grasses fill the third basin

At about the half mile-mark, the ridge starts to level out, and offers views west, out across the first basin. The bowl-shaped basin is predominantly filled with Great Basin sage, and the sage’s lighter green color and low profile sets it off from the surrounding chaparral, which includes manzanita on one side and ceanothus and oaks on the other side.

Over the years several fuel breaks have been cut through the area. From this vantage one can notice a route along the left side of the basin requiring a sharp turn at the end to head down into the basin, while another less noticeable route can be found to the right that connects more directly to the basin. Either route will work as long as you find your way into the basin where the two routes meet.

Because the trail is overgrown in places you may find yourself inadvertently taking a different route back than the one you came in on. One trick that can help you navigate is to stop every once a while, particularly where the trail makes some kind of transition, and look back at the way you came to get a sense of how the landscape will appear hiking back out. This can often save one from having to search for the trail later.

The trail then continues west through the first basin, here the fuel break often appears as a pair of tire tracks through the sage. And although the trail is somewhat overgrown, it is fairly easy to thread one’s way through the low brush.

Past the first basin the trail continues through a patch of wild grasses before entering the second basin. Both the first and second basins are filled with Great Basin sage, which is also found along the Cuyama River. Mixed in with the sage is a subspecies of rabbitbrush that is more commonly associated with Pinyon-Juniper woodlands of the high desert.

One of the unique plants in the botanical area that one might find is California ground cone, which is a parasitic plant that taps manzanita for its nutrients, often appearing at first glance as pine cones on the ground. And perhaps the rarest plant found there is a species of dogbane, Dry Lakes Ridge may be its only known location in all of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

As you continue through the second basin, the trail veers left towards a noticeable stand of Ponderosa pines on a low rise. Here, the trail continues past the pines, and through another narrow stretch of sage, before cresting back into mixed chaparral.

Once back in the chaparral, the fuel break opens again becoming more apparent as the route soon overlooks the third basin. Surprisingly, this basin is not filled with sage, but is instead filled with wild grasses and dotted with pines appearing more like a small potrero or meadow. From this vantage one can see the route that descends down to the basin, and on the far side, the trail that then continues along the ridge line towards Ortega Trail.

This third basin is perhaps the most picturesque and can make for a good rest stop or return point for the hike. In the middle of the basin is what’s left of an ice can stove, remnants of West Dry Lakes Camp. Past the third basin, the overgrown trail connects over to the fourth and last basin, which is little more than a small clearing.

From here, one can extend their hike by continuing along the ridge line towards Ortega Trail. As the trail climbs the fuel break, it leaves the botanical area and returns into the more familiar chaparral.

The hike from the fourth basin along the ridge line to Ortega Trail is about 5.5 miles roundtrip. The trail is overgrown in some places, open in others, and at times climbs up one rise and down the next making for a bit of a workout. The views from the ridge can include to the south Lake Casitas and the Channel Islands and to the north Tule Canyon and Pine Mountain.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll get to see one of the unique areas of Los Padres National Forest.

This article originally appeared in section A February 14th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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