Posted by: James Wapotich | April 25, 2014

Trail Quest: Horn Canyon

There are a surprising number of trails that can be found in the mountains behind Ojai. The town itself is nestled in a small valley, which stood in for the Valley of Shangri-La in the 1937 movie Lost Horizon. And although the scene featuring Ojai was ultimately edited from the movie, the association with that idyllic, fictional setting still has its appeal.

One of the more picturesque trails behind Ojai is Horn Canyon Trail. Perhaps adding to its mystique, the trail was also said to be a favorite of Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosopher and spiritual teacher from India who took up residence in Ojai. Both his home and Krishnamurti Foundation are located near Horn Canyon.

Horn Canyon Trail starts from Thacher School, and continues up Horn Canyon towards The Pines, a trail camp that is located about halfway to the top of the trail. The hike to The Pines and back is about 5 miles roundtrip, and the longer hike from the trailhead to Nordhoff Ridge Road is about 10 miles roundtrip.

Horn Canyon Creek Ojai Thacher Los Padres National Forest Hike trail

Alder trees line a section of Horn Canyon Creek

To get to the trailhead from downtown Ojai, continue east on Ojai Avenue, which is also State Route 150, to Carne Road, on your left. Follow Carne Road north, towards the mountains; the road then turns east, becoming Thacher Road. Continue on Thacher Road to the entrance of Thacher School, 5205 Thacher Road.

From the entrance of Thacher School, bear to the right and continue towards the school’s Gymkhana Fields. The paved road quickly arrives at a parking area and continues briefly, unpaved to the trailhead. Please respect private property, and keep an eye out for horseback riders.

Horn Canyon is said to take its name from Sergeant Charles Horn, a civil war veteran who homesteaded in the area in the late 1870s.

From the signed trailhead, Horn Canyon Trail continues up Horn Canyon appearing first as a narrow, unpaved access road. The trail crosses the creek several times before becoming a single track path. Early in the hike, on the left, one can see Thacher Observatory overlooking the canyon.

Horn Canyon map trail hike Ojai Thacher School Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy Maps.com

Along the way there are several side trails that leave the canyon. These are part of a network horse trails created by Thacher students over the years. The main trail however continues up Horn Canyon.

Thacher School was founded in 1889 as an all-boys boarding school, and horseback riding was more of a necessity in the days before automobiles, as the school was seven miles from town. However, Sherman Day Thacher, the school’s founder, also noticed that “there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a boy” and so horsemanship became part the school’s programs.

In 1977, the school became co-educational, and today all freshman are still required to learn the basics of horsemanship. Students are provided a horse, which they care for, and train with, for the school’s annual Gymkhana event. Freshmen also participate in at least one overnight horse-packing trip; and the school regularly offers camping and backpacking trips as part its outdoor program. Both the horse and outdoor programs make use of the local trails and campsites in Los Padres National Forest.

At about the half-mile mark, Horn Canyon Trail passes a good-sized maple tree before climbing away from the creek and narrowing down to a single track.

The trail is in good shape, and soon returns back to the creek, arriving at the fourth and last crossing, which currently has water flowing in it. Here, one can find blackberries ripening in the sun, and although this year’s wildflower display has been meager, one can find yellow bush poppies and the purple flowers of blue dicks blooming along the trail.

From the fourth creek crossing, the trail climbs up a side canyon as it makes its way towards The Pines. Along the way, one is treated to some great views back down the canyon, and out towards Ojai and Lake Casitas. As one continues, eventually a small grove of pines in the distance starts to come into view.

The Pines Horn Canyon Thacher Scholl Los Padres National Forest Ojai hiking  trail

A view looking up Horn Canyon towards The Pines

The coulter pines are said to have been planted by Jacinto D. Reyes, who was the first ranger from 1900-1931, of what was then, the Cuyama District. Mr. Reyes was the son of Rafael Reyes who established a ranch and homestead at the mouth of what is now Reyes Creek along the Cuyama River.

The area where the camp and trees are located was burned in the 1932 Matilija Fire; the trees were replanted only to be burned again in the 1948 Wheeler Fire. They were then replanted by ranger Howard Bald. Over the years pine trees have been planted there as well by students from Thacher School, who also help maintain the trail.

At the 2.5-mile mark the trail arrives at The Pines Camp. The site has two fire rings nestled under the pines and can make for a good resting place or return point. At the northern edge of the pines one can find a horse trough fed by water from the nearby spring. Water from the spring can be accessed by following the black plastic hose along an overgrown path up to the spring, which generally has some water in it that can be filtered.

The Pines Los Padres National Forest Ojai hiking Horn Canyon Trail

The Pines

Past The Pines, Horn Canyon Trail continues up towards the top of the mountains. The is trail overgrown in a couple places, but is still easy to follow. However, there is little shade along the trail and no water; the trail is also somewhat steep at times, so plan accordingly.

At about the 4-mile mark, Horn Canyon Trail crosses Sisar Canyon Road. From here, it’s roughly another mile to the top of the trail and Nordhoff Ridge Road. And then, just when you think you can’t hike uphill any further, you arrive at the end of Horn Canyon Trail, and are immediately treated to exceptional views of Topatopa Bluff to the east across Sisar Canyon. From Nordhoff Ridge Road one can also access Red Reef and Lion Canyon Trails, both of which lead down towards Sespe Creek, for longer backpacking trips.

Regardless of how far you go can you’ll get to a chance to see what makes the mountains behind Ojai a unique part of Los Padres National Forest.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 25th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

spotted towhee Horn Canyon Trail hike ojai Los Padres National Forest

A spotted towhee rests in Horn Canyon


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