Posted by: James Wapotich | July 7, 2014

Trail Quest: Cedar Creek

Although the trails associated with the upper reaches of Piru Creek are a bit of drive from Santa Barbara, the area offers some unique scenery that can make the visit worthwhile.

Piru Creek is one of the main tributaries of Santa Clara River. Its headwaters are located on the north side of Pine Mountain Ridge in Sespe Wilderness, and much of the creek’s course travels through Los Padres National Forest.

And while one can find pine forests in various parts of our local backcountry, more often than not they’re confined to ridges and mountain tops. Here, along both the upper stretches of Piru and Cedar Creeks one can find small, flat valleys dotted with pines and Great Basin sagebrush, making for scenery distinct from the chaparral more commonly found in our backcountry.

Piru Creek Sespe Wilderness Ojai Fishbowls Trail hike camp Grade Valley Lockwood

Willow flourishing along Piru Creek

The two main trails through the area are Fishbowls Trail and Cedar Creek Trail. Both of which feature campsites situated along a creek that can make for good backpacking destinations.

The trails can be accessed from Grade Valley Road near Lockwood Valley. And because the two trailheads are just 1.5 miles apart, one can easily make a loop hike employing both trails and thereby getting to see more of the area. The full loop is about 12 miles and both camps generally have water.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai and take State Route 33 north towards Cuyama. The road crests Pine Mountain summit before descending down towards the Cuyama Valley. As it reaches the valley floor it arrives at the intersection with Lockwood Valley Road. Turn right and continue east on Lockwood Valley Road to Grade Valley Road.

Grade Valley Road can also be reached from Interstate 5, and is roughly halfway between Interstate 5 and State Route 33. For this route, continue east from Ventura along State Route 126 to Interstate 5. Head north on Interstate 5 just past Gorman to Frazier Mountain Park Road. Follow Frazier Mountain Park Road west to Lockwood Valley Road and the turnoff for Grade Valley Road. And although this route is slightly longer, the roads used are mostly freeway and less winding, and so the amount of actual drive time is comparable.

map cedar creek fishbowls sespe wilderness grade valley road piru creek los padres national forest

Map courtesy

Grade Valley Road is the name given to main road, as well as several turnoffs that lead to various trailheads and campgrounds. The main route is designated by the Forest Service as 7N03, while the side roads are given designations such as 7N03A and 7N03B. Each of the turnoffs is well marked.

To reach the Fishbowls Trailhead continue south along the main road. The road is paved for the first 1.5 miles, but quickly becomes unpaved. The road is in generally in good shape and suitable for most vehicles heading to the first trailhead, although a high clearance vehicle will make it easier to visit the other campgrounds and trailheads in the area. The road is seasonally closed from December to May, and it’s good to check with the Forest Service regarding current conditions before any trip.

Grade Valley is a long, open meadow dotted with sagebrush and is an impressive sight in and of itself.

At about the 7-mile mark from Lockwood Valley Road, Grade Valley Road arrives at Fishbowls Trailhead, where one can find parking and an outhouse. Total drive time from Santa Barbara is about 2.5 hours. An adventure pass is not required to park at the trailheads.

From the Fishbowls Trailhead, Fishbowls Trail climbs over a small rise before making its descent down towards Piru Creek. Here, the trail follows an old road cut which makes for generally easy hiking. The trail follows Piru Creek upstream and leads through some rich scenery of mostly pines and Great Basin sagebrush, offset by willow growing along the creek.

At about the 3.5-mile mark, the trail enters Sespe Wilderness and continues upstream. As the canyon begins to narrows one starts to see more cedar trees mixed in with the pines, and depending on the season one can find snow plant, or sarcodes, with their bright red bloom growing amongst the pine duff.

At about the 5.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at the first two campsites associated with Fishbowls Camp. On the north side of the creek one can find a campsite with a grated stove under the cedars tucked up against a rock outcropping, and then on the back side of the rock a second improvised site.

Fishbowls Trail continues across the creek where the trail branches. Here, a side trail continues upstream along the south side of the creek, passing three more campsites, each with a metal fire ring. Past the last of these three sites is a social trail that continues up the creek to the first of several sandstone pools that gives the camp its name.

Fishbowls cedar creek trail Los Padres National Forest hike trail sespe wilderness

Silt has filled in the pools at Fishbowls along Piru Creek

Normally these pools would make for inviting swim holes, however this year’s one substantial storm has filled the pools with silt. Nonetheless the creek can make for some fun exploring.

Continuing past Fishbowls Camp, Fishbowls Trail climbs up a side drainage, moving away from Piru Creek as it makes its way towards Cedar Creek Trail. As Fishbowls Trail climbs up onto the ridge separating the Piru and Cedar Creek drainages it offers some expansive views of the surrounding area including Mt. Pinos and Grade Valley to the north.

About 1.5 miles from Fishbowls Camp, the trail arrives at the intersection with Cedar Creek Trail. To the left, Cedar Creek Trail continues another 1.5 miles down to Cedar Creek Camp. And to the right, Cedar Creek Trail continues roughly 2.5 miles over towards Gene-Marshal Piedra Blanca Trail and Pine Mountain Lodge Camp.

Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Trial represents an alternate way to visit Fishbowls and Cedar Creek Camps as part of a longer backpacking or shuttle trip, by starting at either Piedra Blanca to the south or Reyes Creek Campground to the north. Cedar Creek Trail is in generally good shape and water can often be found in Piedra Blanca Creek near Pine Mountain Lodge Camp.

From the intersection with Fishbowls Trail, Cedar Creek Trail continues towards Cedar Creek Camp. Here, the views extend east out towards San Rafael and Frazier Mountains, and to the south towards Thorn Point, where with some luck one can spot Thorn Point Lookout.

Piru Creek Fishbowls Los Padres National Forest Sespe Wilderness hike campground Grade Valley

Pines along Piru Creek

Cedar Creek Camp has three campsites each with a fire ring tucked under the pines and cedars. The camp is situated near the confluence of South Fork Cedar Creek and an unnamed side creek. The area was not burned in the 2006 Day Fire.

The camp and creek are named for the California incense cedars that grow in the area.

From Cedar Creek Camp, Cedar Creek Trail continues downstream along South Fork Cedar Creek through scenery similar to Piru Creek and Fishbowls Trail. About 2.5 miles from Cedar Creek Camp the trail arrives at the Cedar Creek Trailhead and Forest Service Road 7N03B, also referred to as Grade Valley Road, and perhaps more easily identifiable as the road to Thorn Meadows.

From here, to return to Fishbowls Trailhead, turn left, and continue along the road. About a mile later the road arrives at the intersection with the main route of Grade Valley Road, near the confluence of Cedar and Piru Creeks. From here, stay to the left and continue another half mile north to Fishbowls Trailhead.

If you’re hiking the route in reverse route and starting from Cedar Creek Trailhead, parking is found along the road at Cedar Creek Trailhead. About a mile past the trailhead, the road dead ends at Thorn Meadows Campground, where can also find the beginning of the trail that leads to Thorn Point.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see a unique corner of our local backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 7th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. Thanks again to for creating maps for the articles.

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