Posted by: James Wapotich | January 26, 2015

Trail Quest: Ventura River Preserve

The Ventura River is one of the four main rivers in our area. The other three are the Santa Ynez, Santa Maria, and Santa Clara Rivers. The 16.5-mile long river originates in the mountains north of Ojai, and begins at the confluence of Matilija and North Fork Matilija Creeks. From there, the Ventura River flows south, entering the Pacific Ocean just west of Ventura.

One way to explore the habitats and scenery along the river is with a visit to Ventura River Preserve. The 1,591-acre preserve covers a three-mile section of the river and offers more than 20 miles of trails, most of which are also open to equestrians and mountain bike users. The preserve is located west of Ojai and has three different trailheads that one can start from.

To get to the preserve from Santa Barbara, head south on Highway 101. One can either take State Route 150 over Casitas Pass, or continue down towards Ventura and take State Route 33 towards Ojai. The southern part of the preserve is located near the intersection of State Routes 150 and 33. In fact, if coming from Carpinteria, State Route 150 crosses the Ventura River just before arriving at State Route 33.

El Nido Meadow Ventura River Preserve hike trail Ojai Valley Land Trust

El Nido Meadow

The southern trailhead is located at the end of Old Baldwin Road, which is the first road on your left just past the river, and before State Route 33, if traveling along State Route 150 from Carpinteria. The Old Baldwin Road Trailhead has space for parking and horse trailers, and also includes an ADA accessible trail.

Between the turnoff for Old Baldwin Road and State Route 33, along State Route 150, is Rice Road, which leads to the Riverview Trailhead.

To reach the northern trailhead, continue north along Rice Road past the Riverview Trailhead, to Myers Road. Turn left onto Myers Road, which ends at the Oso Trailhead. The Oso Trailhead can also be reached more directly from State Route 33, just north of Ojai, by taking Fairview Road west to Rice Road.

Each of the trailheads have slightly different hours, but in general, the preserve is open during daylight hours only. A map of the preserve and the different trails can be found here on the Ojai Valley Lands Conservancy’s website,, which manages the preserve. All of the designated trails within the preserve are in generally good shape, and most of the trail intersections are well-marked with trail signs. Parking can be found at each of the trailheads.

Ventura River Preserve map trail hike Ojai Meiners Oak El Nido Meadow Rice Canyon Willis

Map courtesy

One of the more scenic trails in the preserve is Willis Canyon Trail, which can be incorporated into a longer loop hike. A hike along Willis Canyon Trail to El Nido Meadow, and returning along Rice Canyon and Orange Grove Trails, is about 6.5 miles. The closest trailhead for Willis Canyon Trail is the Riverview Trailhead.

The Riverhead Trail overlooks the broad flood plain of the Ventura River and offers some great views of the area. From the parking area, the trail quickly descends down to the floodplain and continues west. The trail leads past trellises that were once used to raise kiwis.

The trail then veers south before continuing west and crossing the river. During much of the year the river is dry through this section, bringing to mind Mark Twain, who quipped that he once fell into a California river and “came out all dusty”.

The trail then crosses a Casitas Municipal Water District access road, please stay on the trail. Here, the trail turns north and continues along the western edge of the floodplain. The hills along this side of the floodplain are composed of mostly Sespe Formation material noticeable by its reddish color.

El Nido Meadow Ventura River Preserve hiking trail Ojai

El Nido Meadow framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains

The trail starts to follow what at first appears to be a side channel of the Ventura River but is, in fact, Willis Creek. It’s also here that the trail starts to become more shaded.

At about the 1-mile mark, the trail enters Willis Canyon. Here, the trail branches, with one trail continuing up the shaded canyon and another following an old ranch road overlooking the canyon. The two trails converge a short ways further into the canyon, where they continue as a single-track trail. It’s also at this intersection that one can find Orange Grove Trail, which can be used for the return loop.

Willis Canyon Trail is one of the nicer trails within the preserve, passing through oak woodland before arriving at the scenic El Nido Meadow. The canyon is named for Alexander Willis who homesteaded the canyon near El Nido Meadow in the early 1900s.

About a mile from the beginning of the canyon, Willis Canyon Trail arrives at the intersection with Fern Grotto Trail, which climbs out of the canyon and connects with Chaparral Crest Trail. From here, it’s another half mile to El Nido Meadow along Willis Canyon Trail.

Willis Canyon Trail Ventura River Preserve ojai hiking

Hummingbird sage and coast live oaks are seen along Willis Canyon Trail

Fern Grotto and Chaparral Crest Trails can be used to extend the hike an additional two miles. Fern Grotto Trail leads up to Chaparral Crest Trail, and takes its name from the ferns growing in a small side canyon along the trail. Continue west along Chaparral Crest Trail, which essentially traces the top of Willis Canyon, and offers views out across the Ojai Valley, El Nido Meadow and out towards the Santa Ynez Mountains. Chaparral Crest Trail then returns back down the canyon and rejoins Willis Canyon Trail at El Nido Meadow.

The tucked-away meadow, with its open, grassy field, can also make a good return point for a shorter hike.

Originally part of the much larger 21,522-acre Rancho Santa Ana Mexican land grant, the area that is now Ventura River Preserve was purchased in the late 1880s by D. W. Rice. Rice named his property El Nido Ranch, which is Spanish for nest.

In 1927, the ranch was purchased by the Baldwin Family and became known as Rancho Matilija. The Baldwin Family sold the ranch in the mid-1960s. The property then passed through the hands of several different owners and corporations, each with a vision of developing the land into a housing community and golf course.

In 2003, Ojai Valley Land Conservancy was able to purchase the bulk of the property for $3 million dollars, and obtained an additional $3.1 million from the State Coastal Conservancy to purchase the remainder of the property. A successful fundraising campaign by the land conservancy provided additional funds to manage the preserve.

Ventura River Preserve Ojai hiking trail

The Santa Ynez Mountains frame a view along the Ventura River floodplain

For the return loop from El Nido Meadow, continue northwest along Rice Canyon Trail. The trail soon leaves the preserve by way of a gate and continues through Los Padres National Forest. About a mile later, the trail returns to the preserve and continues heading east.

At about the 2-mile mark from El Nido Meadow, Rice Canyon Trail passes Kennedy Ridge Trail, which leads up towards the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Past Kennedy Ridge Trail, Rice Canyon Trail continues towards the Ventura River, crossing the Robles-Casitas Diversion Canal by way of a bridge. The canal was built in 1959 to divert water from the Ventura River into Lake Casitas.

The trail then passes the plant nursery used for restoration work at the preserve at arrives at Orange Grove Trail. Turn right, and continue south along Orange Grove Trail back to Willis Canyon Trail to complete the loop portion of the hike.

Orange Grove Trail, takes its name from 44-acre orange grove planted there in the mid-1920s. The trees are slowly being replaced with native plants as part of the restoration of the site.

For more information about Ventura River Preserve, as well as the other preserves managed by Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 26th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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