Posted by: James Wapotich | February 23, 2015

Trail Quest: Potrero John Falls

Potrero John Creek is one of the more scenic tributaries along the upper reaches of Sespe River. The creek originates on the south side of Pine Mountain Ridge and meets Sespe River upstream from Sespe Gorge.

The lower portion of Potrero John Canyon can be explored by trail and includes a trail camp that can make for an easy overnight backpacking destination. Past the camp, one can continue further up the canyon to Potrero John Falls. The hike to the falls, from the trailhead, is about six miles roundtrip.

To get the trailhead from Ojai, take State Route 33 north. Continue past the turnoff to Rose Valley. From here, State Route 33 begins to follow Sespe River and continues towards Sespe Gorge.

Potrero John Falls Creek hike trail Los Padres national forest Sespe Wilderness

Potrero John Creek

Sespe Gorge is a dramatic narrows along Sespe River. The southern wall of the gorge, also know as Black Wall, is a well-known rock climbing site. Here, one can often see rock climbers working some of the different routes along the exposed Matilija Sandstone. The rock climbing site is said to have gotten its name from the dark lichen growing on the rock formation.

State Route 33 continues through the narrows. Potrero John Creek is the second canyon on your right past the gorge. The trailhead is marked with a sign, and parking is found alongside the road.

Potrero John Trail follows the creek upstream. The beginning of the canyon is dramatic in its own way, as Potrero John Creek also cuts through Matilija Sandstone in this first section.

The trail passes through a mix of chaparral and riparian plants, and includes alder, cottonwood, willow, interior live oak, big cone spruce, and even a lone cedar tree. In the springtime, the canyon can also be a good place for to see Matilija poppies.

The trail soon enters the Sespe Wilderness. Along the trail one can still see the damage and regrowth from the 2002 Wolf Fire. The 21,645-acre fire started further north along State Route 33, near Wolf’s Grill, located where Pine Mountain Inn is now. The fire was started when a stray bullet from people target shooting ignited the dry brush.

As the trail continues, the canyon starts to open up. Here, the trail passes through several flat, open patches that could be described as a potreros. The word potrero is Spanish for pasture. And although these flats are not your classic open meadow, the chaparral and trees are thinner here with wild grasses growing in between them.

Steller Jay Potrero John Canyon Trail Los Padres National Forest

A Steller’s jay watches passing hikers

The potrero is named for John Power, who lived in the area during the early 1900s and would let his cattle graze in the canyon.

Along this section of the trail one can find an unofficial camp. It’s also through here that the views up towards Pine Mountain Ridge include Reyes Peak and Haddock Mountain.

At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at the turnoff for Potrero John Camp. The camp is on the opposite side of the creek under several large interior live oaks. A side trail leads down the site. The camp includes a fire ring and grated stove, but no picnic table.

Continuing past the turnoff to the camp, the trail is unmaintained, and is less distinct at times. This does require one to pay closer attention in order to follow the route. Nevertheless, there is a fairly well-used social trail up to the falls. And while the trail crosses the creek a couple of times, it generally favors the west side of the creek.

Potrero John Creek Falls hike trail Los Padres National Forest Sespe Wilderness

Debris fills a section of Potrero John Creek

As the trail continues, the canyon begins to narrow. Here, flood damage from the 2010 winter storms is evident, as the willow-lined creek itself is buried under rock debris. The debris serves as powerful reminder to avoid the canyon during heavy rains.

In January 2010, two teenagers were dropped off by one of the boys grandfather for four days of camping along the creek. However, two days later as the weather turned, the grandfather returned, and hiked up to the camp to bring the boys out. On the hike out, while trying to cross the now swollen creek, all three were swept downstream. One of the boys managed to get out of the water, but wasn’t able locate the other two, and so hiked out to State Route 33. There, he was able to flag down a passing Caltrans vehicle; the driver contacted the Sheriff’s Department, and a rescue helicopter was dispatched.

Meanwhile, the other boy and his grandfather managed to get out of the creek. They reported a substantial mudslide that came down the canyon and blocked them from hiking out through the canyon. And so they opted to hike east, over to the next canyon in an attempt to reach State Route 33. The two were eventually spotted by helicopter and evacuated. Although all three were cold and exhausted after the ordeal, no injuries were reported.

At this first narrow section, the trail, although indistinct, crosses the creek, and continues along the western side of the creek. From here, the trail is overgrown in places, but is generally easy to follow. The trail eventually gives out just as it enters a second narrow section.

This second narrow section is also littered with rock debris, and in places requires some modest rock scrambling. There is no trail through this section, but from here, it is a short way to the base of the first and smaller waterfall.

Potrero John Falls trail hiking backpacking Los Padres National Forest Ojai

Potrero John Falls

Potrero John Falls is the larger of the two falls, and both can be seen in one view. To reach the base of the upper falls does require a little more effort and rock scrambling.

Currently the flow of water in the falls could be described as modest, reflective of the limited amount of rain we’ve received over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, the falls are an impressive sight, set deep in the canyon, tucked in along the southern side of Pine Mountain Ridge.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to explore one of Sespe River’s many scenic tributaries.

This article originally appeared in section the February 23rd, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. Thanks again to for producing maps for the articles.

Potrero John Canyon Falls hike trail Los Padres national Forest Sespe Wilderness

Potrero John Canyon


  1. Beautiful photos!

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