Posted by: James Wapotich | August 17, 2015

Trail Quest: Lake Casitas

While Lake Casitas is better known for its fishing and camping, there is a trail overlooking the eastern shore of the lake that provides an opportunity to see some of the wild and undeveloped land surrounding the lake.

The hike along Lake Shore Trail is about four miles roundtrip and follows an unpaved access road. The route is mostly level and sees surprisingly little use given how many people visit the lake each year.

To get to the lake from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south, past Carpinteria, to State Route 150. Take State Route 150 towards Ojai and State Route 33. Past East Casitas Pass, the road continues above the western and northern sides of the lake, before arriving at Santa Ana Road. Turn right onto Santa Ana Road, and continue a short way to the entrance of Lake Casitas Recreation Area. Santa Ana Road is about three miles west of State Route 33.

Lake Casitas Lake Shore Trail hiking Ojai

Hidden Island is seen from Lake Shore Trail in a view framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains

The day use fee for the lake is $10-15 per vehicle depending on the time of year. One can also park outside the recreation area and walk or bike in, this adds an additional three miles roundtrip to the hike.

From the park entrance, continue to the left. The road leads through several campgrounds and picnic areas, past the Santa Ana boat launch, and towards the 1984 Olympic site. During the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, Lake Casitas hosted the canoeing and rowing events.

Continue past the Olympic site, to the end of the paved road and the beginning of the gated, unpaved access road that serves as the trail along the eastern shore of the lake. Parking is found at the trailhead. The trail is open to both hikers and mountain bikes. Dogs are allowed on the trail, provided they are on a leash.

From the trailhead, the access road continues along the north side of the lake tracing an inlet called Wadleigh Arm. The road passes through mostly non-native plants, such as wild mustard and fennel, before arriving at Saddle Dam. The road continues across the top of the earthen dam and provides views out across the town of Oak View and toward Sulphur Mountain.

From Saddle Dam, the road continues around Wadleigh Arm towards the main body of the lake. North across the lake the views are framed by the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Mountains, with White Ledge Peak being the most noticeable feature. Here, the route starts to see some shade as it passes through a mix of grassland, coast live oak, southern California black walnut, and a handful of other plants.

Lake Shore Trail Casitas Ojai hike

Coast live oak and southern California black walnut dot the landscape along Lake Shore Trail

Of the plants along the route, southern California black walnut is perhaps the most interesting in terms of its occurrence. The tree is found only in southern California between Santa Barbara and San Diego Counties. Where the tree does grow it is often abundant, as is the case around the lake, however, overall its habitat is being significantly reduced through urbanization, overgrazing from livestock, and competition from non-native plants.

In fact, there are only five remaining large stands of black walnut woodland left in southern California. Two are in Ventura County, a third straddles Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, and the other two are farther south.

In Ventura County, the large stands are found on the north slope of Sulphur Mountain overlooking Ojai; at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge; and along the north slope of the Santa Susana Mountains stretching into Los Angeles County. Another large stand is found along the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the fifth is in the San Jose Hills in Los Angeles County.

The tree can be recognized by its pinnately compound leaves and can often have multiple trunks growing from a ring at the base. The bark becomes dark brown and more furrowed as the tree matures. The trees can live up to 125-150 years. They produce walnuts that are smaller and more difficult to open than the more familiar Persian or English walnuts found at the store.

Southern California black walnut Lake Casitas Hike Trail Ojai

Southern California black walnut

The nut meat of black walnut is edible and was used by the Chumash. However, because of the size of the nut and degree of difficulty in opening them, black walnuts are not grown commercially. Nevertheless, the tree is still cultivated as rootstock. Early on it was discovered that native black walnuts were the only variety that could withstand local pests and fungus, and so imported walnuts were grafted onto to them.

In addition to harvesting black walnuts for food, the Chumash also used the shells for their dice game. They would take the emptied shell halves and fill them with tar, sometimes decorating them with pieces of abalone shell. Two players would then take turns tossing six dice onto a flat basket tray. Each player at the beginning of their turn would call “odd” or “even” and then after three rolls, the number of times the shells landed with the flat side up would be tallied to determine if “odd” or “even” won. If the player guessed correctly, they would win a counter stick from the initial ten laid out for the game and go again. If not, it became the other player’s turn. Once the ten counter sticks were won between the two players, the game continued with players winning counter sticks from their opponent and ending when one player had all ten.

As the trail continues along the eastern shore of the lake, it offers views out across the lake towards Main Island. Currently with the drought, the view also includes Hidden Island. Normally hidden underneath the water, with the lake at 46.6% of its carrying capacity, the island is now exposed.

Main Island Lake Shore Trail Casitas Ojai hike

Main Island is sent from Lake Shore Trail

Lake Casitas was created in 1959 when the earthfill dam across Coyote Creek was completed. The lake is fed by water from Coyote and Santa Ana Creeks, as well as with water diverted from Ventura River by way of the 4.5-mile long Robles-Casitas Canal that delivers water into Coyote Creek.

The dam and surrounding land is owned by U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, while the water is owned by Casitas Municipal Water District. The lake’s 9,400 acres of land and water serve as a wildlife preserve, and provides habitat for a wide variety of birds and animals, including black-tailed deer, coyote and gray fox.

At the end of the access road is a picnic area, and nearby is a shaded bench under an oak tree. Both sites offer views out across the lake.

In addition to hiking, the lake offers a host of other recreational opportunities. There are over 400 campsites spread out along the north shore of the lake. The campsites include a picnic tables, fire rings and barbecue grills, and range from those with tent sites to those with RV hookups. Group sites are also available. Reservations for the different sites can be made online.

For many, Lake Casitas is a fishing destination. The lake is stocked with large mouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, red-ear sunfish, bluegill, and channel catfish. There are two boat launches; however, if you bring your own boat, be aware that all vessels are subject to a mandatory inspection and 35-day quarantine for invasive quagga and zebra mussels. The lake also provides boat rentals, ranging from motor boats to kayaks and canoes.

No swimming is allowed in the lake; however, the lake offers some engaging alternatives. For the kids, there’s Casitas Water Adventure, which is essentially a water playground. And for kids and adults, there’s Lazy River, a quarter-mile watercourse complete with inner tubes.

The lake also features a cafe, convenience store, and disc golf course.

For more information about Lake Casitas, go to,, and select the link for Lake Casitas Recreation Area. From the camping link, one can find a map of the campgrounds and facilities that also shows Lake Shore Trail.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 17th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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