Posted by: James Wapotich | December 14, 2015

Trail Quest: Red Reef Trail

There are a number of trails in the Ojai area that lead from the Ojai Valley over the mountains towards Rose Valley and Sespe River. Of these trails, Red Reef Trail is unique in that in addition to offering some great views and scenery provides an opportunity to connect over to Willett Hot Springs as part of a backpacking trip.

The hike from the trailhead along Sisar Canyon Road to Ladybug Camp is about 11.5 miles, and from there it’s another 6.5 miles down to Sespe River Trail and over to Willett Camp.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai. From Ojai, continue east on State Route 150 to the Upper Ojai Valley and look for Sisar Road on your left. The narrow one-lane road leads through a residential neighborhood and a half-mile later arrives at the beginning of unpaved Sisar Canyon Road. From here, it’s another half-mile of rough road to the locked forest service gate where the trail begins.

Red Reef Trail backpacking hiking ojai sespe wilderness Los Padres national forest

Sespe formation rocks are seen from Red Reef Trail

From the gate, Sisar Canyon Road follows Sisar Creek for the first two miles before making a wide switchback and climbing away from the creek. The road then returns to the creek, passing a second locked forest service gate, and arrives at the beginning of Red Reef Trail.

Red Reef Trail makes its way through upper Sisar Canyon and at about the 4.25-mile mark from the trailhead arrives at White Ledge Camp. The camp has two usable campsites in a grove of California bay laurel next to Sisar Creek. The creek is currently flowing.

Past the camp, the trail continues its climb to the top of the mountains and offers great views out towards the ocean, including the Channel Islands. And to the east, one is treated to striking views of Topatopa Bluff.

At the 6-mile mark from the trailhead, Red Reef Trail meets Hines Peak Road. From here, continue east a short way along the unpaved road to Elder Camp, which is a dry camp. Past Elder Camp, Hines Peak Road begins its climb towards the back side of Topatopa Bluff and a half-mile later arrives at another locked forest service gate.

Hines Peak Road is accessible from Rose Valley with a temporary use permit from the forest service. The unpaved route starts near Rose Valley Campground and is only open to four-wheel drive vehicles. For more information about current conditions and to apply for a permit contact the Ojai Ranger District at 805-646-4348.

Map Sisar Canyon Red Reef Trail White Ledge Lady Bug Sespe Wilderness area topatopa Los padres national forest ojai

Map courtesy

Past the gate, the road continues its climb along the back side of the mountains, passing through mostly scrub oak. To the west, the road offers views back towards Chief Peak. At the top, the road branches; the road to the right continues towards the connector trail that leads down to Last Chance Trail. To the left, Red Reef Trail follows the road along the top of the mountains towards Hines Peak and the Topatopa Mountains.

Here, the route levels out somewhat and passes through mostly chaparral with the dominant plants being scrub oak, ceanothus, and yerba santa. Along the way one is treated to great views to the north out across Bear Canyon and the Sespe Valley towards Pine Mountain Ridge. To the northeast, one can see Mt. Pinos.

At about the 8.5-mile mark, the road cut passes an unnamed summit, which is essentially a cut off island from the main ridge of the Topatopa Mountains. The exposed tops of the mountains are composed of Matilija sandstone, while the north side is bordered by softer Juncal formation shale. Over time, erosion and uplift have helped create the dramatic features seen today.

Past the summit, the views to the south include Santa Paula Canyon and out towards Pt. Mugu, the Oxnard Plain, and part of the Santa Monica Mountains. The trail then passes the top of Last Chance Trail, which leads down through Santa Paula Canyon and ends near Thomas Aquinas College.

Timber Canyon Red Reef Trail Ojai hike backpacking Sespe Wilderness Los Padres National Forest Topatopa Mountains

Timber Canyon and the Topatopa Mountains are seen from Red Reef Trail

At the 9.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at the saddle overlooking Timber Canyon. To the east, the ridge line climbs steeply up to Hines Peak. At the saddle, Red Reef Trail begins its descent down into Timber Canyon. The single-track trail winds its way down through the canyon and offers dramatic views of the backside of the Topatopa Mountains.

The trail passes through mostly chaparral and eventually crosses Timber Creek. As the trail continues down into the canyon it enters a grove of big cone Douglas fir that were spared the ravages of the 2006 Day Fire. The fire burned over 160,000 acres, including portions of Sespe Wilderness and most of Red Reef Trail, before it was contained.

Just before the trail crosses the creek a second time, look for a side trail that follows the creek downstream. Here, Red Reef Trail crosses the creek, while the side trail continues down to Ladybug Camp. The trail to the camp crosses water that is flowing from the spring that feeds into Timber Creek. Currently the spring is the only source of water for the camp.

The camp is nestled in a stand of some very large big cone Douglas fir. In the mix are also canyon live oak and along the creek can be found California bay laurel and big leaf maple. Ladybug Camp is named for the many ladybugs that can be found there. The camp has one stone fire ring with a picnic table and a second table nearby. Also at the site are two ice can stoves.


Ladybugs huddling together at Ladybug Camp

Past the turnoff to Ladybug Camp, Red Reef Trail continues its descent down into Timber Canyon. The trail eventually crosses Timber Creek one last time and then makes a quick hop over a low ridge into Red Reef Canyon.

Just past this last crossing one can find an old side trail that leads down to the site of Horsethief Camp. The trail is overgrown, but still somewhat followable and parallels Timber Creek. The camp was removed during the 1970s, but one can still find three double-wide ice can stoves at the site. The site is also visible from Red Reef Trail just before it crosses over into Red Reef Canyon.

As the trail continues down into Red Reef Canyon it follows Red Reef Creek passing through a mix of plants including coast live oak, sycamore, coffee berry, California bay laurel, and holly-leaf cherry. Several downed trees along the trail add to the wilderness experience.

Big Cone Spruce Douglas fir Topatopa Mountains Ojai hike backpacking Red Reef Trail Los Padres National Forest Lady Bug ladybug sespe wilderness

A grove of big cone Douglas fir are framed by the Topatopa Mountains near Ladybug Camp along Red Reef Trail

The canyon then narrows and arrives at Harris Tunnel, a short passage carved through the red Sespe formation rock found in this stretch of the canyon. The tunnel, according to the inscription carved on the rock wall, was completed on February 23rd, 1904, by R. Harris and T.J. Harris.

Past the tunnel, the trail eventually rounds a corner in the canyon. Here, the views back up the canyon include the eroded Sespe formation rocks that likely give the trail its name, the eroded rock appearing as a series of fins jutting up towards the sky.

The trail then arrives at Sespe River. From here, the trail cross the river and passes near the site of the old Sycamore Camp before arriving at Sespe River Trail, which represents an alternate way to access Red Reef Trail. From this juncture, it’s 8.5 miles west along Sespe River Trail to the Piedra Blanca trailhead, which can be reached from Rose Valley via State Route 33.

To reach Willett Hot Springs, continue east along Sespe River Trail another mile to the turnoff to the camp. From here, it’s roughly a half-mile up to Willett Hot Springs and a well-deserved soak.  

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 14th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Red Reef Trail sespe wilderness hiking backpacking Ojai los padres national forest

Scenery along Red Reef Trail

Hiked this trail over Thanksgiving. Started from the Piedra Blanca trailhead on the first day and hiked Sespe River Trail to Willett. A zoo of people out at Willett. At night going up to the hot spring and gazing out across Ten Sycamore Flat with its many lights was like looking out across a small village. Some water to be found at Willett. The second day we hiked Red Reef Trail and camped at Ladybug. Saw no one once we left Sespe River Trail. No water in Timber Creek at Horsethief or Ladybug, but the spring at Ladybug was flowing. Finished Red Reef Trail on the third day coming out through Sisar Canyon.


  1. Thanks, James. I will read it when it’s up on your website. Brought back a lot of memories of backpacking those trails. Were there ladybugs in Ladybug Camp? Lanny


  2. Yes, there were actually ladybugs there. I was surprised to see them. I was there Spring 2013 and don’t recall seeing any, and so it was cool to see so many in November. They were hanging out in a number of place in and around the camp and near the spring.

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