Posted by: James Wapotich | March 21, 2016

Trail Quest: Wheeler Gorge Nature Trail

Just past Wheeler Gorge Campground, along North Fork Matilija Creek, is a well-designed interpretive trail that provides a great opportunity to learn and recognize some of our local plants in their native habitat.

The scenic trail leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants, and is about three-quarters of a mile long.

An interpretive brochure for the trail with pictures of the plants can be found at Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center. The brochure can add to the experience as sometimes the plant being described by the numbered signs is either behind you or off to the side. Many of the plants also appear more than once along the trail, and so the brochure makes it easy to refer back to them during hike.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai, and continue north along State Route 33 towards Wheeler Gorge Campground. The visitor center is across the road from the campground and is open weekends from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The trail begins at the upper end of Wheeler Gorge Campground, just downstream from where State Route 33 crosses North Fork Matilija Creek.

The trail can also be accessed from State Route 33, by parking in the pullout just past the bridge, about a half-mile from the visitor center, and crossing the road to the upper end of the campground.

At beginning of the trail is a large sign with a map of the route. From here, the trail continues upstream along the creek passing under the bridge.

The first stop along the trail describes poison oak, which can be found in riparian areas, as well as in canyons and along hillsides. The plant can grow as a vine on other plants; as a shrub; or even as just a few stalks coming up out of the ground. It is a powerful plant that teaches one to pay attention to their surroundings. And it can also inspire agility to avoid brushing up against the plant and the urushiol oil found on its leaves and the tips of its stems. The oil causes an allergic rash for most people. The plant is recognizable by its distinctive compound leaf composed of three leaflets, which resemble a lobed oak leaf. The leaves are green in the spring, turning red into the fall.

The next stop describes white alder, which lines much of the creek along the trail. It is sometimes said of alders that they like to keep their feet wet, meaning that alders prefer growing close to the water’s edge and where water is flowing year round. The bark is light grey and generally smooth to the touch. The tree, which can grow to 50-80 feet tall, is deciduous, with its green, somewhat oval-shaped leaves turning gold in the fall.

The trail then crosses the creek, and it’s here that it begins the loop.

The next plant highlighted is laurel sumac, a large shrub with green taco-shaped leaves. The flowers with their light yellow inflorescence appearing late in the spring. The plant does well at the edge of riparian areas, as well as in dry, chaparral environments.

Yerba Santa is also found along the trail. This evergreen shrub, with its aromatic leaves, can be found in both riparian and chaparral areas. The leaves on the ones found along the trail are dark green; slightly toothed on the edges; and sticky on top. The flowers, in the spring, are white to purple, and can serve as a hub of activity for checkerspot, swallowtail, and other butterflies.

The canyon also supports coast live oak. Coast live oak and oak woodlands provide important habitat for a wide range of animals. The acorns produced by oaks also provide food for a number of animals including, scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, wood rats, bears, and deer. The tree, with its oval-shaped, spiny leaves, can live more than 250 years, and is the only oak that thrives in a coastal environment.

Also a favorite of the bears is holly leaf cherry. This low shrub, in the rose family, has dark green leaves with serrated edges and tiny spines similar in appearance to holly. The dark red fruit ripens in the fall and has a large pit covered by a thin fleshy layer.

Another riparian tree along the trail is arroyo willow. Arroyo willow favors areas where water can be found and can often be an indicator of where there is water underground. The tree has furrowed bark and long, slender leaves similar in appearance to other types of willow. The tree, which can grow to 30 feet tall, is deciduous and sheds its leaves in the fall.

It’s past this stop, that the trail turns up an unnamed side creek. Near the confluence of the two creeks is found sycamore.

Sycamore is another riparian tree and, similar to arroyo willow, requires access to the water table. The tree’s distinctive bark is smooth, beige-white, and becomes darker as it peels away from the tree in pieces creating a mottled or patchwork look. The large five-lobed leaves can sometimes be confused with maple leaves. Sycamore leaves however have fuzzy undersides. The tree can grow to over 100 feet tall and is deciduous with its leaves turning golden to orangish red in the fall.

Also along trail is pacific blackberry, another member of the rose family. Blackberry is a vine that can build upon itself forming wide, brambly mounds. The leaves typically have three leaflets and can sometimes be confused with poison oak, however the stems of blackberry are covered with tiny thorns. Blackberries ripen in the summer. The fruit is edible but also quite popular with birds and mammals, who often get there first.

The trail continues up the side creek and transitions from riparian into chaparral as it leaves the creek and starts to follow the low ridge that separates the creek from State Route 33.

The first chaparral plant described in this section is black sage. The sage is in the genus salvia and part of the mint family, along with many of our other local sages. The aromatic plant can sometimes be hard to differentiate from purple sage, which fortunately, doesn’t grow along the trail. The matter can be further complicated elsewhere as black sage hybridizes with purple, white, and chia sage.

As the trail continues along the ridge and begins its descent it passes through a lot of chamise. Chamise is a hardy, drought tolerant plant that grows on a variety of soil types. The plant with its small leaves and dry looking stick-like branches often grows in dense stands that can dominate an area, particularly on hot, dry, south-facing slopes.

As the trail moves off the ridge it passes toyon. This woody shrub has serrated leaves similar in appearance to holly. The plant flowers in June and July with corymbs or clusters of white flowers, with first green berries appearing in August or September. In December, the small fruit, about the size of a blueberry, ripens becoming red. The plant is also known as Christmas berry and California holly.

Also along the trail is scrub oak. The Spanish word for scrub oak is chaparro, which also gives us the word chaparral and ultimately the word chaps. Chaps of course being the coverings that vaqueros wore to protect their legs when riding through brushy areas. California scrub oak is a small evergreen shrub with sharply toothed leaves, that can be found in chaparral, oak woodland, and conifer woodland habitats. The acorns, like that of coast live oak, are used by a variety of animals.

The trail then returns to the creek to complete the loop.

The trail was built by Youth Conservation Corp in 1979. In 2011, new signs were installed, and the text and brochure updated by William Hohensee with the support of Boy Scout Troop 808 as part of Hohensee’s Eagle Scout Project.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 8th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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