With all the great rain we’ve been receiving, now is a perfect time to tour some of the many waterfalls and cascades our local mountains have to offer.
I had already been wanting to revisit Rose Valley Falls in the mountains behind Ojai, but had been waiting for more water to bring them back to life. Said to the be the tallest waterfall in Ventura County, the two-tiered waterfall flows down the backside of Nordhoff Ridge.
The hike to the lower falls from Rose Valley Campground is less than a mile roundtrip. The trail is shaded with fairly easy terrain, which also makes it a great hike for kids.
The falls in the video in order are Lower Rose Valley, Upper Rose Valley, three cascades in a side creek along Lion Canyon Trail, West Fork Lion Falls, first cascade past East Fork Lion Camp, and just above that “Spruce Falls”.
The trail to the falls is also near Rose-Lion Connector Trail, which can be used to hike over to Lion Canyon, where there are two more smaller waterfalls. This longer hike is about 6.5 miles round trip and leads past two trails camps that provide opportunities for overnight backpacking trips.
To reach the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai, and continue north on State Route 33. State Route 33 leads through North Fork Matilija Canyon and eventually climbs out of the canyon. Just as the road levels out, it arrives at the turnoff for Rose Valley Road.
Continue east on Rose Valley Road to the turnoff for Rose Valley Campground, which is at a four-way intersection. To the left, the road leads down to Lower Rose Lake. Straight ahead, Rose Valley Road continues towards Middle Lion Campground, as well as the Piedra Blanca Trailhead along Sespe River. To the right, the road continues to Rose Valley Campground.
Continuing towards to the campground, I pass Upper Rose Lake and can see the upper falls in the distance. I park along the road with the other cars at the beginning of Rose-Lion Connector Trail and walk a short way up the road to the campground.
Rose Valley Campground has nine sites each with a picnic table and fire ring. The sites are $20 per night through Parks Management, the new concessionaire. The sites are on a first come, first served basis.
The trail to the falls is at the far end of the campground and is in good shape. The trail leads through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants as it follows Rose Valley Creek. Along the route are several side trails down to the creek that lead to small pools and cascades.
The trail ends at the base of lower Rose Valley Falls. Here, the cascading water is spread out over a large rock face forming a number of rivulets. In the summer, there are often crimson columbines growing along the face of the lower falls.
In the short time I was there I watched a number of people attempt to reach the upper falls by scrambling up the unstable rocky slopes on either side of the lower falls. The people who had the most success were those who went back down the trail and found a route on the right hand side of the canyon. Several people have died and others have been injured trying to reach the upper waterfall, which makes it not worth attempting when there are easier places to visit in our backcountry.
Returning to the parking area, I continue next along Rose-Lion Connector Trail, which leads over to Lion Canyon where there are two smaller, but satisfying waterfalls to be found.
The connector trail crosses Rose Valley Creek just upstream from Upper Rose Lake, so I make a quick detour downstream to take in the views. The man-made lake captures water from the creek and its tributaries and is framed by Pine Mountain Ridge in the distance.
As the trail continues, it follows a side creek that also feeds the lake, passing several small ponds lined with willows, before transitioning into mostly chaparral. Here, the rains have helped transform the exposed and sparse feeling area into a renewed little canyon with an idyllic stream waiting to be rediscovered.
The trail eventually crests a small saddle and descends into Lion Canyon, following another flowing side creek on the way down to Lion Creek. Again, I’m given pause at how the addition of water to the landscape adds to the sense of vitality and expansiveness all around me, and makes each turn in the canyon seem more animated.
At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Lion Creek. The creek is flowing well, and I have to continue downstream a bit just to find a place to cross. The trail then meets Lion Canyon Trail. From here, it’s about a mile and a quarter down the canyon to Middle Lion Campground, which can be reached from Rose Valley Road.
As I continue up the canyon, my eye is drawn to the dense stands of willow that line the creek, their leaves and buds currently giving the plant a colorful gold and reddish appearance.
Along the trail I pass a small side creek on the left that forms a small pool next to the trail. Scrambling up the nearby rocks to get a better view of the creek, I can see a series of three small cascades in the rocky canyon below.
At about the two-mile mark, the trail arrives at a signed four-way intersection. Lion Canyon Trail continues straight ahead, eventually climbing out of the canyon and continuing up to Nordhoff Ridge. To the right is the side trail to West Fork Lion Camp, and to the left is the side trail to East Fork Lion Camp.
With the sky becoming more overcast, I decide to hike to West Fork Lion Camp first, knowing that I’ll probably spend more time in East Fork Lion Canyon. The side trail follows West Fork Lion Canyon upstream. As I continue, I’m surprised that there are no Humboldt lilies sprouting up along the trail. Last year there were close to 20 along the trail, so either they haven’t started yet or they’re taking a year off.
After roughly a half-mile, the side trail arrives at West Fork Lion Camp. The camp is right along the trail and features a grated stove and fire ring. Across the creek is another smaller campsite with a grated stove, and just downstream from that there’s an ice can stove in a small clearing.
Past the first campsite, the trail continues across the alder-lined creek and then starts to fade. From here, it’s a short hike upstream to the falls. The falls form a chute over an exposed outcropping of conglomerate rock. The cobblestone-looking material was originally deposited during the Cretaceous period as a mixture of loose rock and finer material that fused over time and was later uplifted with the mountains.
I pause here for a quick lunch. The air is cool and I’m glad I brought a down vest. The wool cap I found earlier along the trail proves helpful, but the sunglasses I found at West Fork Lion Camp…not as helpful.
Back at the four-way intersection, I next follow the side trail that leads up East Fork Lion Canyon, entering Sespe Wilderness. The trail crosses the creek several times, and with the higher water it proves challenging to keep my boots dry.
After roughly a half-mile, the side trail arrives at East Fork Lion Camp. The camp has two sites, each with a grated stove and fire ring. The larger, more spacious site is under two large big cone spruce. The site was originally called Spruce Falls Camp.
The trail continues past the camp, before arriving at the first cascade. Here too, the water is flowing over conglomerate rock, only instead of a single large outcropping, it’s a series of huge boulders made of conglomerate rock.
After a short bit of rock scrambling I arrive at the base of the falls, which prove to be the highlight of the day. Here, four separate channels in a row are flowing across a large rock face into a single pool. The water is crystal clear and the sights and sounds are so engaging that I regret not bringing camping gear to have more time to enjoy the canyon before heading home.
This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 13th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.