Posted by: James Wapotich | March 27, 2017

Trail Quest: Potrero John Trail

Our recent rains have not only helped bring the waterfalls back to life, but have also inspired the plants to get an early start on spring. Potrero John Creek originates near the top of Pine Mountain Ridge, carving a canyon down the mountain on its way towards Sespe River and includes a scenic waterfall along the way.

I thought it’d be interesting to invite local plant expert Lanny Kaufer to join me for the hike. Lanny has led Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Santa Barbara and Ojai for the past 41 years and was excited about revisiting the canyon and seeing the falls.

The hike to the falls is about six miles roundtrip and follows the creek most of the way, passing through a mix of riparian and chaparral plants.

After picking Lanny up from his home in Ojai, we continue along State Route 33 to the trailhead. The road follows North Fork Matilija Creek before climbing out of the canyon and continuing towards the turnoff to Rose Valley. Past Rose Valley Road, State Route 33 descends down towards Sespe River and follows it upstream towards Sespe Gorge.

Lanny Kaufer Herb Walks Ojai Edible and Medicinal Plant Potrero John Canyon Trail Falls hike

Lanny pauses at one of the cascades along the trail

Potrero John Canyon is the second canyon on the right just past Sespe Gorge. Parking is found in the pullouts along the road.

On our drive, Lanny talked about Tending the Wild, by M. Kat Anderson, a book he is currently reading. The book dispels the narrative of California’s native peoples as hunter-gathers, wandering the landscape, opportunistically looking for food, and instead shows them as stewards, actively tending the wild plants and resources they used. As an example, Lanny offered that when the Chumash harvested brodiaea, or blue dicks, which have an edible bulb, they likely replanted the smaller bulbs and cleared the area around the plants so they would grow back in the same place more vigorously and abundant the following year.

As we hit the trail, one of the first plants that grabs our attention is chaparral white thorn ceanothus growing abundantly along the trail. The plant with its distinctive pale, whitish bark grows at higher elevations and has yet to show its purple flowers. The plant is distinct from the big pod ceanothus we saw in North Fork Matilija Canyon, along the drive, which was already in bloom with white flowers. The flowers of ceanothus can be rubbed together to produce a lathery soap.

The beginning of the canyon is narrow and shaded. In addition to ceanothus, we see manzanita and yerba santa amongst the chaparral plants, and along the creek we can see mule fat, willow, poison oak, and mugwort.

The next plant we stop at is big cone spruce, also known as big cone Douglas fir. I watch as Lanny walks around the tree. He is looking to see if there are any new needles growing, offering that they are a rich source of vitamin C and have sour, but nutty taste. He concludes, however, that it’s still a little early in the year, and we probably won’t start seeing fresh needles until April.

At the next crossing, we spot several patches of giant stinging nettles. Lanny points out that it is the only native nettle in our area, adding that it is also one of the most nutrient rich plants on the planet. Carefully picking a leaf, he demonstrates how to eat the fresh leaves without getting stung. Taking the leaf and crushing it between his fingers, he rolls it into a ball, pinching hard to deflate the little hairs on the leaves that cause irritation. I do the same, before eating some; the taste reminds me a little of miner’s lettuce, which is also growing along the trail.

Nettles can also be cooked, or steamed, which wilts the hairs on the leaves, eliminating their stinging properties. The leaves are said to be best when they’re young and tender. However, Lanny cautions that once they start to flower it’s risky to eat them, because the leaves begin to produce gritty particles, or cystoliths, that can get into the kidneys and cause kidney stones.

Still, the idea of foraging for a snack in the wild is appealing. Foraging is defined as gathering plants for personal use, any more than that is considered harvesting. A permit is required to harvest plants in the National Forest.

Potrero John Canyon Trail Falls Ojai hike

Potrero John Canyon

Just past the third crossing, the trail enters Sespe Wilderness. As we continue up the canyon, we can hear a group of Steller’s jays excitedly conversing as they flit from tree to tree. In the distance, we can hear the canyon wren’s distinctive descending call that sounds like laughter.

After another crossing, Lanny stops at a small herbaceous plant along the trail and asks me if it reminds me of another plant we’ve seen earlier. Studying the plant, I notice that its dried leaves are still clinging to the stalk similar to mugwort, which proves to be the correct answer.

Lanny points out both plants are in the genus Artemisia, as is sagebrush. This particular member of the genus Artimesia, is wild tarragon. The plant is similar to French tarragon used in gourmet cooking but doesn’t have the same richness of flavor. Nevertheless, can make for a handy seasoning while camping.

Continuing past the wild tarragon, we arrive at a patch of Great Basin sagebrush, also in the genus Artemisia. The plant is related to coastal sagebrush that’s found closer to the coast. The range of Great Basin sagebrush extends inland and takes its name from the Great Basin between the Sierras and Rocky Mountains, where it also grows. The plant can be used to make a liniment to treat muscle pain topically.

Lanny Kaufer Herb Walks Ojai great basin sagebrush potrero john trail canyon los padres national forest sespe wilderness

Lanny studying an example of Great Basin sagebrush

As we continue, the canyon starts to open up. In the distance, we can see Pine Mountain Ridge.

Potrero John Canyon is named after John Powers, who lived in the area during the early 1900s, and grazed his cattle in the canyon. Potrero is Spanish for pasture or meadow.

We pass through several potreros surrounded by mostly chaparral. The south-facing canyon proving favorable to ceanothus, chamise, white sage, yerba santa, and other chaparral plants.

Pausing at a particularly healthy specimen, Lanny points out that yerba santa is Spanish for holy herb. Noting that while the Spanish generally didn’t value the plant knowledge the Chumash people had developed, they were impressed by yerba santa. The plant could cure ailments of the lung and respiratory system, including tuberculosis, far more effectively than any plant the Spanish knew, bestowing upon it the accolade of holy herb.

At about the 1.75-mile mark, we arrive at the unsigned turnoff for Potrero John Camp. The camp is across creek from main trail and tucked under several large interior live oaks. The camp features a grated stove and fire ring and makes for an easy overnight backpacking destination. After pausing for lunch, we continue up the canyon towards the falls.

Potrero John Falls waterfall Sespe Wilderness hike trail backpacking ojai los padres national forest

Potrero John Falls

Past the camp, the trail sees less use and is more overgrown. The trail is generally still easy to follow, although some of the crossings can prove confusing.

The trail favors the west side of the canyon and becomes more shaded as it narrows, eventually narrowing to the point where there is no more room for a trail. From here, it is a short ways to the falls up the creek.

Scrambling over the rocks and rounding a corner in the canyon, we arrive at a point overlooking a small cascade. Just above it is the main falls. We make our way to the base of the falls and take in the crystal clear waters flowing across the tall rock face. The blueness of the sky set against the falls seems impossibly deep and rich.

Sitting there taking in the scenery, feeling the warmth of the sun, and listening to sounds of the water, my mind begins to wander. I find myself imagining a landscape subtly altered by the Chumash over thousands of years, as they tended the plants they used. And I wonder if the groupings and concentrations of edible and medicinal plants I see in the backcountry today are actually remnants of their activity.

Lanny Kaufer regularly offers Herb Walks and Nature Hikes in Santa Barbara and Ojai and will be featuring a walk along Potrero John Trail later in the spring. For more information or a calendar of upcoming events go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the March 27th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. I’m really glad you “dragged” me up there, James. And thanks for all the great publicity.


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