Posted by: James Wapotich | July 19, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Paula Canyon

With summer upon us and heat waves raising temperatures across southern California, finding places in the backcountry with water deep enough to get into becomes even more of a premium. Winter rains have helped bring back a number of swim holes and one of the places with a great collection of pools is Santa Paula Canyon.

Santa Paula Canyon is a popular destination. The canyon features a waterfall and swim hole, as well as a narrow gorge with more pools that are sometimes referred to as the Punch Bowls. The hike to Santa Paula Canyon Falls is about seven miles roundtrip and the hike to the Punch Bowls is about 8.5 miles roundtrip. The best time to go is during the week.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south to Ventura. From Ventura, take State Route 126 east towards Santa Paula, and exit at Santa Paula. Follow State Route 150 through the town of Santa Paula and continue past Steckel Park towards Thomas Aquinas College. The drive is about an hour. The trailhead can also be reached by taking the back way through Ojai, which is about ten minutes longer. Parking is found along the side of the road or in the two dirt lots near the entrance to the college.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls graffiti creek punch bowls big cone spruce camp hiking backpacking trail waterfall

Santa Paula Canyon Falls seen from the hill overlooking the creek near Big Cone Camp

The hike to Santa Paula Canyon leads through the campus and two private ranches. The route is well-marked. Please respect private property.

From the road, walk up to the entrance to Thomas Aquinas College and follow the access road as it veers to the right and traces the eastern edge of the campus.

Established in 1971, Thomas Aquinas College is a Roman Catholic liberal arts school tucked up in the mountains, just above the confluence of Santa Paula and Sisar Creeks. One of the striking features on the campus is the chapel with its scenic bell tower and dome framed by the mountains.

East Fork Santa Paula Creek trail hiking backpacking punch bowls

Scenery along East Fork Santa Paula Creek

The route then continues to the right along a ranch road through Ferndale Ranch. It then descends down a hill, passing several oil derrick pump jacks, before arriving at the beginning of the second ranch, Rancho Recuerdo. The route then continues through an avocado orchard before arriving at a second set of pump jacks.

Past the pump jacks, the trail arrives at Santa Paula Creek. Here, the trail crosses the alder-lined creek, tracing its northern edge. The trail has been washed out a number of times over the years due to flooding. The trail follows the creek, briefly crossing the end of a ranch road, before then veering away from the creek.

Here, the trail passes through a somewhat boggy corner of the floodplain. It’s surprising to see alder trees growing so far from the creek, but apparently there is enough water to support them, as well as the ferns and blackberry growing there.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls Pool swim hole punch bowls creek hiking backpacking trail last chance

Great pool just above Santa Paula Canyon Falls

Santa Paula Canyon Trail then enters a more exposed section before returning to the creek. Here, the trail branches. Because this is such a popular destination there are a number of use trails all trying to reach the same place. The trail to the left is an off-trail route that leads up the creek to the falls. The main trail crosses the creek and connects with the old road cut that used to run through the canyon.

The trail follows the south side of the creek for a stretch, before veering away from the water and heading up into the chaparral. There are number of side trails to contend with and the best option is to keep staying to the right, until the old road cut becomes apparent. The unpaved road is overgrown, appearing as more of a single track trail. Amongst the plants are white sage, toyon, buckwheat, and sumac all in bloom.

As trail rounds a corner in the canyon it offers some great views back down the canyon. Up ahead is a lone hill in the middle of the canyon. The trail then passes over a low point between the hill and the backside of Santa Paula Ridge and descends down towards Big Cone Camp.

Punch bowl Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail Cross Camp waterslide

Large pool in the narrow gorge of Santa Paula Canyon past Cross Camp, featuring a waterslide.

The camp has four sites. The main site is under a grove of big cone Douglas-fir, which give the camp its name and also dot the back side of Santa Paula Ridge. The second site is just across the trail from the first. Further up the trail, on either side, are two more sites. Each site features a metal fire ring or grated stove.

Just past the last two camp sites, the trail drops back down to the creek. However, a brief detour worth making is from the last camp on the left. Follow the short use trail that leads up the hill overlooking the creek, which offers views directly down towards the waterfall.

Past Big Cone Camp, the trail drops down to East Fork Santa Paula Creek, crossing to the other side where the trail branches. Santa Paula Canyon Trail continues to the right. The trail is overgrown and leads towards Cienega and Bluff Camps, as well as Santa Paula Peak. The more traveled route, Last Chance Trail, continues to the left and leads above the falls. A short off-trail route leads down the creek to the falls.

Santa Paula Canyon Falls is the first in a series of swim holes in the canyon. The waterfall and pool are a popular destination and it’s not uncommon to see more than a dozen people swimming there. There is also a disappointing amount of trash and graffiti.

Giant Stream Orchid Santa Paula Canyon last chance trail punch bowls

Giant Stream Orchid along side creek, Santa Paula Canyon

waterfall Santa Paul Canyon creek last chance trail hiking backpacking

Unnamed waterfall in Santa Paula Canyon

Above the falls, the creek has carved its way through Matilija sandstone forming one of the deeper pools in the canyon. The ten-foot deep pool, with its clear, flowing water is one of the highlights of the hike. The pool is hard to reach and best accessed by continuing along the trail above the falls and returning down into the creek.

Continuing along the trail above the falls, the trail climbs away from the creek; rounds a corner; and then drops back down to the creek, arriving at Cross Camp. The camp features three sites. Two on this side of the creek surrounded by California bay laurel and black walnut. The third site is harder to find and is on the opposite side of the creek.

At Cross Camp, the trail actually branches. Last Chance Trail crosses the creek, passing the third campsite, and continuing towards Jackson Hole. The main use route however, continues upstream towards the narrow gorge referred to as the Punch Bowls.

Continuing along the more heavily traveled off-trail route, the canyon itself quickly branches. To the right is a small side canyon that features another waterfall. Growing along the creek are giant stream orchids. More plentiful further north in California, they are found in wet or moist places, and bloom in the late spring and early summer.

The canyon to the left is the narrow gorge where more swim holes are found. There is no trail and the route requires rock scrambling, and in some places just wading through the water. There are several smaller pools, but the main attraction is the large pool less than a quarter of a mile up the canyon that features rope swings and a natural water slide.

Santa Paula Canyon Last Chance Trail sespe wilderness

Scenery along Last Chance Trail, past Cross Camp heading towards Jackson Camp

From Cross Camp, the hike can be extended by continuing along Last Chance Trail to Jackson Camp, another three miles roundtrip. The trail enters Sespe Wilderness as it climbs away from the creek. The trail follows a series switchbacks up an exposed hillside overlooking the canyon, before rounding a corner and offering some dramatic views back down towards the narrow gorge. The trail is more overgrown and sees far fewer visitors than the route leading to the swim holes.

As Last Chance Trail continues up the canyon it eventually drops back down towards the creek and arrives at the turnoff to Jackson Camp, which is marked by a blue survey flag with a rock on top of it. The side trail down to the camp is overgrown and at times hard to follow. The camp currently has flowing water and features a stone fire ring.

Further up the canyon, along the trail, are Jackson Falls and Jackson Hole, which is a pool carved in sandstone by the creek. Currently there is no water flowing at either destination. From Jackson Hole, Last Chance Trail continues to the top of the Topatopa Mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 17th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. OMG! This looks like an epic trail. Thank you for so consistently bringing such beauty into my inbox, James. This one, especially, grabbed my attention. That water looks so inviting…I had a vision of diving in just now. Keep it going brother.

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