Posted by: James Wapotich | November 27, 2017

Trail Quest: Nordhoff Peak

From the top of Nordhoff Ridge, the remains of the old lookout tower at Nordhoff Peak offer sweeping views of the Ojai Valley and out towards the Channel Islands. The hike starts from Ojai and leads through mostly chaparral along a historic trail that dates back to the early 1900s.

The hike along Pratt Trail to the peak and back is about 12 miles round trip and can make for a satisfying workout, gaining over 3,500 feet on the way up. A shorter hike can be made by turning around at Valley View Camp, which is seven miles round trip. The trail is mostly unshaded and there is currently no water along the route, so plan accordingly.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai. From downtown Ojai, follow Signal Street north to the signed turnoff for the Pratt and Foothill trailhead. The unpaved road continues towards Stewart Canyon Debris Dam and the parking area for the trailhead. The last section is particularly bumpy so it’s best to slow down when entering the parking area.

From the parking area, the trail leads through mostly chaparral as it continues up Stewart Canyon. This first portion of the trial follows an easement, weaving its way through various private properties. Please stay on the trail and respect private property.

The trail then crosses the creek and briefly follows a paved road before arriving at a locked access gate. Here, the road becomes unpaved and enters Los Padres National Forest. Near the gate is a large sign with a map showing the network of trails directly behind Ojai, including Pratt Trail.

Continuing along the unpaved road, the trail quickly passes a water tower and arrives at the next creek crossing. On the left, is a single track trail which follows the western side of the creek. The trail is marked with a sign as Pratt and Foothill Trails. A little further up, the trail branches with Foothill Trail heading west over to meet Cozy Dell Trail, while Pratt Trail continues north, rejoining the access road about a quarter of a mile from where it left the road.

You can also just stay on the access road, which quickly meets the eastern extension of Foothill Trail that leads over towards Gridley Trail. The road then meets the single track trail and continues up the canyon where it joins Fuel Break Road. Stay to the left and follow Fuel Break Road as it starts to climb up the mountain. Here, the chaparral continues to become a little more diverse. In addition to ceanothus and laurel sumac, are toyon, chamise, black sage, and even some California black walnut.

At at about the 2-mile mark, Fuel Break Road arrives at a small saddle overlooking Cozy Dell Canyon. Here, the trail branches again. The unpaved access road continues down into Cozy Dell Canyon, while Pratt Trail continues the rest of the way as a single track trail to the top of the mountains.

From the saddle is a great view of the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Both the Santa Ynez and Topatopa Mountains are part of the Transverse Range. Nordhoff Ridge is the westernmost end of the Topatopa Mountains and so this view also highlights where one set of mountains ends and the other begins. Flowing between these two set of mountains is Ventura River.

Continuing up the mountain, Pratt Trail offers better and better views of the surrounding area as it winds its way up through more chaparral.

The trail was built was built by Ranger George Bald in the early 1900s, and it’s an impressive feat considering the steepness of the mountain, the terrain and brush, and the tools available for the job at that time. The trail was financed by Charles M. Pratt, who was the President of Standard Oil and had a winter home in what was then the town of Nordhoff.

George Bald originally moved to the Ojai Valley in 1886. Five years later he married and moved to Washington State. In 1900, he returned to the Ojai Valley, and in 1902, become one of the first rangers for the newly created Pine Mountain and Zaca Lake Forest Reserve, the forerunner to today’s Los Padres National Forest.

Bald’s territory included the Ojai Valley and much of what is now Sespe Wilderness. He patrolled and helped maintain trails such as Gridley, Horn Canyon, and Red Reef, which are still in use today. Bald retired from the forest service in 1921; his son, Howard Bald, would later serve as the first ranger for the Ojai Ranger District.

At about the 3.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at the turnoff for Valley View Camp. Here, the rocks transition from Matilija sandstone to more easily eroded Juncal formation material, which has helped create a small basin in the upper canyon. Tucked down in along the creek, behind a wall of sandstone, is Valley View Camp.

The camp is situated under a canopy of coast live oak and California bay laurel and can make for a great place to stop along the hike, particularly on a hot day. During the spring, the creek is often flowing and the site can also make for a good backpacking destination. The camp features a metal fire ring and has about enough room for one tent.

The creek, even when dry, creates a respite from all the chaparral. Found in this pocket of riparian plants are sycamore, willow, maple, horsetail, wild rose, and even a stand of now dry Humboldt lilies. Across the creek, up on the hill, is a lone big cone Douglas-fir watching over the camp. Bear scat along the trail and bear sign on some of the trees add to the sense of being in the wilderness while resting just above Ojai.

Past the turnoff down to Valley View Camp, Pratt Trail continues towards the top of the mountains, tracing the upper edge of Cozy Dell Canyon before arriving at Nordhoff Ridge Road. To the east, one can see the remains of the lookout tower in the distance. Nordhoff Ridge Road runs along the top of the ridge and can be accessed with a four-wheel drive or off-highway vehicle from Rose Valley Campground with a permit from the forest service. Permits can be obtained by calling or visiting the Ojai Ranger District office. Access is free, but is subject to current weather and road conditions.

From the top of Pratt Trail, continue east along Nordhoff Ridge Road about a mile to the side road that leads to the top of the peak, where one can find the steel tower left from the lookout.

Built in 1935, Nordhoff Peak Lookout stood a watchful eye over the backcountry until it was burned in the 1948 Wheeler Fire. The lookout was replaced with one from another mountain and stood there until the 1970s, when it was burned in another fire. The forest service removed the damaged building, leaving just the metal tower and base seen today.

Underneath the tower, is Tower Camp, which features a picnic table and metal fire ring.

From the peak, the views to north include Dry Lakes Ridge, Pine Mountain Ridge, and portions of Sespe Wilderness, but the real panorama is to the south. Extending out across the Ojai Valley, the views include the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Lake Casitas, Channel Islands, Oxnard Plain, Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Susana Mountains, Santa Paula Ridge, and Topatopa Bluff.

Nordhoff Peak takes its name from the town of Nordhoff. In 1874, real estate developer Roys Gaylord Surdam laid out the town in the lower valley. He named it Nordhoff in honor of Charles Nordhoff, who had written favorably about California in his popular book, “California for Health, Pleasure and Residence”.

In 1917, the town of Nordhoff changed its name to Ojai; the word is derived from a Chumash word that means moon, or valley on the moon.

From Nordhoff Peak, one can either retrace their route back to the trailhead, or make a larger loop by returning along Gridley Trail and using the networks of trails behind Ojai. The larger loop adds about four miles round trip to the hike.

Hiked to Nordhoff Peak and the old lookout tower from Ojai via Pratt Trail. The trail was built in the early 1900s by Ranger George Bald and offers some great views across the Ojai Valley and out towards the Channel Islands. Currently there is no water at Valley View Camp.

This article originally appeared in section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Stewart Canyon Valley View Camp Pratt Trail hike ojai Los Padres National Forest Nordhoff Ridge

Upper Stewart Canyon is seen from Pratt Trail

Nordhoff Lookout Tower Camp ridge ojai hike jeep Los Padres National Forest

Nordhoff Tower


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