Posted by: James Wapotich | June 25, 2018

Trail Quest: East & West Fork Lion Falls

On May 24, the Forest Service lifted the closure for all trails in the National Forest within the Thomas Fire burn area. The fire, which started on December 4, near Santa Paula, burned east all the way into the mountains behind Santa Barbara before being contained. The fire burned 281,893 acres and is the largest recorded wildfire in California history.

With access now largely restored it’s possible to visit these trails and see how they’re doing. While summer heat can make hiking in the backcountry less appealing, it occurred to me that a hike along Lion Canyon Trail could include a visit to the swim holes below East and West Fork Lion Falls.

The hike to both East and West Fork Lion Falls is about six miles roundtrip and provides a chance to see the burn area. The trail starts from Middle Lion Campground in Rose Valley behind Ojai.

The trailhead is reached from Ojai, by taking State Route 33 north to Rose Valley Road. Rose Valley Road leads past the turnoff for Rose Valley Campground and Rose Valley Falls, before arriving at the turnoff to Middle Lion Campground.

At the turnoff for Middle Lion, I discover the gate on the road is closed and that I will have to take the connector trail down to the campground to reach the trailhead. A sign on the gate says the campground is scheduled to reopen on June 30. A similar sign is found on the gate before Rose Valley Campground.

The connector trail adds another mile roundtrip, but is easy to follow and about halfway down joins the paved road to the campground.

From the campground, the trail quickly crosses Lion Creek. Here, a stretch of unburned alder trees line the creek, a remnant of the verdant beauty the canyon had before the fire. It isn’t until the end of the hike that I fully appreciate the cooling effect trees provide. A short ways past the crossing, most of the remaining trees along the creek have been burned.

Shade from trees not only provides direct relief from the sun, but through transpiration trees further cool the area around them by taking up water through their roots that evaporates through their leaves, stems, and flowers.

Lion Canyon Trail is easy to follow and where powdery ash and loose soil have settled on the trail, fresh bear tracks can be seen.

While the fire has effectively cleared all the brush in the canyon, spring is still in effect with wildflowers lining the trail. In the mix are annual wildflowers, as well as fire followers that have been activated by the heat, smoke, and other chemical clues from the fire. Both types of plants are benefitting from this year’s rain combined with the ash-enriched soil, more available sunlight, and overall lack of competition.

Covering many of the hillsides is both short-lobed and caterpillar phacelia. Also abundant is farewell to spring and Turkish rugging, which is part of the buckwheat family. Other wildflowers along the trail include goldenstar, chia, blue dicks, larkspur, lupine, and mariposa lilies. Wild roses are also in bloom.

Growing back from root burls is scrub oak, toyon, and chamise. Sycamore and California bay laurel are also sprouting back from their bases.

Taking in the amount of the new growth created by the plants it seems almost average for this time of year. Nature hasn’t been extra hard at work striving to recover from the fire, but rather has just kept growing and moving forward like it always does. It’s a powerful reminder to take one’s time. In my own life when I experience a set back, I feel embarrassed, even ashamed, and push myself to bring things back to the way they were or even ambitiously make them better than before.

But nature just goes at its own steady pace, or in the words of Lao Tzu, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

In spite of the burn damage, the trail is in generally good condition, no downed trees to contend with and no major slide damage across the trail.

As the trail climbs above the creek, the lack of brush offers unobstructed views out across the canyon. The same lack of brush also reveals more clearly the raw beauty of the terrain and its topography.

Rounding a corner, as the trail starts back down towards the creek, I spot a rattlesnake stretched out across the trail. It doesn’t coil up or rattle, but looking at its tail I can see that it has roughly 11 rattles.

It is a common misconception that the number of rattles indicates the age of the snake. Although rattlesnakes add a new rattle each time they shed their skin it doesn’t easily translate into years. Young snakes may shed as much as three to four times a year, while older snakes may shed once a year or less. Rattles can also break off over time and so the only thing that can be said for sure about this particular snake is that it shed its skin at least 11 times.

We stare at each other for a moment and then the snake decides to make its way towards me. With plenty of open space around me and not wanting any complicated discussions, I scramble off trail and yield the right a way.

At about the 1.5-mile mark from Middle Lion Campground, the trail arrives at the intersection with Rose-Lion Connector Trail. Here, Lion Canyon Trail continues along the edge of the broad flood plain of Lion Creek, which used to be lined with dense willow that is now growing back.

The trail the crosses Lion Creek before arriving at the four-way intersection that leads to East and West Fork Lion Falls. The crossing is less clear now without fully grown willow defining the trail corridor and silt from this year’s rain that has flowed across parts of the trail. But the lack of brush also makes it’s easier to read the landscape.

From the four-way intersection, I continue to the left towards East Fork Lion Camp. Here too the route is a little more challenging to accurately follow as it crosses East Fork Lion Creek. Past the crossing, the trail stays on the north side of the flood plain all the way to East Fork Lion Camp.

The camp is surprisingly undamaged. While there is little shade, the two large big-cone Douglas fir towering over the camp are still standing and only one of them has burn damage and just on one side. There is currently water flowing at the camp and the two camp sites are both usable.

Past the camp, an off-trail route continues up the canyon to the first cascade. Here, the creek tumbles over huge boulders of conglomerate stone creating a variety of pools and cascades.

Scrambling over the rocks, I quickly reach East Fork Lion Falls, sometimes referred to Spruce Falls. At the base of the waterfall is a chest deep pool of water that is the perfect antidote for the heat.

Retracing my route back to the four-way intersection, I continue over to West Fork Lion Falls.

The trail to West Fork Lion Camp stays on the east side of the flood plain the entire way to the camp.

As the trail rounds a bend in the canyon, it arrives at a surprisingly large patch of Humboldt lilies with more than two dozen in bloom and another 50 to 60 with buds that haven’t opened. The vibrant orange flower with brown spots can be found sporadically on other trails, as well as elsewhere in Lion Canyon, but here, walking through so many in bloom adds to the sense of discovery that exploring the backcountry can offer.

West Fork Lion Camp also has very little shade but is still otherwise usable.

Past the camp an off-trail route crosses the creek and makes its way up towards West Fork Lion Falls.

Although the pool at the base of the waterfall is not as deep as the one in East Fork Lion Canyon, it still provides welcome relief from the heat and lack of shade along most of the hike. For company, I share the pool with two garter snakes actively swimming around, who were there first. After cooling off, I hike back.

Rose Valley Falls is also flowing. The gate just before the campground is also closed, but it’s a short walk from the gate to the campground. From the campground, it’s about a half-mile to the base of the falls. The trail is similarly burned, but at the falls is a largely unburned pocket of California bay laurel and maple, which provide shade and add to the beauty of the scene.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 25th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Lion Canyon Trail Thomas Fire Ojai hike Los Padres National Forest

Lion Canyon

Lion Canyon trail pre-Thomas Fire hike Ojai Los Padres National Forest

Lion Canyon, 2015

Rattlesnake lion canyon trail los padres national forest

Rattlesnake with 11 rattles out on the trail

Mariposa lily lion canyon trail los padres national forest

Mariposa lily

Farewell to Spring Lion Canyon Trail los padres national forest

Farewell to Spring

Turkish rug lion canyon trail los padres national forest

Turkish rugging

Humboldt lily lion canyon trail los padres national forest

Humboldt lily

Rose Valley Falls trail ojai los padres nation forest

Rose Valley Falls



  1. Great photos!


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