07 June 2012

Matilija Middle Fork

Los Padres National Forest

Locate the trailhead.

When I decided to go up the upper north fork of Matilija Creek and started researching the trail condition, I found that this was not the most popular trail from the trailhead. That seemed to be the middle fork, which has better pools and more interesting waterfalls but also has some private property issues. The trail passes through private property, first with an easement and then without. However, California law gives the public certain rights to continue accessing long used trails and there is said to be an easement for the Bald Hills trail, from which this trail branches up in the north part of the property. Either way, it is not yet a settled matter. Meanwhile, there is a road through the edge of the part of the property that is used along which one can leave the owner alone while following along a multitude of foot prints. At the time, I decided to stick with the original plan. Since finding all this out, I keep seeing comments from someone or other who has gone up to Matilija falls and enjoyed it immensely. If finally got to me and I decided to go.

Heading up the brief bit of highway 33 from Ojai, I came upon the familiar road and turned left to follow it's tight, steep twist up onto the mountain side. Negotiating rock slides and randomly narrow spots and merely tight sections, I came to the end of the road, at least as open to the public, and parked in the large dirt lot. Then it is hiking along the paved road through the wildlife refuge. It turns to dirt at the end of the buildings and crosses over a bit of water. After the second crossing, a sign on the right showed the start of the upper north fork trail. Shortly after that, a sign on the left showed the start of the Murietta trail. Then there was a road to the right and a sign directing all hikers to the left, and finally the road split again. I turned right to pass through the Blue Heron Ranch and quickly passed out of the property again. Passing into private property again, a gate and wall are along the edge of the road. After the gate, the road is overgrown and ends in a wash near where the route passes into private property again.

a mountain with a flat slab of rock for a face
The big, open valley of Matilija Canyon, at least this low down and when not actually down in the creek bed.

A very well trod single track heads out the far side of the wash and past four huge concrete pipes that might have been meant to make the road go further at some point but now just sit in the brush with trails up and around them. Those trails might or might not head on up Old Man Canyon; I didn't investigate. The main trail headed through a canyon of high brush that felt quite tight at times, but only because trails usually have so much extra room and not because it was actually too narrow. Quickly, the trail started to split, often having a high route and a low route and campsites started appearing. To be more specific, huge campfire rings with large numbers of stone benches and very little space to actually pitch a tent started appearing.

the canyon with its cliffs above
Starting into the canyon as it narrows down and the high sides become quite cliff-like.

big yellow cactus flower with polinators
A few spots on the trail were sided with some very serious looking spikes.

a big campfire ring and a few seats
The center point for a camp along the trail. This one is by a narrow, shaded swimming hole and hasn't got as good chairs as some of the others.

camp site with stone benches that are somewhat elaborate
This camp has a much better swimming hole, so also has a much better set of seats for the huge campfire ring.

After the campsites, there continued to be high and low trails. Sometimes the high trails seemed to go strait up to skip over something and seemed like quite a bit of extra work, so I would take the low trail. Sometimes the low trail would seem to vanish into thick growth while the high trail was easy and I would take the high trail. The difficulty of the high trail, even when it was easy, is that the stream that is a string of jewels is no longer visible. A few times it looked like the path was crossing over, but there wasn't trail over there, and coming back and poking upstream a little, I would find that there actually was trail continuing on the west side.

green and gold water flowing over white stone steps
One of those jewels along the way.

a cliff of layers stands as the backdrop to a narrow, deep pool
A pool along the creek.

layers of sandstone eroded into swirl-like patterns
A slab of sandstone seems to gain infinite complexity from the pattern of water that has eroded it.

three inch turtle
I spotted something very round moving under the water and had to figure out what it was. Pushing through some trees, I saw the first turtle of the day which was only about three inches long and heading into the twisted moss ropes to hide.

cascades over sandstone layers
Some more delightful water play over the layers of the eroding sandstone.

I made a few jaunts up to the high road only to find that it turned up the hill as a bear path or that it suddenly dropped to nothing or, once, a choice of both those options. These moments at least got me out of the immediate walls and allowed a little bit of looking around to the larger canyon above. As I got close to where a fall marked on an eastern tributary might be visible, I tried to take high roads on the west more to see it, but there was less and less of any trail on that side of the creek.

canyon cliff examples
The rocks at the bottom are the top of the short cliffs by the water. After a bit of somewhat flat area, there are more significant cliffs marking the canyon.

a bit of trail above a pool
Looking down on one pool nearing the tributary with a falls marked, I could almost imagine that this trail climbing out of the canyon might be trying to get there.

a dragonfly
Various sorts of dragonflies and similar things were flying around. Many had various amounts of red, at the ends or all over, many were bright blue, and some were like this.

a small bit of rugged in the upper canyon
Somewhere up here, past a very pointy bit of rock, there should be a waterfall. At least if there is water and it can be seen from below.

Eventually, I had to cross. A route climbed steeply up the wall on that side, but I decided to take a less distinct route along the creek instead. It became very challenging to stay out of the water. I spotted a couple more turtles, these much bigger but also quickly legging it into dark holes. Then the boulder choked sides and flat creek became too much and I swapped my boots for silly toed shoes to continue more easily up the middle.

water flowing over a staircase
A cascade with a long pool at the bottom. It was quite occupied when I got back to it.

After the cascade, there were again a number of camps right on the trail. The canyon closed in even further. The route finding simplified for a bit. Suddenly the main trail seemed to go up a side canyon rather than following the main stream. Practically right around a corner, there was the West Falls hurling itself over the sandstone layers in two tiers. I hung out below the top tier for a bit of lunch and sketching, then pumped some fresh water to help deal with the hot day.

another elaborate rock setup for a camp along the creek
Seats and a table next to the large fire ring equipped with pan and wire rack make up part of a site along the creek. This might be the place to be along the trail as it was occupied when I got back.

trail and water along the layers
A bit of creek and pool with the path along the left side.

two tiers and some cascade of falls
The West Falls in its glory, starting with a bit of cascade, then tumbling down over two drops.

another growing waterfall
The upper tier of West Falls. This waterfall seems to have found a bit of lime to help it grow out quite impressively.

the ledge of the lower falls
The lower tier of the West Falls. This one isn't quite so thick with lime, but still has a fair bit of it.

Going the short way back to the main creek and finding my way to the trail that follows it upward, route finding again became difficult. Scree slopes and boulders litter the bottom of the canyon that must be 20 feet wide a lot of places. The GPS never lost signal, but some of what it got must have been echoing off walls because I seemed to be covering a lot more distance according to it than it felt like. Eventually I found a route through, past yet another camp site, up to a large pool with a waterfall at the end of it. It was a rather interesting waterfall, and I sketched it as well.

scree so bad it's covering the creek too
A look down a bit of narrow, windy canyon with scree piles, including one the creek flows under and through.

yet another campsite
Along a patch that seems to not have boulders falling onto it long enough for trees to grow, there is another huge campfire ring.

the short path of a spring from hole to creek
A spring coming out of the side of the canyon. The backpackers I later bumped into said this is the best water in the area.

a water fall like a huge, gaping mouth
This seems a particularly interesting waterfall with the way it has eroded the layers. It was also particularly quiet. There were one foot drops further down that put out a deep throaty roar much louder than this whole waterfall.

three bright blue dragon flies
Quite a few bright blue dragon flies (although it seems to me Abbie says these guys are something else) came and perched on the grass nearby while I sketched.

I noticed rope along the right side of the fall, but it had broken. The boulder strewn areas had been fairly daunting to get through and I was about out of my courage, so climbing the side of the fall without the rope wasn't attractive. (To be honest, with the rope of unknown trustworthiness isn't so great either.) There should be a second fall just behind this one, but I did not get to it. Heading back, I managed to go a little more in a straightforward manner. There were still some false starts, but I generally managed a better route down than I'd found going up. I also found yet another campsite, which I'm not sure how I'd missed on the way up considering how narrow the canyon is.

the flow of the west creek as it joins the water coming over the west fall
A bird playing in the water from the west fall as it joins with the main creek.

Hitting the camp above the cascade, I found that it now had elaborate kitchen workings all over the table. A bowl of dog food and water were up on the stone chairs with other items. A hammock had been strung between the trees near the creek. A sleeping bag hung upside down from a tree as though it had perhaps been dunked and needed drying now. Someone had quite decidedly turned the area into a home. Down on the cascade, two fellows were moving rocks at the bottom to make the pool deeper and then they took to sliding down it. Their dog found the sliding exciting and ran down next to them before finally catching the wave of their splash with a snap. We chatted some, then I continued on completely neglecting to ask about the Bald Hills Trail.

another snake in the water
I saw a few of these swimming in the water. One dove down to hide in the moss and stayed there for quite some time leading me to wonder how long a snake could hold its breath. This one was just hanging out.

While coming down, I continued along a high spot that I had previously climbed up to and eventually came to a steep slope back down to the canyon floor below. Getting there, I looked to the side to see the trees I had decided to walk through on the way up, skipping this steep slope. I had bypassed the spot where I'd decided to swap my shoes, so I soon decided to swap them again. The silly shoes were nice for in the water, and especially nice for keeping my boots dry, but the right one was trying to eat into the top of my heel, so I was happy to have them off again and have my big boots and thick socks back on. Fine in moderation, but I'm not ready to take on a Bridge to Nowhere hike in them yet. Continuing on, there were more pieces that were familiar and pieces that were new. I saw a small trail at one point and decided to diverge, finding another campsite with a painting on a nearby rock.

the cliffs again, in the afternoon light
Coming back down the canyon, the cliffs look a bit different in the afternoon light.

a bit of creek along slabs of sandstone
The canyon seemed to take on a new beauty with the angle of the light as I was exiting it.

the canyon widening in the distance
As the canyon opens up again, the trail is soon to bump back into the end of the road.

Hiking out again, I was passed by two cars coming into the ranch, presumably. Each driver gave me a big smile and a wave as I cowered on the edge of the road out of the way of their machines, so I smiled and waved too. Driving back, I seemed to be hitting everyone coming home from work while the sides of the road were packed with teens, probably by more big puddles in the creek.

©2012 Valerie Norton
Posted 9 Jun 2012

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