Matilija Falls Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County June 28, 2008
A challenging scramble up a deep canyon to a remote mountain waterfall


The Matilija Falls of Matilija Creek, 15 miles north of Ojai, is a series of cascades that have carved multiple levels of spilling pools down a mountainside. Accessed by a strenuous 5 mile boulder-hopping scramble up a rugged and remote canyon via an unmaintained creekside trail, these falls are enjoyed only by the most dedicated and persevering hikers. The lower fall drops 40-50 feet into a pool which then spills into Matilija Creek forming a shallow swimming hole. To view the upper falls, you have to pull yourself 70 ft up the rock face to a high ledge via a pair of ropes someone has tied to trees.

Much of this creek trail is lined with shade trees and there are many smaller waterfalls, natural waterslides, rock formations, idyllic shady bowers and deep swimming holes to enjoy along the way that could be destinations of their own.

The falls are do-able as dayhike, but there are numerous campsites along the creek for those who have the time to explore this scenic canyon at a more relaxed pace. Most hike up to the falls, then return the same way, but a Forest Service map shows a trail that continues north to Hwy. 33, although I didn't see how to access it from the falls.

This is a physically demanding hike. A lot of climbing and jumping over boulders, crossing the creek on rocks and scrambling up and down steep loose shale hills and cliffs when the creek is impassable will sap your energy.

This is a desert mountain wilderness and conditions can deteriorate rapidly so always check up-to-date forecasts and pack accordingly. It's dangerous to be in narrow canyons during rainy season as log jams may burst upstream, releasing a wave of debris-filled water. It's possible to encounter bears and mountain lions in the Los Padres mountains, but more likely, coyotes and rattlesnakes. Always pay attention to what you're stepping on and avoid grabbing a ledge without being able to see whats on it.
After an eighty mile drive up from LA, I got started at noon on a very hot day under a deep blue cloudless sky. I didn't have any purification tabs or a filter at the time, but figured 3 liters of ice water would do it. Was down to one liter before I even reached the main falls. After this hike, I knew I could put off buying an expensive water filter no longer. It doesn't make sense to carry a heavy load of water or run low when you're hiking a creek trail.

After three and a half hours and numerous hard-won miles, by-passing many nice waterfalls, water-slides and swimming holes, I was ready to give up finding the "big one" and turn back. Then I overtook a pair of women who told me they were certain we were close so I pressed on. Glad I did—the main falls are epic. The rewards are that much sweeter for those who put in the extra effort!

Headed back after a relaxing swim and break and was back at the car by 5. Saw less than two dozen other hikers the whole time out, and only 6 made it all the way to the falls.

Matilija (pronounced muh-TILL-a-huh or muh-till-EE-huh) is a tall flowering bush-like plant native to SoCal.

Trail / Conditions / Maps / Stats
The trail starts out as a gravel/dirt road through a private nature sanctuary, crossing 2 streams. At the split 1 1/2-2 miles in, go left and up and then right to a gated ranch. This is private property but the Forest Service has easement rights through it to the Matilija Creek trail. Through the wood gate and out the far side of the ranch, almost a mile, there is a small stream - dry by summers end - and the footpath begins. Matilija Creek is only a few minutes away from this point. Stay right at the first split. The next right side split leads to an unusual slanted rock. There are well-used camps and swimming holes along the first mile of the creek path.

The path is easy enough to follow at first, but it crosses to different banks repeatedly and starts disappearing often enough that it's easier just to blaze your own up the creek. It's about five miles or more to the big falls via a mostly unmaintained trail. This means sometimes you can find a path, but mostly you just make your way up the creek the best you can, looking for signs others have been before you. The creek flows year round and provides a gurgling soundtrack as you negotiate sloping rocks, prickly cactus, scratchy bramble and downed trees.

The first 2 miles, the path is easy enough to follow, but the last 2-3 mi. shows no signs of being maintained at all (or it gets washed out every winter). It's a boulder-climbing, creek-jumping, tree-ducking scramble. At about 4 miles, there's an intersecting canyon on the left where I read there was another large falls. I hiked up several hundred yards without seeing it before deciding it would have to come after I found the main falls.

Because of the trail-free exertion, this is a strenuous hike—definitely not for the unfit (or the unprepared). The summer heat can be deadly, so access to clean drinking water is a serious consideration. Be careful to watch for ticks and poison oak

But the rock formations are awesome, and the payoff of a big waterfall around the next canyon wall spurs you on.
Matilija Falls via Matilija Canyon Rd.June 28, 2008
Elevation gain:Little to none
Distance: 5-6 miles one way
Duration: 4 hours one way
Difficulty: Strenuous
Water availability: Matilija Creek flows year round.

Directions / Permits / Links
From LA, the easy way to get here is the 101 freeway north to Hwy. 33 to Ojai.

My favorite is the scenic route through Moorpark, Grimes Canyon and Santa Paula. From the San Fernando valley in LA, get on the 118 west for 10-12 mi. to Moorpark and exit westbound on Los Angeles Ave. T/R on Moorpark Ave. / Hwy 23, which is the 3rd or 4th light. Follow Hwy. 23 10-15 miles, through a sharp left and a sharp right through the orchards, then down into amazing Grimes Canyon and into Fillmore. T/L on Hwy. 126/W. Ventura St. and follow it 10 mi. or so to Santa Paula. Exit Hwy. 150 and through town, stay right at light. Stay on 150 / Santa Paula Ojai Rd. 15-20 mi. or so into Ojai. (Outside Santa Paula, note dirt parking lot across from the entrance to St. Thomas Aquinas college. Park here to hike to the amazing Santa Paula Punchbowl.)

A mile or two beyond downtown Ojai, T/R on Hwy. 33 N. Go about 5 miles, passing Matilija Rd. S, and T/L Matilija Canyon Rd., a steep road that angles up to the left. (There was a road closed sign both times I was there, apparently leftover from some long finished road work, but there was no construction, no emergency it's not closed. Matilija Canyon rd. winds along Matilija Creek and ends after 5 miles or so at a gate where there is a gravel parking lot. This gated road is private property but the USFS has easement rights. It constitutes the trailhead, although there is no sign.
You don't need a wilderness permit to overnight in the Los Padres NF, but you are required to carry a free campfire permit, should you want a fire.

Parking at the dirt lot is free and you don't need an Adventure Pass to park here according to the Ranger Station in Ojai. Leave nothing that looks valuable visable in your vehicle.
US Forest Service, Manages Los Padres National Forest
Ojai Ranger District, 1190 E. Ojai Ave. Ojai, CA 93023 (805) 646-4348
NOAA Weather National Weather Service forecast for Ojai


The trail starts at the end of Matilija Road. The first mile goes through a private nature reserve and then a ranch.

If you didn't have advance knowledge of a Forest Service easement through this private ranch, going through this gate would appear to be trespassing

The fruit ranch has a nice stone fence.

Giant flat rock tilts into the creek

The first of many shady and primitive campsites with companion swimming hole.

Unique small boulder embedded in giant boulder

1.5 miles in. Looking back to where I just came. Hikers in center.

Lots of layered rock formations, like stairsteps.

Saw these people under this giant boulder

They had this sweet 10 ft. deep, crystal clear swimming hole all to themselves.

Some of the rock formations look man-made.

This wild tilting rock was very slippery. Why serious hikers wear boots, not tennis shoes.

Natural 40 ft. water slide

Waterfalls around every turn.

Noted this nice swim hole for the return trip. A couple of guys are on the path ahead of me.

Looking back from above, standing on the boulder in previous pic. You can see a little rock cairn I stacked up where I was standing.

Brightly colored plants.

High up in the distance, a giant white rock mountain is in view throughout the hike up.

Another nice creekside camp getting some use. Way up here is the domain of serious hikers only, so you like to think you don't have to worry about thieves. People leave their stuff and go hiking.

One of many rushing waterfalls

Dramatic geology everywhere.

As you get closer to the main falls, the canyon walls become steeper and more forboding. See the trail? There isn't one.

Looking down to where I'd just come. Two women—one cute, the other bearded and sexually ambiguous—had made it all the way up here carrying a little dog! It was probably their campsite I'd passed. They said the main falls was still to come. Encouraged, I pressed on.

Almost five hot, miles up, this second stream joined the main one. Apparently theres another big waterfall that way. I went a little ways up, but it was hot, I was beat and just wanted to get to the main one.

Finally, the main falls. This view is accessed only by some dedicated scrambling. If you look closely, you can see two ropes (on the right) which get you up to see the upper falls. Seemed a little crazy to climb up there, but the two guys ahead of me were coming down when I arrived.

The water carved out a pool, then flows down into the larger one. This isn't a built up swimming area— theres really no dry place to sit and gaze at the falls because the canyon walls are so steep. You can only stand on a tiny spit covered in growth, or jump in!
Much relieved that morons hadn't spray painted the place. Wish I had a better view.

One of the guys who came down was pretty shaken up from the height because he was so dehydrated and weak, so I shared some of my water. I didn't come all this way to miss the upper falls, so I got them to snap a "final" pic before I hit the ropes.

Looking down from atop the second rope—not a place to lose your nerve! You can see how limited the viewing area is. Everyone is kind of forced into a small place in the middle of the stream to get the full view. This probably changes every rainy season.

Another 30 yards above the second rope, after a death defying cliff-edge clambor, the upper falls came into view like Shangri-La. This is as close as you can come without rock-climbing equipment, apparently. You can't tell, but it's a long ways down from where I'm standing. Risked my neck for this shot—hope you like it!

When I came down, the guys had left and the women had jumped in. They're trying to figure out how to get into the upper pool.

For lunch and a swim, decided to hit this pool I'd passed hours ago and let the lesbians enjoy the falls to themselves. The 2.5 rock-jumping, trail-free miles getting back to here was the hardest part of the hike because it was hot and the water was almost gone.

Finally, after six + hours hiking out and back, the perfect swim hole—a nice waterfall, a deep pool with cold clear water, only an hour from the trailhead and the car. Heaven.

After a long relaxing swim and break, time to head home through the beautiful Matilija valley. Lots of bunnies hopping about.

At the ranch again, made friends with a giant tabby cat eating something it had killed. Another mile and I'd be back at the car—seven + hours out, tired, sweaty and happy.

See my Matilija Creek overnight hike for more Matilija pictures

Since Jan.09