Santa Paula Creek Punch Bowl and water slides Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County July 3, 2008
One of the most awesome swimming holes in southern California


Santa Paula Creek canyon is a must-do hike if you love deep wilderness canyons, unusual rock formations and waterfalls. Santa Paula creek Punch Bowl is arguably one of the most awesome swimming holes in southern California. Rushing down from 6000 ft. Los Padres mountains, the creek has cut deep gorges through sandstone canyons, pouring over cliffs, carving out fine natural swimming pools, gorges and water slides.

Punch Bowl or Punchbowl?
There is some confusion about which area of Santa Paula canyon is actually "the Punch Bowl". Punchbowl is a common term for any deep waterfall-carved pool. Some believe the Santa Paula Creek Punch Bowl is the first deep waterfall swim hole approximately 3.5 miles up the canyon from Thomas Aquinas college, and just below Big Cone Camp. Many refer to this series of gorges and deep pools as Santa Paula Canyon Falls or the Punch Bowls at Santa Paula Canyon Falls. Google maps shows the Punch Bowl moniker attached to a spot another mile northeast up the trail. The trail itself is often referred to as simply the Santa Paula Creek trail. The US Forest Service calls it Last Chance Trail on their website, while Google maps calls it E. Fork Trail. Even the name is ambiguous, spelled correctly as punch bowl or punchbowl. As I discover more of this area, and get more clarification from official sources, I'll update this page. For the sake of this hike description, I'll refer to this first large waterfall carved swim hole as the Santa Paula Creek Punch Bowl.

It's certainly an awesome punch bowl waterfall, whatever name it goes by. Some damming of the creek has help to create a large and deep swim hole, surrounded by rock ledges of various heights you can jump from or picnic on. This is a popular destination among locals and students during hot summer weekends, but you can have the place to yourself if you arrive early or hike weekdays. Despite the tradition of leaving trash and spray painting the rocks that some morons still maintain, the Punch Bowl is still an awesome natural wonder.

Don't go unprepared
The hike in can be a tough one. You will see it in the reddened faces of the inexperienced, struggling first-timers who under-estimated what they were getting themselves or their party in to. It's difficult to locate a trail after a major flood in 2005, and part of the hike is exposed scrambling over large boulders in the hot sun. Don't count on a quick rescue by calling 911 out here, if you can even get reception in the deep canyon. This is a desert mountain wilderness and it's possible to encounter rattlers, kingsnakes and scorpions. Deer, coyotes, bears and even mountain lions live in the surrounding Los Padres mountains.
Sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and hiking shoes are essential - there are slippery boulders to climb and steep loose dirt sections. Plan on bringing (or purifying - creek water may contain giardia lamblia) 3 liters of water per person in the summer. Study my map and directions to get to the high trail, which begins after a creek crossing after a couple of miles. The high trail is a well-trodden footpath on the canyon rim and much of it is in the shade. Chances are, you' ll miss it and hike the entire distance up the stream bed in the sun, increasing your risk for heatstroke.

There are other risks that foresight and respect for nature can mitigate. You should be in good shape. This hike is not recommended for children, seniors or the unfit. Watch for poison oak and check for ticks. Sandstone cliffs are dangerous. A Thomas Aquinas student died after she slipped off a cliff here in 1997. In the rainy season, narrow,.high-walled canyons like Santa Paula can become raging flood zones in a matter of minutes, washing trees and boulders downstream, trapping the unwary with no way out.

Thrill seekers clambor up the cliffs and leap from death defying heights into this relatively shallow pool (max. 10 ft. deep). I'd suggest that you never dive headfirst into punch bowls unless a broken neck is your goal. Be aware that rocks tumble over waterfalls regularly - it's dangerous to stand in one.

Second visit(Read my first trip report here)
This was an all day discovery adventure with little sis Lydia, visiting from Maryland, and LA cousin David. After an hour drive up from LA,
Special thanks to cousin Buck for his superhuman effort helping me haul out 2 giant bags of trash...
we set out at 11:30 in parching 90 degree temperatures, got back about 7 hours later. Once again, I missed the easier high trail, even though I was looking carefully for it, and we ended up canyoneering the entire second half. In hindsight, it was the creek crossing in the wide flood plain area that tripped me up. On this trip, in addition to the Punch Bowl, we hiked up to the deep gorge above the falls and some great natural water slides another mile beyond. Special thanks to cousin Buck for his superhuman effort helping me haul out 2 giant bags of trash I cleaned up from the swim hole for two and a half hours back out of the canyon over rocks and creeks.

The movies are uncompressed avi's straight out of the camera and you may have trouble seeing them on a Mac. I'm (still) planning on learning how to edit and compress video for web so check back later for better versions and additional videos .

Trail / Conditions / Maps / Stats

The trailhead starts at the end of a paved road around the east/right side of Thomas Aquinas College, past some houses and an avocado farm - about 1 mile.

From the parking lot on the south side of Hwy. 150, go over the bridge to the school, and right at the first paved road. Look for "hiking trail" signs through the campus. Follow the road to the left around a drainage pond and skirt the campus. Veer right at a Y and up the road through a fence, following the sign. Go past houses and stay right at a Y, then and left at the chainlink fence around 2 oil derricks. Cross a stream and where the road ends at a chainlink fence, the trail is down to the right.

The footpath is relatively easy to follow the first mile through the woods, then becomes a boulder-strewn creek bed. There is a beaten path somewhere most of the way to the waterfalls as this is a popular hike for students and locals. Unfortunately, the rocky terrain makes it difficult to find the trail and it's quicker and easier to scramble, boulder hop and trail blaze your own path. Look for tagged rocks and footprints. After about 1.5 - 2 miles along the north bank, there's a creek crossing.

The creek is a wide, mostly dry floodplain for the next 1.5 miles, with berms, trees and brush that block sight of the far side. In places, the flood plain is 1/8 mi. wide, and Santa Paula creek splits into half a dozen tributaries. It can be difficult to navigate, so you'll do better if you can stay on-trail and locate the high path.

You must cross the entire width of the flood plain (not just the creek) and gain the footpath on the south side to access the high trail.This crossing is where most people lose the path, failing to cross to the far south side of the flood plain, and end up boulder hopping the last 1.5 miles.

map to Santa Paula Creek punchbowl
Trail map to Santa Paula Creek punchbowl
Once on the south bank footpath, the trail detours from the creek bank up a hill to avoid a deep section. Back down on the creek again, it winds beside the cliff of a large boulder formation. 100 yards beyond this boulder, the high trail begins going southwest up the mountain. The path up can be difficult to spot if you're not looking for it, as it goes up the mountain southwest (seemingly in the opposite direction of your travel, at first). Look over your right shoulder a lot and you'll see it. Shortly, it turns and follows the canyon rim through the woods to the punch bowl. At one point it crosses a washed out gully where there is slippery footing on loose dirt. Along the way are several cutoff/shortcut trails - just stay on the big trail. Past the Big Cone campsite, you'll be able to get the first glimpse of the Punchbowl canyon as the trail drops steeply to the creek. At the creek, you'll hear the waterfall. Turn left/downstream and then climb up some boulders on the right.

The high trail will save you a lot of energy if you can find it. It's easier to find on the return trip if you follow these directions. If you miss this high trail, it's a lot more challenging to climb around some boulders in a narrow part of the canyon, but there are nice cascades, pools and rock formations along the creek to admire too.

A wide-brimmed hat, sun screen and hiking shoes are essential. Pack 3 liters of water per person in the summer (or bring a filter) and drink it. Be prepared for emergencies like twisting an ankle or heatstroke.
Santa Paula Creek Punch Bowl via Thomas Aquinas College trailJuly 3, 2008
Elevation gain:Less than 500 ft.
Distance: 3-4 miles one way
Duration: 1.5 - 2 hours one way
Difficulty: Challenging because of the heat and navigation
Water availability: Santa Paula Creek flows year round, treat water

Directions / Permits / Links
You could take I-5 north to Hwy. 126 west out of Santa Clarita to Santa Paula, but I recommend the scenic route through Grimes Canyon.

From the San Fernando valley in LA, get on Hwy. 118 west for 15 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 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, T/R bottom of ramp, which is 10th St./Hwy. 150. Go straight through the light, and beyond downtown, stay right at fork/light. Stay on 150 / Santa Paula Ojai Rd. 5 mi. or so to Thomas Aquinas college. Free parking in dirt lot across from entrance.
Leave nothing that looks valuable visable in your vehicle.

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.


Ready for an afternoon of canyoneering.

The first 45 minutes is by path. Then it's a lot of boulder climbing, creek-crossing and trail-blazing.

Lyd shows rock clamboring technique.

We arrive at the Punch Bowl and have the place all to ourselves.

Water was icy cold—the perfect remedy for hot hiking.


That water is cold. But refreshing.

After a swim and lunch, we trekked around and above the falls. That's 70-80 feet down!

The gorge and pool above the falls is another amazing geologic wonder. A deep, clear swimming hole can be accessed by a life-risking descent by frayed rope, visable in background.

A lunar landscape with cascading water slides.

Lyd wasted no time breaking in the slides for us.

After a long and challenging hike into the wilderness, this place is much more special.

Choose one, scorpion, or snake. Gorge above the Punch Bowl

Don't think she's just a girly girl—you've gotta be tough to hike up here.

Another short hike up gets you to a second water slide.

Demonstrating creek crossing techniques...

Reconnecting with civilization after a strenuous but exhilirating all-day wilderness trek.

Videos. These are MPEG-4 avi's

Lyd goes big (3.2 mgs.)

Buck gets record splash
(5.1 mgs.

mystery falls (.mov)

Buck and me show Olympic style (4.4 mgs.)

The gorge above the falls
(8.7 mgs.)

Since Jan09