Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Greenhorn Trailblazer

Img14.pngThe Ventura River-Rancho El Nido Preserve boasts miles of well-maintained trails weaving through its 1,590 acres of protected open space in the Ojai Valley.

I recently took a four-mile trek on one of the preserve’s trails reserved for guided hikes only.  I’m a bit of a novice to this hiking business, having only treaded lightly on the valley’s more popular trails including the Pratt Trail and
Shelf Road
.  Since those jaunts yielded a fit of hay fever and gigantic heel blisters instead of the spiritual oneness with the land I had heard so much about, I sought to better prepare myself for this one.  I had new hiking shoes, which normally is a sure-fire way to get a blister, but I wore them to work the week before to break them in (not exactly high-fashion office attire, by the way).  I also took a Claritin before venturing out into the pollen-ridden wilds.  So with my fanny-pack chock full of band aids, water and a camera, I met up with Rich Handley at the Riverview Trailhead just off
Rice Road

Rich is the Preserve Manager for the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC), the nonprofit which owns and manages the property.  Through a grant with the Coastal Conservancy and generous member donations, the OVLC acquired this land in June of 2003.  Rich and others affiliated with the OVLC have started conducting a series of free guided hikes on the property, providing access to areas you normally can’t get to without an OVLC guide.  Hikes focusing on plant and bird life are also offered on a regular basis, and self-guided enthusiasts atop four legs or two wheels will also find excellent trails.  Dogs are welcome, too, as long as they are on a leash…with an owner at the other end. 

On this particular hike, we had only one other participant, so we were afforded a personalized experience at our own pace.  Rich drove us over to the start of the Oso Ridge Trail, which begins on an easement bordering the private residential neighborhood of Rancho Matilija and abuts the Los Padres National Forest.  As we began our ascent, I quickly discovered what is meant by, “moderate to strenuous elevation gain,” as was described on the website.  Fortunately, I had gotten back to the gym after the holidays and the lung capacity was holding strong, for the moment.

The trail was cut wide enough for the three of us to comfortably walk side-by-side over firm soil and sandstone (sturdy hiking shoes are recommended).  Many of the trails had already been cut as firebreaks years ago, and the OVLC employs a local organization, C.R.E.W. - an environmentally oriented nonprofit that provides paid opportunities to disadvantaged teens - to keep the chaparral at bay.  

Shortly after we began our uphill trek, a coyote darted out in front of us, his winter coat still full and thick, trotting along the trail while keeping us in his sights before ducking back into the chaparral.  Throughout the hike, Rich pointed out further evidence of wildlife; we saw tracks left by deer and fox, as well as piles of feathers strewn about for several yards – apparently one of these critters had their breakfast already!  I held my breath and asked about mountain lion sightings and Rich told us that although there were sightings last year near the river bottom when the trail first opened, none were exhibiting threatening signs.  Nonetheless, this is one of many reasons hikers should bring a partner.

We came to a crest and Rich gestured to an abundance of black and purple sage, as well as a lupine that just came into bloom.  He told us that next month, the preserve will be blanketed with a beautiful display of wildflowers (hello Claritin), but we could already see colorful blossoms dotting the landscape.

We finally arrived at the highpoint, 1,320 feet, and all of the huffing and puffing was suddenly worth it.  Surrounded by spectacular vistas on all sides, our reward for “strenuous elevation gain” presented itself in stunning fashion.  We took in sights of the Ventura River with rarely seen water flowing through it from the recent storms, verdant meadows and the Topa Topa Mountains.  We then looped into the Chaparral Crest Trail and began our steady descent.

As we neared the end of our journey, Rich snuck us off the path and into the direction of the sound of running water.  The preserve has six year-round springs and we found our way over to one of them.  Rich deftly maneuvered the bank of river rocks, then turned to watch me crab-crawl my way down with less than stealth agility.  I stood up and found myself in a hidden sanctuary with a small waterfall trickling down into a 4 foot pool of clear, cool, pure spring water with a canopy of lush plant life encircling us overhead.  On a hot summer day, this would indeed be a welcomed oasis.

Two hours after we began our brief expedition, Rich dropped me back at my car (sans blisters I’m proud to say) and showed me a map of the preserve’s trail systems.  It seems that our four-miler barely put a dent into all of the miles of charted trails meandering through the property and available for public use.  Suddenly I had quite a to-do list in mind, which will keep me trekking for several more months to come. 

For more information on the OVLC or to find out about their guided hikes, check-out their website at for dates, times and reservation information.

As published in the Sierra Club's Condor Call, April, 2005.