A Mystical, Magical Air Fills Ojai Valley

<i> John McKinney is the author of hiking books and a regular contributor to The Times</i>

Ojai, nestled in a little valley backed by the Topatopa and Sulphur mountains, has meant tranquility to several generations of settlers and citrus growers, artists, musicians and mystics. In 1937, Ojai Valley was the setting for Shangri-La in the movie “Lost Horizon.”

The 10-mile-long, 3-mile-wide valley, surrounded by coastal mountain ranges, has always had a sequestered feeling. Chumash Indians named this region ojai, which means “nest.” The meditative setting has spawned an artists colony, a music festival and a number of health resorts. The environment has also attracted the metaphysically minded--hikers can look down on the Krotona Institute of Theosophy on one side of town and the Krishnamurti Foundation on the other.

Ancient geologic forces shaped the Ojai Valley that modern-day visitors find so attractive. This part of Ventura County lies in a region geologists call the Transverse Range Province. Transverse means “lying across,” and the mountains and valleys in these parts have been moved by seismic and other forces out of California’s usual north-south orientation into an east-west configuration.


This east-west positioning means lots of sunshine, with early morning light and long, lingering sunsets. Southern California locales with a southern exposure--Ojai, Malibu, Santa Barbara--often seem bathed in a magical light that is most bewitching.

Foothill Trail offers the best view of the town and valley. From the path, hikers get great views of the harmonious Spanish architecture of Ojai, sweet-smelling citrus groves and the sometimes misty, sometimes mystical Ojai Valley.

Directions to trailhead: From the intersection of Highway 150 and Highway 33, head east on the latter route one mile to North Signal Street in downtown Ojai. The post office and the Oaks resort are on this corner. Turn north on North Signal and drive 3/4 mile to a junction with an unsigned road on your left. A large water tower and a chain-link fence are at this junction. Park along Signal.

The hike: Take a look up North Signal, which ends in another 100 yards at its meeting with Shelf Road, the dirt fire road that will be your return route. Now turn west on the paved road below the water tank. The road soon turns to gravel, and you’ll march past the Ventura County flood control works, the Stewart Canyon Debris Basin. Two hundred yards from the trailhead, just as your road turns north toward some residences, you’ll spot a white pipe fence and a Forest Service trail sign. Join the trail, which soon dips into brushy Stewart Canyon.

The trail zigzags under oaks and a tangle of native and non-native shrubs. You’ll cross two dirt roads then wind through a eucalyptus grove, which marks the site of the elegant Foothill Hotel, a casualty of fire just after the turn of the century.

Foothill Trail turns north and ascends along the west wall of Stewart Canyon. The trail nears some private homes, crosses a paved road, then joins a dirt one and passes a water tank on your left. Shortly thereafter is a signed trail on your left for Foothill Trail 22W09 and Pratt Trail 23W09. Continue another 100 yards on the dirt road to another signed junction with the Foothill Trail; this path you’ll take east. Foothill Trail ascends fire-scarred slopes and runs over meadowland seasonally dotted with wildflowers. Keep an eye out for abundant poison oak. Just as you’re beginning to wonder if this trail will ever deliver its promised views, it tops a rise and offers a first glimpse of Ojai Valley.


The trail soon descends to an unsigned junction. A connector trail leads north to Forest Road 5N11; this road heads east to Gridley Road but offers no valley views. Stay with Foothill Trail, which descends to a little seasonal creek, then climbs eastward out onto open slopes for great views of Ojai. From some vantage points you can see almost the whole Ojai Valley--Shangri-La indeed.

About half a mile from Gridley Road, you’ll spot dirt Shelf Road 200 yards or so below Foothill Trail. Experienced bushwhackers can blaze a trail down to the road, but think twice: It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth for the little time/distance saved.

Foothill Trail, near its end, descends more steeply, its route stabilized by railroad ties. The trail emerges at a crumbling asphalt road, which you’ll follow 50 yards to Gridley Road. Turn right on Gridley Road. Walk 100 yards, cross a one-lane bridge, then descend another 100 yards to Shelf Road on your right.

Shelf Road, closed to vehicle traffic by a white pipe gate, heads east and ascends moderately into the hills. Skirting orange trees and avocado groves, Shelf Road serves up views just a little less dramatic than those offered by the higher Foothill Trail. Just after the road bends south, you’ll reach a gate and Signal Road, which you’ll follow the short distance back to the trailhead.

Foothill Trail: Stewart Canyon to Gridley Road; Return via Shelf Road; 5 1/2 miles round trip; 600-foot elevation gain.