Sometime this month, two zoo-bred California condors will be released by the Condor Recovery Team into the rugged Los Padres National Forest back country above Ojai. Thus, the lucky hiker may soon get a glimpse of North America's largest and rarest bird.
In part to protect the condor's habitat, legislation was recently introduced in Congress to create the Chumash and Sespe wilderness areas, as well as to give added protection to the Sespe River and to Piru Creek. Exact boundaries of the new wilderness areas will be debated during the political process, but conservationists are optimistic about the chances for passage of the Condor Range and Rivers Act.
Even without the condors, there is much to see in condor country: deep gorges, oak-dotted potreros and sandstone rock formations that scrape the sky.
For the hiker, one of the most intriguing routes through condor country is via the Pothole Trail. The path climbs to the Pothole, a natural sink of lush grassland surrounded by willows and cottonwoods. (Bring your camera or sketch pad.) A second path, Agua Blanca Trail, takes you through a dramatic rock passageway known as Devils Gate and allows you to make a long loop trip.
The two trails add up to a long day hike, suitable for experienced hikers. Both trails are in rough-to-mediocre condition. They're passable, but it's a good idea to wear long pants because lots of brush and poison oak crowd the way.
Directions to trail head: From Interstate 5 to Castaic Junction, head west on Highway 126 about 11 miles to the turnoff for Lake Piru. Travel north on the road, which is called Main Street as it leads through citrus orchards and the hamlet of Piru. In seven miles you'll encounter an entrance kiosk for the Lake Piru Recreation Area. Tell the attendant that you're bound for Blue Point Campground, not the lake, and you'll receive a National Forest Service day-use permit.
Five more miles up the road, you'll see the signed Pothole Trail on your left. Parking is scarce nearby. Instead, continue 1 1/4 miles past the trail head to Blue Point Campground. Park in the campground if the water in Piru Creek is high, or across the creek in a day-use lot. The Forest Service charges a day-use fee. The only problem with parking across the creek is that you must then wade the creek to begin the hike. Fill your canteen at the campground.
The hike: From the campground, walk the shoulder of the paved road, enjoying good views of Lake Piru. A mile and a quarter of road walking brings you back to Pothole Trail on your right.
Pothole Trail takes you on a most strenuous ascent up an overgrazed hillside choked with mustard and thistle. Some reward for the pain and gain are memorable views of nearby sandstone outcroppings, and of the bluish rock called Blue Point. Also part of the panorama is a look down at Agua Blanca Canyon and the Devils Gateway. That broad-shouldered peak to the northwest is Cobblestone Mountain.
Also compensating for the killer climb is a flower show (in the spring, anyway). During good wildflower years, you'll wade waist-deep through bush poppy, phacelia and Mariposa lily.
The wicked ascent (1,800 feet in slightly more than two miles) brings you huffing and puffing toward a few isolated ridge-top walnut trees and to a hilltop crowned with a wildlife guzzler--a kind of trough. Pause to catch your breath and ready yourself for the final uphill assault.
Pothole Trail dips briefly, then climbs along a ridgeline in earnest. Just before cresting the hill, the path veers right (north), mercifully beginning several miles of descent. Stands of manzanita and thick chaparral crowd the trail, which zigzags down a steep slope.
After losing a thousand feet in elevation, you'll spot a wide potrero (grassland) to the west. The trail heads south, then west. Skirting Devils Potrero, Pothole Trail turns north, but you want to look carefully for the thin, overgrown trail (marked by a single metal stake) leading a short quarter-mile south to the Pothole. A natural depression or "sag pond" created by the nearby Agua Blanca earthquake fault, the grassy Pothole is bordered by cottonwoods and willows.
In 1890, William Whitaker homesteaded there. He had a small cattle operation and grew feed for his livestock on the potrero.
Back on overgrown Pothole Trail, you plunge into a ravine, passing Whitaker's abandoned cabin with its rusty farm implements out back. Whitaker disassembled the harvesting and baling equipment in the flatlands below and packed it up here with his mules.
Under the shade of oaks and big cone spruce, you'll cross and re-cross a fern-lined creek, dodge a lot of poison oak and finally descend to Agua Blanca Creek.
Here you have a decision to make: If your spirit of adventure is high enough and the water in the creek low enough, you can wade down-creek through Devils Gateway. The high rock walls of the Gateway squeeze the creek through a 20-foot-wide passageway; water is likely to be waist-deep or higher during winter and spring months. You'll pick up the trail again on the other side of the gateway.
The trail itself heads up-creek a short ways to a signed junction. Log Cabin Camp is 200 yards farther along the creek-side trail. Your route, Blanca Trail, detours half a mile around Devils Gateway, first ascending then descending the canyon wall. Use caution on the descent along a couple of eroded stretches of trail.
The trail descends moderately, mostly along the shaded south side of the canyon. Crossing Agua Blanca Creek a couple of times, the path brings you near tempting swimming holes.
The creek flow lessens near the mouth of the canyon. Agua Blanca Trail gives way to a dirt road, you pass a few dilapidated buildings (private property), then reach a junction. The dirt road to the left leads north along Piru Creek. You continue more or less straight, contouring around a little hill and descending to Piru Creek. Cross the creek (usually about knee-deep) and follow the dirt road a mile to the Forest Service day-use area and Blue Point Campground.
Los Padres National Forest. Pothole Trail, Agua Blanca Trail Where: Backcountry above Lake Piru, near the Los Angeles / Ventura County line. Distance: 11 1/2 miles round trip, with 2,200-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Steep, chaparrel-covered ridges. Highlights: The Pothole, a natural sink; dramatic rock formations, pleasant swimming holes. Degree of difficulty: Strenuous. For more information: Contact the Ojai District, Los Padres National Forest, at (805) 646-4348.