If you are accustomed to the usual dry, brown look of Ventura County's mountains, you're in for a surprise. The recent rains have turned the hills a lush green, and some wildflowers are blooming early.
For a sampling, hike the Gridley Trail near Ojai in Los Padres National Forest. The recent rains have left it relatively unscathed, and the popular three-mile trek to Gridley Springs is only a moderately steep climb. (Prepare for some muddy walking; any additional rain may worsen trail conditions. Check with the Ojai ranger station before heading out.)
The trail head is at the end of Gridley Road, just a short hop from downtown Ojai. The trail gets its name from Sam Gridley, who came to the Ojai Valley in 1876 and grew citrus and raisin grapes on his 200-acre ranch.
The first half-mile of the trail is the steepest and narrowest, with the heavy, brushy growth providing some shade. Then the trail joins a dirt fire road that passes avocado groves planted on the steep hillsides.
As the road climbs, you enter Gridley Canyon, with Gridley Creek rushing far below. In fact, you'll probably hear the pleasant sound of rushing water throughout most of the hike.
Bright green is everywhere--from the grass bordering the trail to the bushes and trees along the slope. Chances are good that you'll spot some prickly phlox with its purplish blossoms, scads of chaparral current with globs of pink blossoms or maybe some buttercups.
The trail is smooth and generally clear of rocks, except for one or two small slides that are fairly easy to scramble over. Across the deep valley, you'll see steep peaks, marked by layers of sedimentary rock--evidence of the powerful upthrust that formed these mountains.
The views of the Ojai Valley are spectacular. On clear days, you can see the ocean and Lake Casitas.
Just before you reach Gridley Springs, the trail--narrower at this point--passes through a wooded section that almost has a rain forest feel because of the recent wet weather. Bordering the trail are huge ferns, adding to the tropical feel.
As you approach Gridley Springs, the sound of water gets louder. Once there, you'll find a swift-running stream rushing down a steep ravine. Except for an old horse trough, not much remains of the old campsite in a cramped spot along the trail. There is a wood bench in the shade next to the water, making it a good place for lunch or a break before heading back.
If you want to continue up, the going gets tougher. You'll probably encounter streams and rockslides on the trail. A series of steeper switchbacks takes you to the top of Nordhoff Ridge, two miles from Gridley Springs, where the views are even more spectacular.
If you hike as far as Gridley Springs, expect company on the trail. Because it is less steep than other trails in the area, it draws a lot of hikers and mountain bikers, according to rangers. And now, with the mountains greener than ever, it's likely to be busier than ever.
The rains and warmer temperatures early in January have caused some flowers to bloom sooner than usual.
"They don't know what time it is," Ranger Terry Austin said. Other flowers that hikers might see include purple nightshade, sweet pea and bush poppy.
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is also getting a sprinkling of wildflowers earlier than usual. National Park Service Ranger Ken Low said he spotted several varieties recently at Rancho Sierra Vista Park in Newbury Park, including the white popcorn flower, milkmaid, wild radish, fiesta flower and Perry's phacelia.
"We're seeing them earlier," said Kathy Myers, naturalist with the Conejo Recreation and Park District's outdoor unit.
At Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks, the list of bloomers includes shooting stars, morning glories, bush sunflowers, cliff asters and wild cucumbers.
Although the best season for wildflowers is the spring, some of them bloom at other times, so there is usually something to see year-round.
The Conejo district's outdoor unit offers winter flower hikes in Wildwood Park. Led by naturalists, the two- to three-mile walks are scheduled from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday and March 12. Cost is $5 per car. Information: 494-8301.
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* WHAT: Hike the Gridley Trail to Gridley Springs in Los Padres National Forest. Hike is about six miles round trip.
* WHERE: Trail head is at the end of Gridley Road, off California 150, east of downtown Ojai.
* CALL: Before hiking, call the Ojai ranger station (646-4348) to check trail conditions. Some trails may be closed because of rain damage. The station, 1190 E. Ojai Ave., also has trail maps. Bring water; don't drink stream water. Before hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, check trail conditions with the National Park Service, (818) 597-9192.