Weekend Escape: Ojai : Gorgeous Gorge : The sylvan delights of Wheeler Gorge reel in the kids and adults, but the rainbows prove elusive

"We're going camping next weekend," I told my 5-year-old daughter. "But you know what? You won't be able to take a bath and you might get dirty."

"No bath? GREAT!" Laura shrieked, running off to tell her 2-year-old brother.

That was our first clue that this camping trip was going to be different. Our last such outing was to a beach site with all the amenities: hot water, showers, flush toilets. But my husband and I wanted to go to a mountain campground this time, one nearby, and we'd heard that Wheeler Gorge, 8 1/2 miles north of Ojai, was all of that, plus scenic. Besides, Matilija Creek (pronounced ma-TILL-a-ha) runs through the campground, and I'd read in my camping guide that it offered fair trout fishing. Laura had been begging her dad to take her "fly fishing" ever since he told her a bedtime story of a once-in-a-lifetime guided fishing trip on a northern Michigan stream thick with rainbows.


We set off Saturday morning on the pleasant 90-mile drive to the campground, past the dramatic red rock outcrops of the western San Fernando Valley and through Ventura orchards and fields. Heading north and west to Ojai--after a short, steep climb over sandstone ridges, through tiny downtown Santa Paula and along winding two-lane highways--we stopped for lunch at Casa de Lagos on Foothill Avenue, Ojai's main drag, filling up on Mexican food on a sunny patio where the kids could squirm and play.

Just north of Ojai we entered Los Padres National Forest on the Maricopa Highway, a two-lane road that follows the north fork of Matilija Creek. A drive through three short tunnels brought us abruptly to the gorge, a stunning vista of sheer gray shale rising above both sides of the creek.

Minutes later, we arrived at Wheeler Gorge Campground. It was before the 2 p.m. check-in time, but the white-bearded resident park ranger was able to assign us a double campsite next to the creek.

It was ideal, a wide, flat area where two tents could be pitched 50 feet apart under a canopy of live oak and sycamore trees. There was a pit toilet nearby, shaded by trees, and a water faucet by the road. Trees between campsites provided privacy and muffled the sound of our neighbors.

"C'mon, Mom, let's put our feet in!" Laura said, but I was dubious. The rushing creek, 10 feet wide and knee-deep at most, was lovely under a thick overhang of trees, but the water looked cold. Laura, whose passion for all forms of water is undimmed by practical concerns, plunged in, and soon I was barefoot too, holding Timmy's hand as we stepped among the rocks and shallow pools. The water was not as cold as it looked, and we spent 40 minutes climbing onto boulders, looking at water bugs and dropping rocks into the creek. A great blue heron glided near the far bank and a Steller's jay chattered from an oak tree.

Rick and I pitched the tent and unloaded cooking gear, then he set up the fishing pole for his first fatherly attempt at teaching Laura how to fish. Though it was the right season, this creek, it turned out, hadn't been stocked for two weeks.

Rick and the kids came back troutless, so we started making dinner with what we'd brought in a cooler. Rick modified a Jane Brody recipe to create a chicken and couscous dinner with green beans. We polished that off, then collected enough downed wood for a campfire.

A blazing campfire was a novelty for us because they're usually banned in the backcountry areas where we've camped in the past. But it was just right for this occasion: a chilly evening and children who needed to be entertained.

After a few rounds of campfire songs, we tucked the kids into their sleeping bags, and went back to the fire until it died. Besides the crackle of the fire, the only sound was the rushing creek, which now glowed in the light of the full moon.

Wheeler Gorge has 68 tent sites on 15 acres. All have picnic tables and a campfire ring and are near water faucets and toilets. The campground also has 15 brand-new wheelchair-accessible pit toilets, spiffy-looking with their redwood siding. These state-of-the-art privies use solar heating to draw fumes out of the tank, and they're insulated to keep from becoming steam baths in the summer. The forest service, which is upgrading its most popular recreation areas as budgets allow, has spent $300,000 on improvements at Wheeler Gorge over the past two years.

And Wheeler Gorge is popular. Though we had no problem making reservations two weeks before Mother's Day weekend, the campground was full when we were there--as it virtually always is, we were told, every weekend between Memorial and Labor days.

After Labor Day, according to Ojai Ranger District recreation officer Charlie Robinson, the crowds dwindle during the week but continue to fill the campground on weekends until the winter rains arrive. In the fall, the sycamore leaves turn a dusty yellow and the deep green of the live oaks contrasts sharply with the golden hillsides.

One glitch during our visit: The campground's water had failed its monthly test for water quality, with levels of coliform bacteria exceeding state limits. A notice posted at the camp ranger station advised campers to boil any drinking water first, a real inconvenience when camping with children. (Robinson said the water contamination in May was "very rare" and that the campground has passed every test since June.) That morning, breakfast was pancakes from a mix cooked on our backpacking stove. Then we cleaned up and packed up.

We decided to take one more stab at catching a fish, and to increase our chances, we made a five-mile detour to Lake Casitas, a huge man-made reservoir with 480 campsites and a camp store, rental boats, bait shop, hot showers and playgrounds.

Lake Casitas is stocked with record-setting bass, catfish and trout, and we had to catch something here, we figured. We stopped at the bait shop for night crawlers and advice; then, armed with a cup of wiggling worms, we tried again.

And were unsuccessful again.

But the sun had finally burned off the morning's thick clouds, and we spent a lazy couple of hours taking turns casting into the lake and watching water birds--including a tiny redwing blackbird that was harassing a great blue heron a dozen times its size--among the reeds near shore before deciding to head home.


Budget for Four

Lunch, Casa de Lagos, Ojai: $20.00

Camp fees, one night: 19.50

Groceries: 15.00

Gas: 11.60

Fishing license, 2 days: 16.00

Car entry fee, Lake Casitas: 5.00

Snacks, Lake Casitas: 4.00

Dinner, Millie's, Simi Valley: 27.00

FINAL TAB: $118.10

For campground reservations, tel. (800) 280-CAMP . For information about water quality, fishing, hiking, etc., call the Ojai Ranger District, tel. (805) 646-4348 or the park ranger, tel. (805) 646-3428.

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