Urijah Wence and his friends were among the sweaty few who reached Matilija Falls high in the mountains north of Ojai on a recent hike. All four said the reward for the two-hour, boulder-hopping ascent was worth the effort.
"You can't tarnish this place," said the 26-year-old Ventura student, cooling himself under the first of several waterfalls. "You slide in the water and it's so refreshing."
For decades, hikers, hunters and fishermen have made the same trek up Matilija Creek, drawn by its pristine swimming holes and, near the top, a series of cascading, year-round falls. But a private landowner is seeking to change that custom.
For more than a year, Shull "Buzz" Bonsall Jr. has been approaching trail users and shooing them off the acreage owned by his family's trust. The falls are on public property but roughly two-thirds of the trail to reach them is on Bonsall's land straddling Matilija Creek.
Earlier this year, he informed the U.S. Forest Service that he no longer wants the public traversing his property.
In April, the Ojai Ranger District issued a statement warning hikers that they are trespassing when they use the trail. Though no citations have been issued, the ranger district agreed to post signs in coming months warning the public that people can't enter the property without Bonsall's permission. Bonsall says he will erect his own signs.
Bonsall, whose father built a real estate empire stretching from Monterey to San Diego, declined to comment. But he told the Ventura County Star that his family is concerned about litter, illegal camping and hikers getting hurt on the property.
"I'm not trusting the public for the stewardship of our land," he told the newspaper. "It's our property and our responsibility."
Local conservationists have swung into action, forming Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open, a group intent on preserving public access to the falls. Organizers say they hope to meet with Bonsall to address his concerns.
Their goal is a deeded easement to ensure the public's continued access to the trail, but with restrictions on camping or wandering onto other parts of the Bonsall acreage, said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch, a coalition member.
But if they are unable to reach agreement, the citizen's group is prepared to file suit, Kuyper said. The public has used the trail continuously for more than a century, creating a "prescriptive" right to continued access, he said.
A Ventura attorney who stepped forward to help Keep Access agrees. William Slaughter said he argued a similar case in Ojai a few years ago and won the public's right to access the popular Gridley Trail in perpetuity.
Slaughter believes Bonsall is intent on making his family's property more valuable by establishing an exclusive right to access. But the attorney said Bonsall will have a hard time overcoming legal precedents.
Under law, "we are required to prove there's been five or more years of continuous public access predating 1972," Slaughter said. "We can prove the public's been using it continuously well over that."
Robert Evans, 58, remembers climbing the canyon many summers in his youth, swimming in the stream-fed pools along the way. "We'd bring a frying pan and stay the weekend," Evans said.
Now he arranges guided hikes throughout Los Padres National Forest, advertising the treks on his website. Matilija Falls is a favorite "no wimps" climb, he said. He's seen little litter in his many years and virtually no graffiti, Evans said.
"People are respectful," he said.
Melissa Kirkegaard said she's been taking her two daughters on the trail for years and her oldest decided to celebrate her 15th birthday with a hike to the falls.
"She wanted to show her friends that rock waterfalls and swimming pools don't just exist at fancy hotels," Kirkegaard said. "Those pools are just copies of what exists in the public's backyard."
Ojai Ranger John Bridgewater said the U.S. Forest Service does not officially recognize the trail. Bonsall has owned the property since 1979 and posted many "No Trespassing" signs over the years, Bridgewater said. But they are always vandalized or torn down.
There's no other practical route to Matilija Falls, he said, though the Forest Service might be interested in building one in the future. Talks with Bonsall about a possible land swap have so far gone nowhere.
"He has been cordial but he is not ready for that yet," Bridgewater said.
On a recent day, "No Trespassing" signs were not visible anywhere on Bonsall's portion of the route. But there were plenty of youngsters, teenagers and older folks headed onto the trail to fish, swim and hike. An adult shepherding a group of children near one swimming hole said he had been given permission to camp by Bonsall.
But most of the day trippers had no clue about the dispute.
"It just seems selfish to keep this to yourself," Wence said. "If anything, it should be made public lands."