Central Coast Hikes
Story and photos by Adam Nuñez
Finding harmony in Harmon Canyon Preserve
Follow the trails of the Harmon Canyon Preserve, and you’ll traverse over grassy hills and under knotted oak trees. You’ll pass fragrant sage plants and hear the skitter of wildlife through the thick brush. Bobcats, deer, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and badgers have been spotted here — along with human hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers, too.
Encompassing 2,100 acres, Harmon Canyon is Ventura’s first large-scale nature preserve. Its existence is due to the dedication and perseverance of the Ventura Land Trust, which opened the space in June 2020 after years of fundraising, mapping, and manual labor. More than 10 miles of trails have now been created throughout the preserve, thanks to the hard work of many volunteers. One of these volunteers is Michael McConnolly, a docent trail guide. He’s there almost every day enjoying the scenery and assisting visitors. If you see him on the trail, feel free to ask questions or get directions!
Upon starting at the main trailhead, you’ll see a large map presenting the lay of the land. Follow the wide dirt path northward for the most direct route through the preserve. This is large enough for a car, although no public vehicles are allowed. While hilly, the trail is not overly steep. Once you’ve hiked, biked, or jogged about 2.5 miles you’ll reach a three-way split: West Road (left), Harmon Canyon Road (straight), and Long Canyon Road (right). The first two will lead to some very steep climbs, but with exceptional views of the preserve. Long Canyon will lead you to the crème de la crème of views. It’s just over 1 mile of steepness, but well worth the effort. At the top, you’re rewarded with an iconic plaque reading, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” a lunch table, and a couple of benches to rest and soak up the views. Gaze upon the hills of Fillmore, the mountains of Los Padres National Forest, or a tranquil vista of the Pacific Ocean.
After reaching the top of Long Canyon, you can descend the same way you came up or travel down the single-track Ropersmith Family Trail. Although this trail allows for both hikers and mountain bikers, it’s easy to see that it was crafted with two wheels in mind. First, it is a one-way trail. You cannot hike or bike up — only down! Second, the sharp corners are banked with curved side walls, perfect for gliding down on a bike. It’s approximately 1 mile of blissfully fun downhill mountain biking. In fact, the Ventura Land Trust worked with the IMBA Trail Solutions, an international organization specializing in trail design and development, to create this exhilarating tail.
Back at the very start again, you can also choose to explore a few crisscrossing single-track trails closer to the main parking lot. While some trails are simply numbered (e.g. 102 and 105) others have names, like the Price Family Trail. These trails twist, turn, and undulate their way beneath the cool shade of oak trees and summit hills with striking views. You’ll see people of all ages exploring around here, since the trails are fairly accessible. They are the perfect spot for anyone with only one or two hours of spare time. There are some short, steep sections both up and down, but nothing too long to dishearten would-be explorers.
There are a few other things you’ll want to keep in mind when traversing the preserve. First, be weather prepared. Locals know that many Ventura mornings start with a cool fog. However, don’t count on this. It could burn off within minutes and the sun will shine in full force, raising the temperature significantly. The trails are yours to explore year-around, but winter and spring usually offer the mildest weather, and you’ll experience the hills brimming with greenery. Second, always bring plenty of water, snacks, and appropriate clothing such as a hat and comfortable shoes. Third, your leashed four-legged friend is more than welcome to jaunt along with you – up until a certain point. From the parking lot, if you choose to hike the wide path, you’ll need to turn around somewhere near the 1.5-mile mark.
The Harmon Canyon Preserve is centrally located. It’s near the corner of Foothill Road and North Kimball Road, at 7511 Foothill Road. Free parking is available at the trailhead off McVittie Place. If you’re following Google Maps, the directions will take you a little east of the actual preserve. The parking lot is unmistakable with a large metal Harmon Canyon Preserve sign, just be sure to follow the traffic signs to guide you there.
The preserve is a reminder of what pre-industrialized Central California was like — rolling hills, spring wildflowers, oak trees, and grand vistas. It’s a space to bring your family or friends for a peaceful picnic, or get your heartrate up with a run or bike ride.
Along with Harmon Canyon, the Ventura Land Trust is responsible for protecting and maintaining several other open spaces as well, including Big Rock Preserve and the soon-to-be Mariano Rancho Preserve adjacent to Grant Park (which is not yet open to the public). In all instances, their stewardship practices pay respect to the Chumash people, their traditions and culture, past and present.
Check their website for upcoming events, regional maps, trail updates, and educational and volunteer opportunities. Visit venturalandtrust.org for more.