Conejo Canyon Open Space Trails
A gorgeous escape with versatile outdoor recreation
Story and photos by Adam Nuñez
Drive just 15 minutes northeast of Old Town Camarillo to the Conejo Canyons Open Space Trails, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported hours away. At the trailhead, the quiet stillness is interrupted only by wind rustling through tall eucalyptus trees and the murmur of a tranquil river. The canyon walls stretch steeply upwards, invigorating your body and mind. You’ll forget that you’re so close to civilization.
The main entrance is located off Santa Rosa Road on Hill Canyon Road. For detailed directions, you can also do a search for “Santa Rosa Valley Regional Park.” This is a well-established starting point for horseback riding. The Conejo Canyons Open Space (aka “Western Plateau”) truly has something for everyone to enjoy, including dogs on leashes. You can take a 1-mile family stroll on the flat Hill Canyon Trail, hike round-trip 7 miles up to Elliot Mountain, or even mountain bike 15-plus miles up steep hills and through shaded valleys. Any of these options can be coupled with a delightful picnic under a canopy of oak trees. The wide range of trail choices makes the Conejo Canyons appealing for those seeking anything from a tranquil rest to an adrenaline rush.
The Conejo Canyons back right up against Wildwood Park, another open space area popular with hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Like most of Ventura County, both spaces were populated by the native Chumash people for thousands of years before the arrival of Mexican and European settlers. Then later, according to the Conejo Open Space Foundation (COSF) website, the nearly 1,500 acres were “recognized as a community treasure in the 1970s and preserved as permanent open space after a 40-year effort by local residents and government agencies.” The area is managed by Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency and is also supported by COSF, which is entirely self-supported by volunteers and funded through memberships, donations, and grants. Without these types of organizations, our beautiful publicly accessible spaces surely wouldn’t exist. COSF regularly accepts volunteers to organize educational programs with local schools, maintain trails, and much more (see cosf.org for more information).
The Conejo Canyon trails are clearly marked, and the trailhead is usually stocked with maps. No matter what your plans are for the day you’ll begin on the main thoroughfare, Hill Canyon Trail, which starts once you cross over a footbridge. It’s a wide, flat dirt trail running parallel to the Arroyo Conejo River. Depending on when you visit, this might resemble a small creek more than a river. However, during the typically rainy spring season, there are a few spots that reach two to three feet deep and stretch about 20 feet wide. From Hill Canyon Trail, there are a few spots that split off to smaller paths that reach the river. This is a favorite option for my family when we’re looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle.
If you venture a bit further, you’ll reach a fork in the trail. Go right and you’ll hike uphill on the Western Plateau Trail. Continue straight for the shaded and slightly undulating Hawk Canyon Trail. Also, if you continue straight then soon veer left, you’ll cross the river and reach the Hill Canyon Treatment Plant Wetlands — a nearly pancake-flat gravel trail meandering around a picturesque pond. If you continue venturing in this westward direction, you’ll be faced with a few more river crossings. Since these crossings deter many would-be explorers, if you decide to continue on you’ll likely have this shaded trail all to yourself. You’ll encounter some truly serene spots next to the river luring you away from life’s stressful obligations and inviting you towards restful rejuvenation. If you venture even further and turn left onto Lynnmere Trail, you’ll enter Wildwood Park.
Back at the fork at the end of Hill Canyon Trail, if you choose to go straight you’ll find a canopy of shade under a variety of oak trees and riparian woodlands. You’ll encounter cattails and other tall grasses beside a small creek. And because you’re tucked away in a canyon, the only noise comes from the trickling creek and the rustling of leaves through the trees. After about a half-mile, you’ll have the option to turn right and hike uphill. Make the short but steep trek up this trail and you will have entered the high country of the Conejo Canyons. Keep in mind that there is far less shade up there, so if you’re hiking in warmer weather you might want to start earlier in the day. Either way, always plan ahead, know your limits, and bring plenty of water and snacks. Springtime is a lovely time to explore there, since you can feast your eyes on a variety of wildflowers. No matter when you visit, though, you can always enjoy incredible views. The trail from here is mostly flat, so you can jaunt along heading northwest or explore a few side trails like the Plateau Rim Trail. In Ventura County, this is some of the best mountain biking terrain I’ve come across. With smooth curves and rolling short hills, this is a near-perfect mountain biking trail.
On my most recent mountain biking excursion to the area, I met longtime Camarillo resident and frequent hiker of the Conejo Canyons, Dana Curts. He informed me of an even higher unmarked “Rim Trail” accessible via an offshoot of the Western Plateau Trail. Time constraints limited me from exploring this region, however it’s all the more reason to return soon. I did still have the privilege of riding up Elliot Mountain. This is a moderate-to-strenuous hike, depending on where you’re starting from, but the 360-degree views at the peak are spectacular. Look north to view the mountainous Los Padres National Forest, east to see Wildwood Canyon, south to gaze at the Santa Monica Mountains, and west to peer at the Channel Islands National Park in the distance. There’s no shortage of awe up there.
Throughout the Conejo Canyons there are smaller side trails, some of which are unmaintained. Unless otherwise stated by a trail sign, feel free to explore these areas. You’ll find a few “hidden” rock caves, small stream beds, and cozy green glens. Be mindful to stay on the trails since it’s common to see rattlesnakes in this area once the weather warms up. Their keen ability to sense vibrations makes them very afraid of humans and they’ll quickly slide away. However, if you or your dog is stomping through tall grasses, this increases the likelihood of an encounter. Wildlife includes much more than snakes, though. On my most recent visit I saw two roadrunners trotting along and two hawks gliding gracefully overhead. Another visitor told me he has seen bobcats, mule deer, and coyotes – all of which are skittish in the presence of humans, but beautiful to observe.
It’s important to mention that you don’t even need to step on dirt to enjoy the Conejo Canyons. If you park at the main Santa Rosa Park entrance you can walk, ride a bike, use a wheelchair, or push a stroller along a flat paved road with very little traffic. After parking, simply continue along the road. No parking is allowed past the gate, which relieves a lot of concerns about traffic. This road is approximately one mile long and leads to the Hill Canyon Water Treatment Plant. On a recent visit I met another local resident, Marilu. About twice a month she uses this smooth road to practice rollerblading. I can’t imagine a better place to enjoy such a classic activity. Actually, I can’t really imagine a much better area with so much versatility for outdoor recreation. The Conejo Canyons Open Space Trails is truly a special place deserving of our vigilant protection and fullest enjoyment. I hope you find the time to explore this beautiful area!