Exploring the “white rocks” of Los Padres National Forest
Story and photos by Adam Nuñez
You’ll know the Piedra Blanca when you see them.
Heading up into the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai, the iconic rock formations will appear suddenly as you round a corner, protruding like enormous crowns in the middle of a rugged green valley. The main rock formations stretch approximately 1 mile east to west, but they provide a full day’s worth of adventure.
You can meander among the massive sandstone giants, scramble to their tops, and picnic in their shaded pockets. Discovering hidden rock caves is my children’s favorite activity. Between the bald rock giants and blanketing the entire valley are manzanita, sage, and a wide range of other chaparral plants, along with a few hardy pine trees sprinkled about. The 31-mile-long Sespe Creek runs along the south side of the rocks, with the craggy peaks of the Los Padres National Forest stretching in every direction.
To get to the Piedra Blanca, head north on Highway 33 from the 101 in Ventura. Pass through the Ojai Valley, and after about 28 miles, hang a right onto Rose Valley Road. No off-road vehicle is necessary; still, you’ll want to take it slow to avoid major potholes. Head east for six miles and you’ll reach your starting point: the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca National Recreation Trail.
The trailhead is located at the east end of the parking lot, which conveniently has two restrooms. On weekends the parking lot might be full; however, keep in mind that this is a central location for many overnight backpackers exploring the deeper reaches of the mountains. The entire trail is about 18 miles long, ending at Reyes Creek Campground to the northeast, but getting to the Piedra Blanca is a relatively short trek.
Once on the trail, you’ll likely experience a true sense of “getting away from it all.” After heading a short distance downhill, the trail splits with a branch heading to the left. Although the left option seems like the more direct route, this dead-ends at a wide section of Sespe Creek where you can take a plunge in the icy waters on a hot summer day. But to find the Piedra Blanca rock formations, you’ll want to continue straight along the trail.
From here it’s just about a 1-mile, slightly uphill hike. There are a few creek crossings lined with football-sized rocks to help keep your feet dry. You’re getting close when you pass the Sespe Wilderness sign.
Once you arrive, explore the formations at your leisure. Pay attention to the way the light filters through manzanita and plays off the sandstone rocks as they undulate across the sea of chaparral. Time seems to slow down, but the hours pass quickly here. It’s no wonder the local Chumash tribe considers this area sacred.
As you enjoy this inspiring landscape, follow the Leave No Trace principles: Make sure to carry out everything you’ve packed in. And before heading “up the hill,” remember the Boy Scouts’ motto: Be Prepared! Pack plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. My last visit was in mid-March with a weather forecast of 65 degrees, but the high ended up being nearly 90 degrees, with a low of 50 walking back in the rain. The summer months can be scorching hot, so try to get an early start, and bring a hat!
The Los Padres National Forest is prone to wildfires in the summer and ice and snow in the winter, so make sure to check road conditions before heading up. Also, make sure you’ve purchased an Adventure Pass, which you’ll need to display on your windshield. The fee is $5 for a daily pass and $30 for an annual one. Contact the Ojai Forest Service office at (805) 448-6487 or do a search for “Los Padres National Forest Adventure Pass” to obtain your pass.
Backpackers can venture further up the Gene Marshall Trail to find rustic campsites in the Sespe Wilderness, but for those wanting to car camp, plan on staying down the road at Rose Valley Campground or Middle Lion Campground.
We’ll leave you with a final note from Jeff Meyers, who wrote about the Piedra Blanca in the L.A. Times: “Unlike other hiking trails, the Piedra Blanca National Scenic Trail pays off with a quasi-religious experience. Surrounded by the white rock, one is almost required to be reverent and discuss philosophical subjects in a respectful whisper.” You don’t need to be religious or philosophical to appreciate the beauty that Meyers describes. But it’s easy to imagine, while sitting in a rock cave, that a Chumash Native American might have sat in that exact same spot hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Just allowing yourself to relax, breathe, and simply BE in the rocky stillness will be well worth the visit.