In the mountains behind Carpinteria, upstream from Jameson Lake, are the humble beginnings of the Santa Ynez River. The 92-mile long river stretches west from these headwaters, through the Santa Ynez Valley towards Lompoc, and arrives at the Pacific Ocean near Surf Beach.
Upper Santa Ynez Camp is located along the upper reaches of the river and can make for an interesting destination while visiting the headwaters. During the spring, when there is reliable water at the camp, it can also be visited as part of a backpacking trip.
The camp can be reached from the Matilija Trailhead, past Ojai, as well as from Romero-Camuesa Road along the upper Santa Ynez River. The camp, which is along Juncal Road, is roughly midway between these two trailheads. However, the hike from the Matilija Trailhead is more shaded and is the shorter route for reaching the camp and the headwaters of the river.
The Santa Ynez Mountains are seen from Monte Arido Road
From the Matilija Trailhead it’s about 11.5 miles round trip to the camp, plus another 2-mile roundtrip side hike to visit the headwaters. A shuttle trip can also be made by arranging for a ride or having a car at each of the trailheads and hiking from one to other. The distance between the two trailheads is roughly 12.5 miles. The route also makes for a great mountain bike ride through the backcountry.
To get to the Matilija Trailhead from Santa Barbara, make your way to Ojai. From Ojai continue north on State Route 33 to Matilija Canyon Road. Turn left onto Matilija Canyon Road. The road follows Matilija Creek upstream and arrives at a locked gate. Parking is found in the pullouts near gate.
From the trailhead, continue along the road as it leads past several ranches and up Matilija Canyon. Please respect private property.
Roughly three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, the unpaved road arrives at the beginning of North Fork Matilija Trial, which leads into Upper North Fork Matilija Canyon and Matilija Wilderness. Just past this juncture, along the road, is the beginning of Murietta Trail, which leads up Murietta Canyon. Juncal Road continues another half-mile up Matilija Canyon, before then turning and heading up Murietta Canyon as well.
Map courtesy Maps.com
From the road, Murietta Trail starts off through a mix of chaparral. Here, one can see ceanothus, chamise, and black sage, as well as some toyon, manzanita, and holly-leaf cherry. As the trail nears the creek it starts to become more shaded with sycamore, cottonwood, and even some California black walnut. Where the trail first nears the creek there is still some water flowing, but by the time the trail arrives at the first crossing, the creek is dry.
At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at Murietta Camp. The camp is on a small flat under several coast live oaks and has three campsites, each with an adjustable metal grill. Currently there is no water at the camp.
Murietta Camp is named for Joaquin Murietta, the famous outlaw, who is said to have used the canyon as one of his hideouts.
Murietta Canyon is seen from Juncal Road
Past the camp, the trail continues upstream and connects with Juncal Road. From here, follow the road as it makes its way up Murietta Canyon.
At about the 4.5-mile mark, the road arrives at Murietta Spring. The spring, with its reliable trickle of water, is a welcome sight along the road and is surrounded by lush green ferns and shaded with alder trees.
About a half-mile past the spring, the road arrives at the top of the canyon and Murietta Divide where it meets Monte Arido Road.
To reach the headwaters of the Santa Ynez River, turn right and continue another mile along Monte Arido Road. The road follows the ridge separating the Ventura and Santa Ynez River watersheds and offers views out across the canyon towards the Santa Ynez Mountains and, to the east, towards Topatopa Bluff.
Eventually, Murietta Pond comes into view as the road rounds a corner. From the road there is a short, somewhat overgrown side road that leads down to the pond and its earthen dam. The pond, nestled here at the very headwaters of the Santa Ynez River, is something of an oasis. Surrounded by chaparral, the pond provides enough moisture for willow, mule fat, and cottonwood to grow. In the soft mud at the edges of the pond one can find the tracks of deer and fox.
To reach Upper Santa Ynez Camp, return to Murietta Divide and continue west along Juncal Road. The road descends down a side canyon and is mostly unshaded. About a mile from Murietta Divide, the road arrives at the Santa Ynez River, appearing here as little more than a creek. At the crossing one can find alder, maple, and cottonwood, and a refreshingly cold pool of water, an oasis of a different kind. Currently, there is still a trickle of water in the creek, but it is drying up.
Just past the creek crossing, on the right, is Upper Santa Ynez Camp. The camp is nestled under a couple of coast live oaks and features a picnic table, fire ring, and the remains of a pedestal grill.
Jameson Lake is seen from Juncal Road
The site was likely used by the Chumash traveling between the village of Mat’ilha, or Matilija as the Spanish referred to it, along the Ventura River and the village of Shnaxalyiwi, or Najalayegua, along the Santa Ynez River.
To reach Shnaxalyiwi from Mat’ilha, the Chumash would’ve traveled upstream along the Ventura River to Matilija Canyon, and from there continued up Murietta Canyon to Murietta Divide. There, they would’ve entered the Santa Ynez River drainage and made their way down to the river, and then followed it downstream to Shnaxalyiwi.
The site later served as a hunting camp that was along the trail used by settlers to travel behind the mountains from the Upper Santa Ynez River to Ojai. The old trail was effectively replaced with the construction of Juncal Road during the 1930s.
Past Upper Santa Ynez Camp, Juncal Road continues down through the canyon, eventually crossing the river, before climbing out of the canyon. Here, the road continues above the river, offering views downstream towards Jameson Lake.
The road then joins the ridge separating Alder Creek from the Santa Ynez River. At about the 3.25-mile mark from Upper Santa Ynez Camp, the road arrives at the turnoff for Alder Creek and the beginning of Franklin Trail.
Alder Creek is another oasis along the route and well worth the quarter-mile detour along the side road that leads down to the creek. Here, the creek has clear, flowing water year-round. Just upstream, is a small diversion dam across the creek that carries water via a flume to Jameson Lake. At the base of the dam is an enchanting pool to cool off in.
From the turnoff to Alder Creek, Juncal Road continues along the ridge overlooking Jameson Lake and Juncal Dam. The dam was built in 1930, and is one of three dams along the Santa Ynez River. The road then drops back down to the river and follows it to Romero-Camuesa Road. Here, a locked Forest Service marks the other trailhead.
To start the hike from this side or to arrange a shuttle trip, from Santa Barbara make your way towards Gibraltar Road. Follow Gibraltar Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and turn right onto East Camino Cielo Road. East Camino Cielo continues east along the top of the mountains, before becoming unpaved and descending down the backside of the mountains. The road then arrives at the Santa Ynez River. Just past this first crossing is the beginning of Juncal Road and the trailhead.
This article originally appeared in section A of the July 4th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.
I had originally thought of calling this article Trail Quest: Murietta Pond, but it sounded too obscure so I changed it to Upper Santa Ynez Camp. I had seen the feature on Bryan Conant’s map of the Dick Smith Wilderness over the years and had always been a little intrigued by it. In fact, when I made the hike to Divide Peak in 2014 (Trail Quest: Divide Peak), I was tempted to hike over there and check it out, but didn’t feel like I had enough time. But what really got me sold on the destination was Valerie Norton’s post on Old Man Mountain, which included a great shot of the pond. In fact, I wish I’d gone there in the spring, because the photos I took just didn’t come out as good.
At any rate, my idea was to write two articles back to back. The first one would lead to Murietta Pond and talk about Upper Santa Ynez Camp as a way of describing the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez River drainage and the second would be about Surf Beach, which is near the mouth of the Santa Ynez River. Clever? Just one problem.
Although, I knew part of the beach at Surf would be closed due to the Snowy Plover, I was imagining something more along the lines of Sands Beach at Coal Oil Point Reserve where just the dunes are closed but you can still walk the length of the beach. So on a Saturday, I hiked from the Matilija Trailhead to Murietta Pond, with a side trip over to Upper Santa Ynez Camp. On Sunday, I went to Surf Beach and to my surprise discovered that what the closure meant there was that the beach was cordoned off a short way in both directions from the entrance, leaving me with nothing to hike or write about.
And so I had to content myself with just the one article. I also had originally planned on just coming in from the Matilija side, but while I was out there it occurred to me that now that I’d changed the name to Upper Santa Ynez Camp, which is more or less midway between the Matilija Trailhead and Romero-Camuesa Road, that I was almost obligated to hike it from both sides. And so I went back the next weekend and hiked it from that side. So, yeah if I’d planned it all out better I could’ve done it as a shuttle hike instead of two 14-mile day hikes in 90 degree weather.
Another thread that emerged that encouraged me to hike to Upper Santa Ynez Camp from both sides was the awareness that this was likely the route the Chumash took traveling between Mat’ilha (Matilija) and Shnaxalyiwi (Najalayegua). And so referencing that seemed just as interesting as talking about the headwaters of the Santa Ynez River.
Western tailed and acmon blue butterflies on narrow-leaf milkweed