Piedra Blanca is a popular spot for hikers in the Los Padres National Forest. Approximately forty miles north of Ventura, the massive rock formations and sweeping views of the snow-capped Topa-Topa mountains bring hikers and horseback riders in droves. It's an unexpectedly wild and beautiful place and the short 3-mile out and back trail is the perfect hike for a sunny winter morning.
Getting to the Piedra Blanca trailhead is half of the fun of this hike. Drive north on Highway 33, pausing along the way to get a brown sugar latte at Full of Beans in Ojai, and stop at Wheeler Gorge Ranger Station to get your Adventure Pass, a five dollar day pass for the Los Padres National Forest. You do not need an adventure pass for the other trailheads at the Rose Valley Recreation Area. The ranger station also provides trail maps and has a small exhibit that previews the wildlife in the area.
Drive around the twists and turns being careful of fallen rocks and mud. Turn right at the sign for the Rose Valley Recreation Area and follow signs to the Sespe Creek and Piedra Blanca trailheads.
After parking, follow the trail downhill. With our first crossing of Sespe Creek, the last remaining undammed river in southern California, we were able to cross the flowing water by stepping on the stones. With the second crossing of Sespe Creek, where the stream was wider, deeper, and colder, I waded the creek up to the tops of my hiking boots. The trail crosses the creek a third time and came halfway up my shins. Before the winter storms, these creeks, while not completely dry, were not exactly running.
Follow the trail uphill, turn left at the next junction, and go further uphill and turn left at the next junction along the Gene Marshall-Piedra Blanca Reyes Creek National Recreation Trail. The trail brings you to an outcropping of enormous limestone rocks perfect for exploring (and picturing yourself as a bandit or cattle rustler). Be careful going off trail in this area as these types of rock outcroppings are the perfect environment for a sunning rattlesnake.
At the top of the rocks, you can see the Topa-Topas, forest and scrub brush for miles. The surrounding Sespe Wilderness is the fourth largest roadless region in the lower 48 states and is home to a condor sanctuary, which is not open to the public. If you continue along the trail through the jagged and barren landscape, you will follow Sespe Creek and can spot petroglyphs and bald eagles, mountain lions, black bears, and red tail hawks. The 17.5-mile trail finishes at some of the hottest natural springs in the U.S. I'm definitely looking forward to backpacking in this area at some point. Just not during the summer.