Spring is here (winter took a wrong turn at Albuquerque) and it’s time to try some new trails. You’ve been wandering Shelf Rd and the regular OVLC river bottom loops for months if not years. Time for a little spice in your life, a little challenge, something to get the blood flowing.
Bet you didn’t even know that we had a Grotto here in Ojai… No, not the kind of grotto with coked-out playmates, Charlie Sheen and legionnaire’s disease. This is a deeply ensconced oak-covered, brow-moppingly steep lush little paradise just waiting to be tackled.
I usually like to make this into a 5ish mile counter clockwise loop starting at the middle parking lot. Henceforth I shall refer to the Old Baldwin trail head as the south lot, Rice Rd the middle lot and Oso (with the speed bumps) the north lot. Likewise the river crossings are south (the cement embankment), the middle wide crossing and the north (still flowing somehow) by Oso.
Make your way into Wills Canyon via the middle crossing (dry as a bone, has been all season). Plenty of ceanothus still in bloom, these were on the trail just before you enter the deeply forested section of the canyon.
Cross one more murky seasonal creek and you are officially in deep dark forest (mountain lions, squirrels, bears oh my). There are scrub oaks, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, hummingbird sage, plenty of poison oak and one of the more impressive stands of snowberry you will see anywhere. Snowberry is one of those plants that I guarantee most don’t know or notice but it’s a sturdy little fellow, hiding its tiny white flowers under the leaves, white waxy berries emerging at the end of summer. Twiggy, around knee high at most, and in the honeysuckle family.
Normally we’d have over a dozen different wildflowers blooming this time of year even in the deep shade. You’ll just have to enjoy the bright yellow little California buttercup for now.
Keep your eyes peeled because I have missed this turnoff more than once. There will be a viewing bench on your right and you’ll want to head left up into the Grotto.
Well, it’s called the fern grotto, let’s learn some ferns.
Coastal wood fern has the little saw teeth. Very common up here.
California polypody is about the same size but has the very smooth grooves as opposed to sawlike.
Maiden-hair fern are smaller, leaves resembling gingko
Coffee fern have a darker green to almost brown color, small oval leaves.
Finally my favorite the little but mighty goldback fern. Usually 4 inches or less, pyramid shaped, and not that I encourage picking them, but if you find a big patch you can take one and press the back against your shirt. You will have a cool golden patch for the day.
Trust me these are all up there so look hard! You’ll want to stop and catch your breath anyway, this is a pretty gnarly 2 tenths of a mile climb. Enjoy the abundant monkeyflower, heart leafed penstemon and toyon which all love the dappled shade.
Finally you made it to the top. I generally make a left, a right would connect you to the Oso Ridge trail, a much longer affair. The Chaparral crest trail is a serious of loping hills through heavy chaparral (duh), slowly losing elevation as you loop around back to the river bottom. White flowered ceanothus (I’ll guess Crassifolius), chamise, black sage abound in the year-round direct sun.
Next you cross what is sadly a rarity in California, a native grassland. I think this is mostly purple needlegrass, will be beautiful when (if) it flowers.
Down another steep hill into a canyon with a seasonal creek. Some mugwort and other moisture loving species abound. Enjoy a number of Hairy ceanothus as you make this final short climb out of the canyon.
Make a left (east) back towards the river bottom. Pass through the olive orchard, cross the Casitas Water access road and you will see the brand spanking new switchback trail that replaced the super steep knee-rattler (wimps).
Enter what I call the “arundo forest”. Giant reed has been a big issue around here for years, they’ve done a very good job eradicating it on this trail.
Home stretch now. Basically just bear left whenever you get a chance (assuming you parked in the middle lot). Even with your plant IDs and lunch it shouldn’t take much more than 2 to 3 hours. The hills are tough but short, with plenty of flat spots to catch your breath. Once you ascend to the upper trails you won’t have to worry much about horses and bikes anymore. Fantastic views from the Chaparral crest trail, bring the camera.