Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Pratt Trail to Nordhoff Peak

Nordhoff Peak Abandoned Fire Lookout
Nordhoff Peak in the Los Padres National Forest is the high point of a rugged, mountainous ridge that forms a rampart along the northern border of the Ojai Valley. The peak, adorned with the remnants of a now abandoned fire lookout, stands sentinel high above the village of Ojai some 3500 feet below. Originally named "Nordhoff" after author Charles Nordhoff when the town was first established in 1874, the town's name was ultimately changed to Ojai in 1917. The name Ojai derives from the Indian word "Awhai" meaning "moon" in the language of the Chumash who once inhabited the valley.

California Man Root Growing Along Pratt Trail

Pratt Trail Winding Through Lower Steward Canyon

Wild Hyacinth is Abundant Along the Trail-
There are two principal routes to the summit of Nordhoff Peak from the Ojai Valley: the Gridley Trail and the Pratt Trail. The latter, an 11 mile or so round trip jaunt, begins at a small forest service parking area along the upper reaches of Signal Street. The initial rock-strewn portion of the trail winds its way up lower Stewart Canyon through private property until the path reaches a gate at the terminus of the Cozy Dell Fire Road. Beyond the gate, a footpath branches off to the left and parallels the streambed before re-joining the Fire Road a short distance later near the junction with Fuel Break Road. This entire stretch of trail is verdant, luxurious, and exploding with flora particularly after the drenching winter rains.

Signage at Junction of Foothill and Pratt Trails

Luxuriant Greenery
From this point, the dirt road climbs steadily north and then west to a saddle overlooking Cozy Dell Canyon and the Matilija. To the east, views of the upper Ojai Valley begin to open up. Beyond the saddle, you abandon the Fire Road once again in favor of a well established foot path that ascends relentlessly up the western wall of Stewart Canyon.  

View West at Cozy Dell Saddle
View East Toward the Upper Ojai Valley

Trail Signage at Cozy Dell Saddle
The initial climb out of the Cozy Dell saddle is on a south facing, chaparral-covered slope that is warm in the winter and which would be scorching in the summer. However, the trail eventually contours the ridgeline into the cool shade of the east-facing slope until the trail crosses over onto the eastern slope of upper Cozy Dell Canyon where views open up south to Lake Casitas and the Channel Islands. Midway between these two points, a short spur trail descends to Valley View trail camp which is somewhat of a misnomer depending upon the valley you are supposed to be viewing.

Beautiful Purple Nightshade
Anacapa Island Floating in the Santa Barbara Channel
After a sustained climb, the path ultimately tops out on the Nordhoff Ridge which affords dramatic and panoramic views north into the Sespe Wilderness, west into the Matilija Wilderness, and south toward the Santa Barbara Channel. To the east sits Nordhoff Peak, the summit of which is visible from the trail's crest.

Piedra Blanca and the Pine Mountain Ridgeline from Nordhoff Ridge

Clouds Descending Into Murietta Canyon

Nordhoff Peak Fire Lookout from Nordhoff Road at Pratt Trail

Ominous Clouds Hanging Above Lake Casitas
From the point where the Pratt Trail intersects the Nordhoff Ridge Road, it is approximately another mile of easy walking to the summit of Nordhoff Peak. The views along the ridgeline are dramatic and the place has a primal and remote feel to it that is sometimes absent in the mountains of Southern California.  At the summit, there is a picnic table and a fire ring directly beneath the abandoned lookout tower which you can climb for better views of the Piedra Blanca formation nestled in the Sespe River drainage to the north. There are also two survey markers adjacent to the tower embedded in what looks like concrete footings.

Fog Rolling In Over Nordhoff Peak
Clouds Enveloping Piedra Blanca

Visitor Atop Abandoned Nordhoff Peak Fire Lookout

One of Two Nordhoff Peak Survey Markers
There are two return trip options. You can either retrace your steps back down the Pratt Trail or you can continue east another mile along the Nordhoff Ridge Road and descend the Gridley Canyon Trail which will ultimately deposit you onto Gridley Road in Ojai. Although I did not go this way, it appears that one could easily loop back to the Pratt Trail trailhead by a short traverse west along Shelf Road once back in the Ojai foothills.

Chaparral Currant on the Descent (ID courtesy of Matt Maxon)


  1. Ribes malvaceum, pink chaparral currant is the unidentified pink foliage