Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Santa Paula Canyon: Be One With Nature

The Chapel Tower at Thomas Aquinas College
Just north of Steckel Park, where the locals gather on Sunday afternoons to bond and drink bad beer beneath the ancient Oaks and Sycamore that flank Highway 150, Santa Paula Creek spills into the flood plain from the remote depths of the Los Padres National Forest. Although the creek’s precise location is not immediately obvious to the casual observer, masked as it is by lush campus of Thomas Aquinas College, its existence, and the means to access it, are anything but a secret. In fact, it’s probably not too much of an over-statement to say that Santa Paula Canyon, and the creek that pulses through it, have attained almost legendary status amount Ventura County hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes.

Like other immensely popular destinations, water is the magnetic draw here. Not just water that trickles along a rocky streambed and collects in stagnant and ephemeral pools. But clear blue water that in the right season gushes forth from the folds and creases of the mountainside to furiously tumble and cascade over the stoney cliff faces into swimming pool-sized “punch bowls” below.
These punch bowls, and the falls that continually feed them, are very special and unique places in this otherwise arid, waterless landscape. But water, particularly if one can swim in it, is an attractive nuisance that always seems to draw a certain element. And that element always finds a way to make a complete mockery of the “leave no trace” ethos that the rest of us try damn hard to practice.

Santa Paula Creek Flowing Muddy Brown
Be One With Nature by Marking it Up
Trial Markings Just in Case You're Confused About the Way Forward Here
Reflections in a Trail-side Pool
The Forested Path Up the Canyon
Down Canyon
Up Canyon
These destructive folks about whom I speak know all about Santa Paula Creek. And they have memorialized their visits to this canyon in bright red, blue, green, and purple spray-paint that is visible on virtually every tree, branch, and rock along the trial that weaves its way up the creek bed to the lower falls. Most of the marks are just tags left by punks who feel the need to mark their territory like the animals that they are. Some of it, however, is more philosophical like the graffiti ironically urging others on the trail to “be one with nature.” The canyon walls beneath the pool at the first falls too are plastered with unsightly graffiti while beer bottles and other trash litter the canyon bottom. On the day I visited, I rounded a bend in the trail to come face-to-face with a “gentleman” whose shorts were around his ankles as he dropped a dookie trailside with absolutely no shame or regret.

But it is possible to look past the spray paint and the trash and the dookies and the words of the philosopher kings. And you should. Because despite all of it, this is still damn compelling and wild country that is worth the visit. There are very few local places that I can think of that rival it. Tar Creek before the Forest Service closed it off probably qualifies. Matilija Falls if you can get there without raising the ire of the cranky landowner over whose property the path supposedly crosses. Perhaps a few spots along the Sespe. Maybe the Fishbowls in a good water year before they silted up. But the list is short and the chance of reaching your desired destination can be dubious. So I’ll go to Santa Paula Canyon again despite the negatives. I’ll go to see the canyon. I’ll go to experience the blessed water while it’s still around. I’ll go to sit beneath the falls and feel the cool spray. I’ll go on an uncrowded day when the skies are threatening or the temperatures are cool to listen to the silence ricochet off of the walls of the gorge. And I’ll turn a blind eye and ear to the rest.

Canyon Art
Lower Falls
Lower Falls and Pool
Welcome to the Jungle

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