Potrero John Falls

Los Padres National Forest / Sespe Wilderness / Ojai, California, USA

About Potrero John Falls


Hiking Distance: 5.6 miles round trip; scramble
Suggested Time: 4-5 hours

Date first visited: 2017-03-19
Date last visited: 2017-03-19

Waterfall Latitude: 34.61644
Waterfall Longitude: -119.26938

Find Nearby Accommodation



Booking.com

join-booking-970x240-1.jpg

Potrero John Falls was a waterfall that had eluded us ever since we were first made aware of it in an old waterfall book from Chris Schaffer back around 2003 or 2004.

After seeing this waterfall make an appearance in one of Ann Marie Brown’s later editions of her California Waterfalls book, we were waiting for the right opportunity to finally experience this falls.

Portrero_John_152_03192017 - Potrero John Falls
Potrero John Falls

However, for one reason or another, that opportunity never came due to other waterfalling priorities followed by a multi-year drought that had plagued us for the last 5-6 years.

It wasn’t until mid-March in 2017 when we finally had enough rain in the Winter season to give us the confidence to overcome the time commitment and difficulty to give Potrero John Falls a try.

As you can see from the photo above, we weren’t disappointed in this multi-tiered waterfall.

It dropped and tumbled over a bright sloping cliff from an estimated cumulative height of 70ft.

Portrero_John_103_03192017 - Most of our hike to Potrero John Falls involved extensive stream scrambling so progress was slow
Most of our hike to Potrero John Falls involved extensive stream scrambling so progress was slow

In order to reach this falls, we had to overcome many obstacles that would deter the most casual visitors.

The first obstacle was the driving distance (pushing the limits of what’s reasonable as a day trip from say Orange County), which we’ll get to in the driving directions below.

The next obstacle was the somewhat rough hike that started off innoently enough on a pretty well-established trail, but then it degenerated into a rough stream scramble.

Indeed, we found that we had to cross Potrero John Creek a seemingly uncountable number of times.

Portrero_John_170_03192017 - Looking directly at the main drop of the Potrero John Falls
Looking directly at the main drop of the Potrero John Falls

Depending on the water level of the creek, one might need water shoes (I used Keens just in case) instead of Gore-tex high-top hiking boots.

There were a handful of head-scratching moments when it came to the best spots to cross the creek or scramble past eroded embankment obstacles.

Indeed, this wasn’t an easy hike, but then again, that might also make this one of the less visited waterfalls throughout Southern California as well.

Potrero John Falls Trail Description – the trail to the Potrero John Campground

For the most part, the first 1.6 miles of the hike was fairly straightforward as it followed along a somewhat fairly established trail.

Portrero_John_023_03192017 - The initial part of the hike to Potrero John Falls was on a fairly well-established trail in the Sespe Wilderness
The initial part of the hike to Potrero John Falls was on a fairly well-established trail in the Sespe Wilderness

In this initial stretch of the Potrero John Trail, we passed through a narrow yet attractive gorge with impressive cliff formations and some cooling shade due to the height of the flanking cliffs.

After passing through the gorge, we then had to hike through a wide open expanse where shade was limited and prickly brush and bare trees were pretty much the tallest things around us.

In the distance, we noticed mountains and Southern Utah-like cliffs perhaps hinting at the harsh climate of this wilderness.

Even though the trail would continue to cross Potrero John Creek several more times in this stretch, the arid climate and heat from the intense sun in this area reminded us that we were wise to bring at least 2 liters of water per person.

Portrero_John_059_03192017 - Mom continuing along Potrero John Creek when the trail pretty soon would coincide with the creek itself. You couldn't tell from this photo, but I believe the primitive Potrero John Camp was immediately on the other side of the creek near here
Mom continuing along Potrero John Creek when the trail pretty soon would coincide with the creek itself. You couldn’t tell from this photo, but I believe the primitive Potrero John Camp was immediately on the other side of the creek near here

Eventually after an hour or so from the start of the hike, the trail would reach the so-called Potrero John Camp.

Even though there was neither signage nor obvious infrastructure indicating its presence, we suspected that we made it to the camp due to some organized clearings across Potrero John Creek.

Potrero John Falls Trail Description – scrambling in Potrero John Creek

Continuing on after the Potrero John Camp, the mountains had closed in and the trail would eventually coincide with Potrero John Creek.

It was here that we had to negotiate the next major obstacle in reaching the Potrero John Falls – the stream scrambling.

Portrero_John_080_03192017 - While stream scrambling within Potrero John Creek, we noticed this striated cliff that kind of reminded me of a poor man's version of The Wave in Paria Canyon
While stream scrambling within Potrero John Creek, we noticed this striated cliff that kind of reminded me of a poor man’s version of The Wave in Paria Canyon

While we were actively looking for trails alongside Potrero John Creek, more often than not, we were better off just doing the awkward scramble.

This meant climbing stepping on or over creek boulders and climbing over fallen trees as well as pushing aside whipping branches.

Aside from an interesting striated cliff that reminded me of a poor man’s version of The Wave in Paria Canyon near the Arizona-Utah border, this 1.2-mile scramble was for the most part featureless.

The slow progress of the scramble also meant that this stretch would take us another hour.

Portrero_John_113_03192017 - Mom bouldering over intermediate waterfall obstacles while scrambling in Potrero John Creek in pursuit of the elusive Potrero John Falls
Mom bouldering over intermediate waterfall obstacles while scrambling in Potrero John Creek in pursuit of the elusive Potrero John Falls

Eventually, the gorge itself and the creek would become one as we’d find ourselves having to climb waterfalls and cascades themselves.

Luckily for us, there were some rock cairns (though they may not necessarily be there all the time) hinting to us where were the easiest spots to make the traverse.

At other times, there were ledges that we were able to get a foothold on.

This was especially the case where the cascades and minor waterfalls had formed notches in the underlying bedrock.

Portrero_John_126_03192017 - Mom carefully clinging to this ledge to scramble past this notch and lower waterfall obstacle to continue to pursue the Potrero John Falls
Mom carefully clinging to this ledge to scramble past this notch and lower waterfall obstacle to continue to pursue the Potrero John Falls

Once we got to the top of the series of waterfalls and cascades, we eventually found ourselves right at the base of the lower drop of Potrero John Falls.

Potrero John Falls Trail Description – ascending above the lower waterfall

When viewed directly, we could see that there was a more impressive upper drop of Potrero John Falls right behind the lower waterfall.

However, in order to get there, we had to make a steep scramble up a steep, slippery, and somewhat overgrown trail-of-use to the left of that lower waterfall.

This steep path eventually got us to the area above the lower drop.

Portrero_John_141_03192017 - Mom making a very steep scramble to get over the Lower Potrero John Falls and access the base of the main Potrero John Falls
Mom making a very steep scramble to get over the Lower Potrero John Falls and access the base of the main Potrero John Falls

From there, we were able to make the final descent to get right up to the base of the main drop of Potrero John Falls.

While it took Mom and I about 2.5 hours to get here, there wasn’t a whole lot of shade around this falls to linger around and really enjoy a picnic here.

Rather, it seemed more like a good spot to cool off on a hot day provided there was water.

Given the amount of trouble it took to get here, we were the only ones at the falls as well as on the trail on the Sunday that we showed up.

Portrero_John_181_03192017 - Looking back at both the upper and lower drop of Potrero John Falls
Looking back at both the upper and lower drop of Potrero John Falls

It was hard to say just how reliable the falls would be flowing year in and year out.

That said, the state you see the falls in on this page pretty much reflected nearly a month without significant rain after the nearly record rains we had been getting between December and February.

When it came time to head back to the trailhead, the scramble back to the Potrero John Campground was tricky as we happened to lose the trail while we were too focused on the stream scrambling.

Fortunately, we regained the main trail and the rest of the hike was once again pretty straightforward, especially compared to the scrambling on Potrero John Creek.

Portrero_John_215_03192017 - Mom well into the long return hike from Potrero John Falls in what turned out to be a pretty long day
Mom well into the long return hike from Potrero John Falls in what turned out to be a pretty long day

When we got back to the trailhead, we wound up spending about 5 hours away from the car to go the roughly 5.6 miles round trip.

The time spent that I’m quoting included our photo stops and the brief half-hour picnic to prepare ourselves for the return scramble and hike.

In addition to leg and foot cramps, our arms and faces received quite a few scratches from having to brush up against overgrowth and tree branches that were in the way.

Indeed, this was definitely not a family friendly hike, and it was a good thing I didn’t bring my young daughter along on this one.

Authorities

Potrero John Falls resides in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai in Ventura County, California. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Portrero_John_007_03192017 - Mom starting on the Potrero John Trail, which was pretty straightforward to follow initially
Portrero_John_008_03192017 - However, we then had to cross this boulder field early on in the hike to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_011_03192017 - Then, it didn't take long before we encountered our first crossing of Potrero John Creek, which turned out to be one of at least 20
Portrero_John_012_03192017 - The Potrero John Creek Crossings came quickly and frequently early on in the hike
Portrero_John_219_03192017 - The gorge in the beginning of the hike to Potrero John Falls included some scenic cliffs like this one
Portrero_John_015_03192017 - Mom traversing Potrero John Creek after at least a third time early on in the hike
Portrero_John_016_03192017 - Entering the Sespe Wilderness after perhaps the third creek crossing so we knew that we were in for some wild hiking
Portrero_John_017_03192017 - Looking towards some cliffs that kind of reminded us a little bit of Southern Utah during our pursuit of Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_021_03192017 - Mom making yet another crossing of Potrero John Creek en route to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_025_03192017 - Mom making yet another traverse of Potrero John Creek en route to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_030_03192017 - Most of the first 1.6 miles of hiking to Potrero John Falls was pretty straightforward to follow though on some of the stream crossings (like what's shown here), we had to figure out the safest and easiest way to scramble down eroding embankments to get across
Portrero_John_031_03192017 - Mom negotiating yet another crossing of Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_033_03192017 - During the open part of the Potrero John Trail, we also meandered past some interesting rock formations like this one, which seemed to be full of holes
Portrero_John_034_03192017 - Mom dealing with yet another crossing of Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_039_03192017 - Looking in the distance towards more cliffs that reminded me of parts of Southern Utah, but this was the Sespe Wilderness en route to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_041_03192017 - Mom on yet another crossing of Potrero John Creek though it was getting increasingly rougher and more overgrown this deep into the hike
Portrero_John_048_03192017 - Mom on yet another crossing of Potrero John Creek as we were somewhere near Potrero John Camp
Portrero_John_049_03192017 - Continuing further along the wide open part of the Potrero John Trail. It was a good thing we brought plenty of water because it was long and very unshaded
Portrero_John_052_03192017 - This was an interesting part of the Potrero John Trail where an underground spring appeared to have made the trail wet and muddy
Portrero_John_060_03192017 - Mom still following along Potrero John Creek, which became increasingly bouldery
Portrero_John_063_03192017 - Overgrown scrambles like this made us reconsider avoiding scrambling directly in the Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_067_03192017 - We saw this rock cairn which gave us some confidence that we hadn't completely lost the trail to the Potrero John Falls nor the Potrero John Camp for that matter
Portrero_John_071_03192017 - Mom still trying to follow the trail alongside Potrero John Creek as we passed by some intermediate cascades en route to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_074_03192017 - As the gorge walls continued closing in, resistance was futile and we pretty much had to stay in or alongside the water of Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_077_03192017 - Mom scrambling directly in Potrero John Creek, which was a bit rough with prickly overgrowth and stream boulders
Portrero_John_192_03192017 - This striated cliff landmark was one of the mental points of interest that we kept track of during the Potrero John Creek scramble
Portrero_John_087_03192017 - Mom still persisting with the rough Potrero John Creek scramble, which was quite slow going
Portrero_John_090_03192017 - The Potrero John Creek scrambling continued to get more awkward the further we went
Portrero_John_092_03192017 - During our scramble in Potrero John Creek, we did manage to notice this lizard sunbathing on a rock
Portrero_John_095_03192017 - Mom continuing to negotiate fallen branches and loose rocks on Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_100_03192017 - With such rough stream scrambling on Potrero John Creek, we got to a point where we were determined to keep going so all this effort didn't go to waste
Portrero_John_108_03192017 - By this point of the creek scramble (probably about an hour beyond Potrero John Camp), we wondered when the payoff will finally come in the form of Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_110_03192017 - More rough boulder scrambling in Potrero John Creek as we still wondered how much further the Potrero John Falls would be
Portrero_John_115_03192017 - One of the intermediate cascades that we had to get over in order to continue towards Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_116_03192017 - More scrambling obstacles around minor waterfalls on Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_120_03192017 - A scrambling obstacle where Mom had to sit and scoot and slide to proceed towards Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_123_03192017 - This was a notch waterfall obstacle right before the lower drop of the Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_124_03192017 - Broad look at the notch obstacle before the Potrero John Falls, where we had to figure out how to proceed past this
Portrero_John_132_03192017 - Mom approaching the lower drop of Potrero John Falls after having figured out how to get past the notch obstacle
Portrero_John_135_03192017 - Looking directly at the two tiers making up Potrero John Falls, but we had to figure out how to get past this lower waterfall
Portrero_John_146_03192017 - Finally starting to see the main upper drop of the Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_150_03192017 - Mom standing before the main drop of the Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_163_03192017 - Looking directly at the upper tier of Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_174_03192017 - Looking up towards the top of the Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_180_03192017 - After having our fill of the main drop of Potrero John Falls, we now had to scramble back down to the base of the lower Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_184_03192017 - Looking back at the pair of drops comprising the lower and upper tiers of Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_185_03192017 - Mom making the scramble back towards Potrero John Camp after having our fill of the Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_187_03192017 - Even though we were coming back from Potrero John Falls, the adventure wasn't over as we still had a lot of stream scrambling to contend with
Portrero_John_191_03192017 - This was one of the more awkward parts of the stream scramble on the return hike from Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_200_03192017 - While making the return scramble was in some ways easier because we had an idea of where we needed to be or go, it was also tricky to regain the trail that we had taken earlier on the way up to Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_201_03192017 - Continuing the return scramble on Potrero John Creek
Portrero_John_205_03192017 - Shortly after passing the Potrero John Camp, we were back in the open terrain
Portrero_John_208_03192017 - This was one of the scrambling obstacles by a creek crossing that we had to do again on the return hike from Potrero John Falls
Portrero_John_221_03192017 - Back at the rockfall obstacle near the Potrero John Trailhead
Portrero_John_222_03192017 - Finally approaching the Hwy 33 and thereby ending our adventure to Potrero John Falls

join-booking-970x240-1.jpg


We visited Potrero John Falls as a day trip from Los Angeles, but this definitely stretches the limits of what can be accomplished in a day, especially if you’re coming up from Orange County.

For starters, we had get an early start before 8am as we had to drive about 2.5 hours to get from home to the Potrero John Trailhead.

Given the early start, we didn’t have too much traffic to contend with on both the I-5 and US101 Freeways.

However, on the return drive, we almost always had to face traffic on both freeways late in the afternoon, which would make this more like a 3-hour drive.

Sandwiched in between the 5.5 hours of driving was the 5 hour hike.

So you can see the kind of time commitment necessary to do this excursion in a day.

Portrero_John_002_03192017 - The small pullout right in front of the trailhead for Potrero John Falls, which was next to a bridge over Potrero John Creek
The small pullout right in front of the trailhead for Potrero John Falls, which was next to a bridge over Potrero John Creek

Nevertheless, after driving nearly 120 miles or so from around Orange County all the way to Ventura, we then got off the US101 Freeway and went onto Hwy 33 north towards Ojai.

This stretch along the Hwy 33 was about 13 miles and it took us around 20 minutes.

Once near Ojai, we then turned left at the light to continue on the Hwy 33, which was now known as the Maricopa Highway.

We’d continue driving on the Maricopa Highway for the next 21 miles as the road wound through the mountains of the Sespe Wilderness as well as through the scenic Wheeler Gorge.

Portrero_John_224_03192017 - Looking up at the road bridge (Hwy 33) over Potrero John Creek by the trailhead
Looking up at the road bridge (Hwy 33) over Potrero John Creek by the trailhead

Eventually, we’d reach a pullout next to a bridge over Potrero John Creek (a little over 6 miles past the Rose Valley Road turnoff), which had room for perhaps two or three cars.

There was a brown sign saying “Potrero John Trailhead” next to the bridge, which gave us the confidence that we were in the right spot.

Overall, the Potrero John Trailhead was about 22 miles (over 30 minutes drive) north of Ojai, 40 miles (about an hour drive) north of Ventura, 62 miles (about 75 minutes drive) northwest of Thousand Oaks, 101 miles (about 2 hours drive) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and about 129 miles (about 2.5 hours drive) northwest of Anaheim. Note, all of these times did not take traffic and road congestion into account so the drive times could easily exceed what was stated here.

Full contextual L-shaped sweep of the falls from a more distant vantage point showing the main tiers then the lower cascades before zooming in and panning back in the other direction


Long movie showing the full context of the falls as well as a partial view of the lower drop before scrambling to its base for a closer look at the main drop


Sweep from in front of the lower falls but showing both of the main tiers before panning over from the top of the cascades further downstream

Tagged with: sespe, los padres, ojai, ventura county, sespe wilderness



Visitor Comments:

No users have replied to the content on this page


Share your thoughts about what you've read on this page

You must be logged in to submit content. Refresh this page after you have logged in.

Visitor Reviews of this Waterfall:

No users have submitted a write-up/review of this waterfall


Have you been to a waterfall? Submit a write-up/review and share your experiences or impressions

Review A Waterfall

Nearest Waterfalls