About Santa Paula Canyon Falls (Santa Paula Canyon Punch Bowls)
The Santa Paula Canyon Falls (better known as the Santa Paula Punch Bowls) consist of several waterfalls, cascades that act like water slides, and the namesake “punch bowls” that make for popular swimming holes.
Even though we’ve been aware of these waterfalls from our Ann Marie Brown book, it wasn’t until early 2021 that we finally had the opportunity to visit them, and I guess you can say we’re late to the party.
Indeed, the Santa Paula Punch Bowls have been a well-known and very popular spot because people love to play in and swim around waterfalls, especially when it gets hot in Southern California.
As a result of its popularity, this place has had a bit of a bad rap when it comes to graffiti and litter.
When I spoke to some Fillmore locals during my visit, they mentioned that the trail to larger waterfalls on Tar Creek were bulldozed as a result of the litter that threatened the condor sanctuary there.
However, they expressed surprise at the noticeable clean-up of graffiti and litter, which you might have noticed in the photo above (the walls flanking the waterfall used to be all tagged up).
This might have to do with a recent trail re-route, which I’ll describe shortly.
In any case, with this excursion, I had to earn my visit with a bit of a fairly long hike that most people do in a day.
However, I did notice campsites that opened the possibility of overnight backpacking treks deeper into the Sespe Wilderness.
Nevertheless, the reward for the effort were a series of swimmable punch bowls starting with the main 30ft waterfall which I believe is called the Santa Paula Canyon Falls though the locals I met called it the “Lower Punch Bowl”.
I’m under the impression that most people would be content to stop at this waterfall, play for a bit, and then turn back.
That said, there were even more punch bowls and waterfalls further upstream, and how far you’re willing to go really depends on how much time and energy you’ve got as well as your tolerance of off-trail scrambling and wading.
In this write-up, I’ve given a range for the hiking distance and time, where the lower end of the range is to the main Santa Paula Canyon Falls, but the upper end of the range reflected how far I went.
Therefore, the overall difficulty score encompassed my overall experience, which exceeded the bare minimum effort required to reach the “Lower Punch Bowl”.
Trail Route Changes and The Early Part of the Santa Paula Canyon Trail
The Santa Paula Canyon Trail used to pass through the Thomas Aquinas College and then by a handful of oil extraction spots and through an avocado ranch before reaching the actual trail itself.
However, during my early February 2021 visit, the trail was re-routed around the college before rejoining at a paved section of road by the Rancho Recuerdo entrance (which owned the avocado farm as of the time of this writing).
The official Santa Paula Canyon Trailhead is now about 100 yards north of the entrance to the Thomas Aquinas College (see directions below).
Pretty much right off the bat, the trail crossed Santa Paula Creek three times.
The creek had surprisingly healthy flow during my January 2021 visit, which was on a dry year for much of Southern California, and I actually found my trekking poles to be quite helpful on these crossings.
After the third crossing, the trail then meandered through a grove of some trees recovering from recent fires before veering to the right (all the while flanked by fencing and private property signs probably belonging to the Thomas Aquinas College).
At about 3/4-mile from the trailhead, the path coincided with a paved road right in between an oil derrick (or “oil-drilling grasshopper” as Ann Marie Brown called them) and the entrance to the Rancho Recuerdo avocado farm.
The path then passed through the farm before following the paved road alongside some oil pipelines.
Eventually after another 1/4-mile, the trail left the pavement to go around another field of oil derricks before ultimately reaching the 4th crossing of Santa Paula Creek (roughly 1.3 miles from the trailhead).
Beyond this creek crossing, the Santa Paula Canyon Trail then resembled more of a back-to-Nature path as it would follow Santa Paula Creek for the next 0.3-mile before reaching another man-made contraption.
Beyond this contraption, the signs continued to keep me on the right path as the trail then meandered through a more wide open part of Santa Paula Canyon for the next 3/4-mile.
This dry stretch was noticeably more sun-exposed and warm on the morning of my hike, so I could imagine how much more draining it would be on hotter days later in the year.
Anyways, the canyon would then start to narrow again as the trail encountered the fifth stream crossing.
Beyond this crossing, the trail would then follow the eastern side of Santa Paula Creek for about the next 1/4-mile before the official trail would then start to veer to the right away from the creek.
From here, there was a choice of where to go next.
Santa Paula Canyon Falls: The Easy Way Versus The Hard Way
The signage on the official Santa Paula Canyon Trail pointed the way on the wider and well-maintained path that started a moderate climb.
However, I also noticed an unsigned but well-used path that stayed with Santa Paula Creek.
I’ll first describe the official trail before briefly talking about that path that stayed with the creek.
So the climbing section of trail ascended about 400ft for about a mile.
It went around what Ann Marie Brown called the “Hill 1989” (likely referring to its elevation) before ultimately leading up to the Big Cone Campground.
The campground basically consisted of about three (maybe four) fire pits with one of them accessing a steeply climbing “trail” with a distant top down view of the Santa Paula Canyon Falls.
Continuing beyond the Big Cone Camp, the trail then steeply descended towards a tributary of Santa Paula Creek, where the trail then actually went upstream (away from Santa Paula Canyon Falls) before crossing it.
I actually made the mistake of scrambling downstream here towards a tiny waterfall and then past some dicey ledges before finally reaching the base of the main waterfall and its punch bowl.
However, in hindsight, I should have continued following the path, which then steeply climbed the other side of the ravine before veering downstream.
Finally, the main trail then reached a trail junction, where the path on the left steeply descended towards the base of Santa Paula Canyon Falls.
During my visit, someone had put a rope on that descending trail though I didn’t find that it was necessary.
Overall, reaching this waterfall and “Lower Punch Bowl” was about 0.3-mile of hiking from the Big Cone Camp.
As for the other path that stayed with Santa Paula Creek, it too would eventually reach the Santa Paula Canyon Falls, but it required a more difficult stream and boulder scramble.
Even though I didn’t do this scramble, more than 75% of the visitors that I encountered on my visit actually went this way (whether intentionally or not).
The Fillmore locals that I chatted with told me that they generally go up this way and then back the sanctioned way.
However, other people who didn’t know any better appeared to have struggled to reach the main waterfall, and they actually asked me to guide them on the sanctioned trail to the Big Cone Camp on the way back.
As a result, it was quite clear to me that this unsanctioned creekside trail didn’t save any time, and it yielded minimal benefits (i.e. the additional waterfalls along the way were very puny).
The Next Series Of Punch Bowls And Water Slides Beyond Santa Paula Canyon Falls
While most people may be content with the main Santa Paula Canyon Falls and its punch bowl (which I can totally see why it can get crowded here), there were actually more to explore further upstream.
So backtracking back to the trail junction just above the steep rope-aided section, I then continued to follow it around a bend, which yielded a precarious top down view of the punch bowl that I was just at.
Shortly past this were more ledges overlooking another series of attractive punch bowls and cascades.
Although I was content to view them from above, the locals pointed out to me that I could have crossed the creek above the uppermost of these immediate waterfalls, then backtrack downstream to a rope-aided descent.
That descent would have taken me down to the level of those punch bowls, which were essentially immediately upstream from the brink of the Santa Paula Canyon Falls.
The locals also showed me a tiny series of “water slides” further upstream from top of the waterfalls feeding these punch bowls.
While at first glance they didn’t look like anything significant, I’m sure under higher waterflow than during my visit that they’d be a fun spot to slide from one pool to the next.
Waterfall and Pool Obstacle Beyond Cross Camp
The Santa Paula Canyon Trail (also seemingly referred to as the Last Chance Trail at this point) continued further up the canyon on an increasingly narrower trail.
After another 0.15-mile past the upper punch bowls and cascades, the trail then made another moderate 150ft climb eventually reaching the fire rings within the Cross Camp.
I spent some time to pursue some false trails that went from the camp back towards Santa Paula Creek as well as another that climbed up to a ridge for attractive views both up and down Santa Paula Canyon.
However, I’d eventually continue on the main trail that became even more faint as it reached a confluence of a side creek joining up with Santa Paula Creek in another 500ft from the camp.
Keeping left to stay on Santa Paula Creek, I’d eventually stay dry by clinging onto rock slopes and protruding rocks in the stream (my trekking poles really helped here for balance) before reaching the next waterfall.
This particular one was hidden by an overhanging alcove with an attractive pool fronting it.
Further progress beyond this point required wading in Santa Paula Creek to scale this waterfall and then stream scramble further upstream.
The locals told me that after another 10 minutes of stream scrambling beyond this obstacle would be the “Big Punch Bowl”, which featured an even larger water slide and a rope swing.
Not wanting a repeat of my Grizzly Bear Falls calamity, I just wasn’t prepared to continue up that way during my visit, but I’m sure I’ll come better prepared the next time to complete the experience.
The Tall Unnamed Waterfall
Back at the confluence of the side creek with Santa Paula Creek near Cross Camp, I then decided to scramble up this side creek to see if there was anything more worth exploring.
Well, it turned out that I was able to hug the slope on the left side of this side creek and follow it for 0.2-mile eventually leading to the base of an attractively tall waterfall.
There was no trail for this scramble, and I was fully aware that it might be too slippery to pursue under wetter conditions.
In any case, this particular waterfall was probably 150ft tall or so, and I wonder how much longer it would last later in the year.
That said, the fact that 2021’s Winter had been a disappointingly dry one, it’s saying something that this falls flowed as well as it did about a week after a short-lived all-day storm passed through (only the second such storm during our “Wet Season”).
Ultimately, this was my turnaround point, and if you include all the detours that I took to the intermediate punch bowls along the way, then this waterfall was about 4.6 miles from the Santa Paula Canyon Trailhead.
Overall, I spent nearly 7 hours away from the car, which included moments of route-finding and head-scratching as well as resting and snack times.
However, I suggested that 4-6 hours would be sufficient to really experience the Santa Paula Canyon Falls though I am looking forward to the opportunity to come back and go even further than what I’ve described in this write-up.
The Santa Paula Canyon Falls (or Santa Paula Punch Bowls) resides in the Sespe Wilderness section of the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Paula 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.
The Santa Paula Punch Bowls (or Santa Paula Canyon Falls) are on the Santa Paula Canyon Trail, which begins next to the Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula.
Driving here is actually pretty straightforward though I’ve found that the best approach was by taking the I-5 north to Magic Mountain (in Valencia, and then heading west on the Highway 126 towards Fillmore and ultimately to Santa Paula.
After about 36 miles on the CA-126 westbound, I’d then take exit 12 for 10th Street and the Hwy 150.
Turning right onto 10th Street, I’d then drive north through Santa Paula for about 0.6-mile and veer right where 10th Street and Ojai Road (Hwy 150) branch away from each other (to remain on Hwy 150).
About another 5.4 miles north on Hwy 150 (or 6 miles north of the Hwy 126 exit), I’d then reach the turnoff to the Thomas Aquinas College.
But instead of going into the college, I’d drive another 100 yards towards a smaller entrance and unpaved parking area for the Santa Paula Canyon Trailhead.
If the limit parking spaces here are full, then there’s alternate roadside parking on the southbound Hwy 150 lane just south of the bend in the road from the Thomas Aquinas College entrance.
Overall, from say downtown Los Angeles, this 72-mile drive would take 90 minutes from downtown Los Angeles though this totally depends on the amount of traffic on the freeways (and even in Santa Paula city itself).
In the past, I would have considered driving the US-101 then heading north on the Hwy 23 towards Fillmore before continuing west on the 126 to the Hwy 150, but the way I described above is the most direct route.
For context, Santa Paula is 15 miles (under 30 minutes drive) northeast of Oxnard, about 31 miles (roughly an hour drive) north of Thousand Oaks, about 44 miles (about an hour drive) east of Santa Barbara, about 65 miles (around 60-90 minutes depending on traffic) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and 105 miles (about 2 hours drive) northwest of Irvine.
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