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 first visit, they mentioned that the trail to larger waterfalls on nearby 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 at Santa Paula Canyon Falls, 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 would take most people the better part of a day.
Heck, I even needed a second visit to the Santa Paula Canyon Trail to fully experience the spots that I had missed the first time around.
That said, I did notice campsites that opened up the possibility of overnight backpacking treks deeper into the Sespe Wilderness (and possibly even more waterfalls).
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.
How far you’re willing to go to pursue them 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.
The lower end of the range is just to the main Santa Paula Canyon Falls, but the upper end of the range reflected how far I would have to go to pursue the rest of the punch bowls and waterfalls further upstream.
Therefore, the overall difficulty score encompassed my overall experiences 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.
Then, it would go by a handful of oil extraction spots and through an avocado ranch before reaching the actual National Forest trail itself.
However, during my 2021 visits, 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 that the trail passed through 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).
Once starting off the Santa Paula Canyon Trail, it pretty much crossed Santa Paula Creek three times in relatively short succession.
Regarding the crossings, the creek had surprisingly healthy flow during my early February 2021 visit, which was on a dry year for much of Southern California.
So I actually found my trekking poles to be quite helpful on these crossings (heck, they even helped on my second visit a month later after minimal rainfall).
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 correct 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, after this dry, sun-exposed stretch, the canyon would then start to narrow again as the trail encountered the fifth stream crossing, which was signposted.
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 (I believe it’s called the East Fork Santa Paula Creek).
Then, the trail actually went upstream (away from Santa Paula Canyon Falls) before crossing it.
On my first visit, 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.
With hindsight being 20/20, I didn’t make that mistake again on a subsequent visit as I followed the trail (now the Last Chance Trail), which then steeply climbed the other side of the ravine before veering downstream.
However, judging from how many other people I’ve encountered at the main Santa Paula Canyon Falls that didn’t even know about the proper trail, this seemed to be a very common mistake.
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 2021 visits, someone had put a rope on that descending trail though I didn’t find that it was necessary.
Overall, reaching this waterfall and the “Lower Punch Bowl” was about 0.3-mile of hiking from the Big Cone Camp (or roughly 3.9 miles from the Santa Paula Canyon Trailhead or 7.8 miles round-trip).
As for the other path that stayed with Santa Paula Creek, it too would eventually reach the Santa Paula Canyon Falls.
However, 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 visits actually went this way (whether intentionally or not).
The Fillmore locals that I chatted with on my first visit 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 a couple of them 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 said to be very puny).
The Next Series Of Punch Bowls And Water Slides Beyond Santa Paula Canyon Falls
Most people may be content with the main Santa Paula Canyon Falls and its punch bowl.
Thus, I can totally see why it can get crowded here, but there were actually more waterfalls and punch bowls to explore further upstream.
So backtracking up to the trail junction just above the steep rope-aided section and the Last Chance Trail, we’d then continue to follow it around a bend to continue further in the upstream direction.
Around the bend, there were precarious top down views of the “Lower Punch Bowl” at the foot of the Santa Paula Canyon Falls.
However, 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.
However, despite the rope being there on my visits, the verticality of the cliffs combined with the smoothness of the surface made me rethink taking on further risk by going down there.
The locals also showed me a tiny series of “water slides” further upstream from top of the upper punch bowl waterfalls.
While at first glance they didn’t look like anything significant, I’m sure under higher waterflow than during my visits that they’d be a fun spot to slide from one pool to the next.
Scrambling To The Tall Unnamed Waterfall
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 weaved among some boulders on a drier part of the Santa Paula Creekbed.
Then, the trail veered right (ignoring the false fork on the left) as it made another moderate 150ft climb eventually reaching the fire rings within the Cross Camp, which was another primitive backcountry campsite.
Although there were trails (most of which were false) around the Cross Camp, it appeared that the continuation of the Last Chance Trail crossed Santa Paula Creek around here before continuing on.
That said, the remainder of the waterfalls and punch bowls in this write-up didn’t require continuing on the elusive Last Chance Trail at this point.
Thus, we’d eventually continue on the trail that kept to the right of the Cross Camp fire rings until thhat trail became even more faint as it steeply descended to the confluence of a side creek joining up with Santa Paula Creek.
This confluence was about 500ft from the Cross Camp, and any further exploration from here pretty much degenerated into an unofficial off-trail scramble.
At this point, I had a choice of which stream to follow, and I wound up following the stream coming in from the right first.
While there were some faint trails (attesting to how much foot traffic had been this way before despite its unofficial nature), it quickly degenerated into me hugging the potentially slippery slope on the left side of this side creek.
I wound up following it for about 0.2-mile upstream with a few hand-over-feet scrambling spots and one creek crossing before I eventually found myself at the base of an attractively tall waterfall.
To my knowledge, this light-flowing 150ft waterfall didn’t have an official name, but it was definitely the tallest of the waterfalls in this write-up.
Despite the fact that early 2021 had a disappointingly dry Winter season, I thought it said something about its longevity that this unnamed falls still had pretty satisfactory flow.
That said, I did wonder how much longer this waterfall would flow before it would eventually trickle or go dry.
Anyways, after having my fill of this unnamed falls, I then backtracked to the confluence of this creek with the Santa Paula Creek.
Waterfall and Pool Obstacle Beyond Cross Camp
Keeping left at the confluence to stay on Santa Paula Creek, I’d eventually reach a section with some smooth rocks protruding above some deeper sections of where Santa Paula Creek stagnated into small pools and crevaces.
Using those protruding rocks, I found a way to stay dry by clinging onto rock slopes and using the protruding rocks in the stream as stepping stones.
This was definitely one spot where having my trekking poles really helped to both maintain balance and to keep dry.
Shortly beyond the immediate obstacles, that was when we encountered another large pool with a hidden waterfall around a bend.
Opposite the plunge pool, the creek fanned out making it shallow enough to cross towards an overhanging alcove yielding a frontal view of that hidden waterfall.
When I first came to this spot, I suspected that any further progress would involve wading in the pool and scaling the waterfall.
So it caused me to turn back and come another day when I was better prepared to get wet and have a little more time to figure out the obstacles.
The Big Punch Bowl
When I came back to this hidden waterfall and pool obstacle a month later, I noticed that someone had set up a rope to the left of the waterfall.
That rope ultimately made it easier to cling to a sloping ledge above the waterfall’s deep pool and ultimately to the brink of that waterfall obstacle.
Without that rope, it was quite easy to slip and fall into the deep pool below given how smooth and slippery the surface of the ledge was (which also sloped towards the dropoffs).
Above the waterfall, there was another pool as well as more ropes set up (which may or may not be there in the future) on the opposite side of Santa Paula Creek.
This was the part where I had to get wet to proceed any further because the narrowness and verticality of the cliffs were too dicey to try to stay dry without a misstep and nasty spill.
By the way, this pool obstacle might have also been the reason why any further progress in high water would be too risky (at least to anything that couldn’t get wet like my phone or camera).
Beyond the pool-and-rope obstacle, there was then another potentially difficult obstacle of stacked boulders wedged in a configuration where there weren’t any natural footholds to climb up.
During my second visit, I actually had to use the ropes tied here as shaky footholds (there was even a loop tied in such a manner to act as a stirrup of sorts).
At the same time, there was a second, shorter rope tied to the top boulder that I had to use to pull myself up.
Without these ropes, I couldn’t see a way for any solo hiker to get past this obstacle.
Even with a second person, there would definitely have to be a sort of push and pull teamwork dynamic where the second person would have the push the first person up and over the stacked boulders while the first person would then have to pull the second person up.
Once above this tricky rope-assisted obstacle, I proceeded past the next group of pools and dropoffs by keeping right on a ledge that allowed me to keep going further without needing to swim.
Eventually, the canyon widened a bit more revealing a couple more attractive intermediate waterfalls, which were easily bypassed.
Finally, I then reached another large jumble of boulders where I had to ascend onto a ledge on the left side of the canyon to bypass them.
Once beyond those boulders, I then found myself at the base of a very large pool.
In order to keep going, I had to scramble to my right to cross the creek, which then brought me to more ledges and large boulders.
From there, I finally went far enough to witness a sloping cascade feeding the huge plunge pool, which I then realized to be the so-called Big Punch Bowl that the locals had told me about on my first visit.
It was possible to scramble further onto the slope containing the cascade, where another rope had been set up to get to its top and possibly use it as a water slide into the huge punch bowl below.
However, I was content with getting my views before turning back and facing the boulder and pool obstacles again on the way back out.
Given the depth and verticality of this section of Santa Paula Canyon, I knew that it was not possible to try to come down here from the top without technical canyoneering or rappeling/abseiling gear.
According to my GPS logs, it was roughly a quarter-mile from the intermediate waterfall and pool by the overhang to the Big Punch Bowl though it took me around 20-25 minutes in each direction to cover that distance given the rough creek scramble.
Overall, in my visits to the Santa Paula Canyon Falls and its punch bowls further upstream, they each took over 7 hours away from the car spanning a distance of about 10 miles in total.
That said, I suggested that 4-8 hours would be sufficient to at least reach these punch bowls and waterfalls.
But I’d imagine you’ll want to devote even more time to really experience this place, take a dip, figure out the trail, and have picnic breaks in between.
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 from Los Angeles 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, we’d then take exit 12 for 10th Street and the Hwy 150.
Turning right onto 10th Street, we’d drive north through Santa Paula for about 0.6-mile.
Then, we’d veer right where Ojai Road (Hwy 150) branches away from 10th Street to the right, and we’d remain on Hwy 150.
About another 5.4 miles north on Hwy 150 (or 6 miles north of the Hwy 126 exit), we’d then reach the turnoff to the Thomas Aquinas College.
But instead of going into the college, we’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.
This was 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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