Depending how far you care to wander, the Potrero John Trail, located just off the scenic State Route 33 out of Ojai, is either a gentle stroll, easy enough for the youngest of backpackers, or a tricky, tangled creek traverse that may involve a few scrapes and scratches. Those willing to brave a few brushy stretches, however, will be rewarded with a series of cascading falls.
The hike begins at a marked trailhead to the side of the highway, just northwest of the dramatic Black Wall or Sespe Gorge, an imposing cliff face popular with rock climbers. Within a few hundred feet of the trailhead, the trail crosses a pile of crumbled boulders before dipping down across the creek. Hikers should be prepared for numerous creek crossings and could do well with waterproof shoes, though the creek is modest enough that soaked feet are never a real concern.
After snaking alongside the creek amid a garden of colorful chaparral beneath pine-peppered sandstone walls, the easy trail reaches Potrero John Camp, 1.6 miles from the trailhead. The creek-side settlement, set beneath a few large oaks, would make for an excellent first-time backpacking trip, spacious enough for two to three tents. For some, the trip ends here.
Those wanting more than a charming stroll can adventure another 1.6 miles further along the unmaintained trail to Potrero John Falls, but your enjoyment of this segment depends on your penchant for bushwhacking. While by no means extreme, the remaining miles are slowgoing and may be a bit much for some; for others, though, the trail is a great primer in wilderness riparian travel, just wild enough to require some scrambling but not so thickly brushy as to be impassable. Prepare for fallen trees and shrubs with branches angled in the most perfectly face-poking direction. Potrero John Creek is prone to flash floods, and the pebbly brook wears the scars of recent rains and a 2010 flood that felled many trees and washed out large portions of the trail.
In fact, north of camp, there isn’t much of a reliable trail, and the trip will take some improvisation from this point, though it is still straightforward. One could choose to walk through the creek bed the entire way upward, or amble along the somewhat trailed banks, but a trip to the falls will likely include a bit of both; beware of quicksand-like mud after rainy periods.
Keep pushing forward up the increasingly narrowing walls of the creek, and eventually your endurance will pay off with Potrero John Falls, where white curtains of water slide down smooth polished rocks a total of 3.2 miles from the trailhead. Pooling beneath the dramatic ridges leading to Reyes and Haddock peaks, the falls are a great final destination, but daredevils can continue pushing higher still, either via a rocky and precarious trail to the left, or an even-dicier-looking rope beside the falls. Climbing up the trail, you are afforded some epic views of the upper falls, a spectacular payoff for all the branches and brambles that thwarted your path. Presumably one could keep hiking up to the mountain peaks, either via the ridge or, dangerously, up the falls, but with rain drizzling down and the gray sun soon to clock out, my hiking partner and I did not attempt it.
Halfway easy and halfway challenging, the Potrero John Trail is a great Ojai hike, suitable both for a simple stroll, a novice backpack, or a more challenging up-creek trek.