Botanists and backpackers alike know Ojai’s Dry Lakes Ridge to be a lovely and unique destination for finding flora or sweeping views a short, steep climb away from Highway 33. Less considered is the ridge’s worth as a night hike destination. Perched high between the Matilija and Sespe drainages, the Dry Lakes Ridge affords nocturnal adventurers solitude and an owl’s eye view of the world from Pine Mountain to Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands, with enough slight navigational challenges to make it more than a mere midnight stroll.
At any time of day, Dry Lakes Ridge is a special place. Sitting atop the zigzagging State Route 33, the mountain ridge hides a noteworthy home for rare plants amidst its otherwise unassuming chaparral flanks. In 1986’s “A Flora of Dry Lakes Ridge,” UCSB botanist David Magney thoroughly researched the ridge’s restricted bands of ponderosa and costal sagebrush plant communities, declaring Dry Lakes a distinctive region for is disjunctive uniqueness and seemingly unaltered population of natives and endemics.
The hike begins at 3,720 feet of elevation with an immediate climb of just under 700 feet in less than half a mile — i.e., very steep. The challenge begins even before the ascent, however, with a little bit of route finding. The Forest Service does not regularly maintain this trail, and it is infrequently used. Travelers have stamped out not one but three or four potential pathways up the hill, of which only one forms an actual trail. Should you continue up the ridge, you will find this to be something of a theme, with one supposed trail misleading you into a scraping fence of chaparral until you find another.
There is no way to go but up, and the shadeless trail would be a brutal one in the full heat of a summer day. At sunset, however, the heart-pumping incline at least counters the plummeting temperatures and the sun’s rapid setting. Watch as headlights thread up the mountainside and the darkening gradients of slopes and sea open up to the far-off islands.
Finally, the trail meets the cresting ridge at 4,400, and the views open up even more. One can see far into the purple Sespe river valley, glimpsing the sloping rocks around Willett Hot Springs and the far-off San Rafael Peak. Pine Mountain, with its ever-spectacular Reyes and Haddock peaks, looms opposite Dry Lakes Ridge. Down below, Lake Casitas sheds its last light as Ventura illuminates nearby, and the Santa Monica Mountains stand high and hazily at the east end of the horizon. This is a great place to watch the sunset and moonrise.
The trail peaks out at 4,800 feet before it begins its descent into the basins of Dry Lake Ridge. The basins are shallow depressions that are thick with thriving plant communities, formed by accelerated erosion on the ridge due to fault activity. Under a full moon, these cradles of calm seem otherworldly, almost alien, and are somewhat eerily open in the night air.
However, even during the day, the meadows are slightly difficult to navigate due to the encroaching chaparral. The trail isn’t so much one trail as it is a variety of footpaths paralleling an old firebreak, at points converging into a track but seeming to diverge into the brush in others. There are distinctive cuts in the vegetation, but you have to train your eyes. At night, this becomes even more of a task, making a headlamp and/or flashlight essential even under the brightest of moons. Given the sensitive, slow-growing quality of these plant habitats, one ought to be as delicate and dexterous as possible when finding the trail.
The first two Dry Lakes are small seas of sage. The second, punctuated by pines, is particularly scenic, with the Pine Mountain ridgeline rimming the northern views. But it’s the third — located 2.5 miles from the trailhead a couple hundred feet down a slightly steep grade from the first two basins — that makes for the most reasonable place to stop to camp or, if not sleeping, to pause and rest. The almost perfectly round meadow is composed of grass, not sage, and is dotted around its perimeter with ponderosas. An old ice can stove flanks the west side, and a tire swing sways from a tree on its northern side. Here, hiding in a quiet botanic bowl, there is no indication you are near a road.
Until spring, your night hike is bound to be cold; this author’s recent late-November solo overnight dipped to the low 20s. But if you can stand the chill, then all the better, for you will likely be one of the few. The cities buzz thousands of feet below, but up here, it’s just you and the plants, sharing the peaceful light of the moon.