Given the vast number of orange groves that thrived in Southern California a century ago, even a half-century ago, it’s surprising hikers in the region see so few of them in what remains of rural SoCal.

A California Hiker's Delight: Fresh-picked oranges for the trail
A California Hiker’s Delight: Fresh-picked oranges for the trail

It’s with great pleasure that I report that I found a great place to hike with an orange-grove-gone-wild, a landscape that recalls the days when citrus orchards, countryside and the rugged mountains beyond combined to create the kind of picture (orange crate art) that portrayed Southern California as a kind of paradise.

But before I reveal a wonderful trail among oranges, I must confess that I lose all objectivity as a hike reporter when it comes to citrus. I love California oranges. I grew up in suburban L.A. with orange trees in our backyard. My schoolmates and I built tree houses in the orange trees in vacant lots.

An orange tree grows just outside my barn/office in Santa Barbara. I can reach over the top railing of the stairs leading to The Trailmaster’s headquarters to pick fruit from the upper reaches of the better of my two trees, the one that produces the largest and most juicy oranges.

I like taking oranges, usually cut in quarters, on my hikes. Dried fruit is a whole lot lighter and a more practical trail snack, but there’s something so refreshing about an orange.

Orange Grove Gone Wild in Ventura River Preserve, Ojai, California
Orange Grove Gone Wild in Ventura River Preserve, Ojai, California

OK, I’ve really taken a long loop trail and I promised to point you to a hike amidst oranges. You can do that near Ojai, California with a hike in Ventura River Preserve aka Rancho El Nido. Miles of well-signed footpaths and old ranch roads weave through the 1,591-acre preserve, a diverse environment with oak woodland, chaparral-covered hillsides and sunny meadows.

At the turn of the 21st century, Rancho El Nido appeared destined for development of an upscale residential community and a golf course. However, by law the endangered steelhead trout required watershed protection; this greatly complicated developers’ plans. The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy stepped up to raise funds to purchase the spread and the preserve opened to public use in 2003.

The rancho was planted in oranges in the 1920s and one of the highlights of this hike in the west end of the Ojai Valley is meandering through an orange grove gone wild. If the trees were tended, the scene would make a perfect postcard or lovely label for a wooden orange crate. Picture rows of orange trees, a river bubbling over rocks into quiet pools, wildflower-strewn meadows in the foreground, the Santa Ynez Mountains and Nordhoff Ridge in the background, and the whole bucolic scene topped by a deep blue sky.

For a great intro to the delights of Ventura River Preserve, make a moderate 5-mile loop up Rice Canyon and down Wills Canyon—not incidentally passing through the old orange grove coming and going.

Once there were many scenes of citrus-culture surrounded by attractive countryside in Southern California—from San Fernando to Claremont to Riverside. And of course, let’s not forget how Orange County got its name! Early in the 20th century, the cynical author H.L. Mencken visited Southern California and complained: “The whole place stank of orange blossoms.”

Rancho El Nido (Spanish for “The Nest”) is about the best of what’s left; its orange trees, as untended as they are, still produce sweet fruit. I picked a few oranges and enjoyed them on my hike.

Hike on.