California Back Road: Quatal Canyon


Quatal Canyon mapThere are places I’ve been to that are out of time. Places that are imbued with spirit, and although man has touched it with roads and trails, it remains itself and deeply authentic, a place that takes me back in time. This is what I am drawn to, what I hunger for. To drop down into another realm that is all encompassing, overpowering – to feel it, see it, smell it and open to it.

This place is only two hours from where I live, it exists in Central California’s Los Padres National Forest, it is not easy to get to or go through, but worth the effort, it is a journey to an ancient and vital place.

I enter off a paved highway at Hudson Ranch Rd.,  to the east soar Kern County’s tallest peaks, Cerro Noroeste and Mt. Pinos and San Emigdio. To my right is a washed out sign with pealed back paint that shows the way – Quatal Canyon -a bright white arrow points left to forest road 9N09. The entrance is plain, it is easy to miss, an allee of Pinyon pines surrounds a curving road and pulls me in, for I know enchantment lies ahead.

Beginning journeyI cross over the highway and slow down my all wheel drive car onto the stone scattered dirt road. Here motionless grey green Pinyon pines envelope me. Without warning, oaks rise up from the canyon floor, soon the Pinyon branches turn dark and wild and hang from the sandy hillsides, roots exposed, no rails to guard the eroded road that drops off steeply below.  Around another curve emerge red stained hills and contrasting sage green shrubs above and around the scoured formations.

VegetationSuddenly a hairpin turn appears, I must pay attention and slow down even more which is why I am here,  to unhurry my pace. On my right I see the brilliant white California buckwheat, the pale yellow plumed swords of Yucca whippelei punching up to the sky, the maroon smooth bark of twisted Manzanita and smell the fragrant mountain sage. This thrills me, I design landscapes and outdoor spaces, I have studied them in books, and seen them in square plastic pots,  but this is where they live. They have survived flash floods, the delicate purple blue lupine have struggled through rocky places to stand upright and courageous. The ancient Chumash wilderness envelopes me, I am part of it,  I feel alive in it.

Quatal Canyon, according to legend, is named after a great Chumash warrior. It is a giant desert wash formed from waters ripping down from Cerro Noroeste (Mt. Abel) and from severe erosion created by nearby San Andreas fault lines.

I stop my car, I get out and stand at the road’s edge and listen to the silence. I am alone, I have seen no one. The canyon wash drops down below. A screech breaks the quiet, it is a Western scrub jay who lives in  this dry lowland, perched on a scrubby oak, then I see a jackrabbit with giant ears hop between tall grasses on the canyon floor. Slowing down, getting still.

Runnels_vineyards_Sagebrush AnniesBack on the road runnels suddenly appear, deep narrow channels created by the powerful flash floods that are carved out from November to April. I take it slow and clear one after another. Then the road becomes a roller coaster of humps that are crazy and fun to ride. Soon the road straightens out and a quiet isolation descends. I pass western style post and beam gateways like Crying R Ranch and shortly a sign tells me I am leaving the Los Padres National Forest.  This rare passage is almost at an end. A concoction of oil and dirt smooths out the road and signs of civilization start to appear. Incongruous emerald green vineyards spread out below fractured arid hills, here miles of cabernet grape vines are planted.

The road ends at Highway 33, turning left and south is Ojai, turning right and north is another destination, a eccentric hole in the wall inn where gold medal wines are poured and thick steaks sizzle on a grill, called Sage Brush Annie’s.

My journey through time is over, I am buoyant, I have been somewhere primal and I feel full of its enchanted light.


About the Author: Linda Jassim earned her Masters of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute in Communications and Film Directing and received a Masters of Landscape Architecture from the University of Southern California. Linda is a landscape designer and has worked on residential and commercial projects in the Southern California region. She was editor of “The Power of Gardens,” a monograph of landscape designer Nancy Power’s life work. She has published articles about architecture and urban issues in print and online. Linda also has had an extensive career as an EMMY award winning TV and film Producer and Director.


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3 responses to “California Back Road: Quatal Canyon

  1. Wow! You really captured the essence of the wild country of the mountains in southern california. I know that very road and it is a wild road and a desolate road and wonderful. Thanks for the evocative ride, Linda.

  2. Living here in a sacred place teaches us quickly to respect nature.
    Please don’t think of our roads as a carnival ride. Enjoy the motion
    And freedom, then get out and breathe the clean air. Sit and
    Contemplate the silence. Photograph nature and bring back
    Your memories. Don’t rush thru life….change your thinking and
    be in the moment, come back and live here. Be transformed.
    Wildlife is abundant. Have you seen our bluebirds? They
    will lead you away from their nests in the spring. Condor
    Country, did you notice? Do you know the difference between
    Sage brush and rabbit brush? Did you know Mt. Pinos was the
    Chumash center of the world? An amazing world here. You
    Will return because nature heals. Peace.

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