Don’t Waste Your Time in Los Padres National Forest

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Aerial view of a road winding through the mountains of Los Padres National Forest.

While the National Parks and big cities tend to steal the show when it comes to California, many other areas of California are worth a visit. One of the more spectacular places to explore is the Los Padres National Forest. With so many incredible sights, you won’t want to waste your time due to a lack of planning. 

Where Is Los Padres National Forest? 

Los Padres National Forest is a quick 1.5-hour drive from Los Angeles. The forest is in the western area of California. Los Padres National Forest includes most of the mountainous terrain found along the California coast from Ventura to Monterey, continuing inland. California 101 gives easy access to the area from the west, as does California 33 and 58 to the east and northeast. 

Wooden sign announcing Los Padres National Forest with a sun flare and mountains in the distance

Why You Should Plan Your Time Wisely in Los Padres National Forest 

Los Padres National Forest isn’t a small side stop. With almost 3,000 square miles to explore, it’s tough to see it all. If you fail to plan your time wisely, you could walk away feeling like you missed it. There is so much ground to cover that you can easily waste a lot of time simply wandering around feeling overwhelmed. 

What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit?

While any time is a good time to visit Los Padres National Forest, some seasons are better than others. Summer months can be hot and crowded, and winter can bring frigid temperatures. Those visiting in the spring and fall will find comfortable temperatures and smaller crowds. 

The Top 5 Things to Do in Los Padres National Forest 

Having a plan is the best way to avoid wasting your time in Los Padres National Forest. Creating a must-see list will help ensure you don’t leave without seeing some of the best features of the forest. Here are a few things we feel you shouldn’t miss.

Pro Tip: Put Los Padres National Forest on your itinerary and follow our ultimate road trip planning guide for smooth sailing.

1. Visit Sand Dollar Beach 

View of the ocean coast at Sand Dollar Beach as the waves come in

If you’re looking for an iconic rugged west coast beach, look no further than Sand Dollar Beach. This rocky beach has breathtaking views that will leave you inspired. Not only is this the perfect photo backdrop, but it’s also a great place to search for sand dollars, just as the name suggests. While you can’t stay overnight here, this is a great place to spend the entire day. 

2. Check Out Cachuma Lake Recreation Area 

Cachuma Lake in Los Padres National Forest, California

Cachuma Lake Recreation Area lies not far from Santa Barbara and makes for a great day trip for those staying in the area. Whether you’re looking for water recreation or fishing opportunities, you’ll be in for a treat. The mild temperatures and sunny weather make for an enticing afternoon. 

3. Drive the Jacinto Reyes National Scenic Byway

Driver with the windows down, hair blowing in the window, sun streaming through the windows on a road trip.

This 38-mile drive travels the diverse terrain of southern California via Highway 33. Drivers will experience beautiful vistas as well as stunning cliffs and rock formations. The area features unique geology, plants, and animals in one drive. It’s highly customizable depending on how often you’re willing to pull over and enjoy the view on your way to or from Los Padres National Park. 

4. Stop at Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center 

If you find yourself stuck on what to do next, visit Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center. You’ll find it eight miles north of Ojai on Highway 33. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch an educational program such as the “Introduction to Backpacking” course. You’ll enjoy the local wildlife displays as well as the onsite library. Let those working at the center know what type of adventure you’re looking for, and they’ll have a variety of suggestions. Don’t forget to grab a map and trail guide before you leave. 

5. Take One of Many Hikes in the Area 

There’s no shortage of trails in the Los Padres National Forest. From easy to advanced, there’s a hike waiting for you. With nearly 200 trails, you’re sure to find the perfect fit. 

One of the most popular trails is the Santa Paula Canyon and Punch Bowls Trail. This 6.5-mile trail leads you to a spectacular waterfall. There’s 895 feet of elevation change, giving this trail a moderate rating. 

Watch a hike to the Santa Paula Bunch Bowls and see a natural water slide.

If you’re looking for a more advanced trail, check out the Cerro Alto Trail Loop. This 4.5-mile loop will challenge you with 1,607 feet of elevation gain. The steep and rocky climb will reward you with amazing 360-degree views. 

Those hoping to take it easy won’t be disappointed with the Rose Valley Falls Trail. While the trail is an easy 1.1 miles out and back, you still get great trail features, such as a waterfall that you can jump into to cool off. This hike is great for all ages and abilities. 

About Camping in Los Padres National Forest 

With so much to see and do in the Los Padres National Forest, you’ll want to pace yourself and stay awhile. A great way to extend your stay is by setting up at a campground. Note that wildfires often close public lands to camping during the fire season. Always verify that public lands are open for camping before heading out.

If you prefer to stay in established campgrounds, one great choice is the Arroyo Seco campground. Arroyo Seco offers both tent and RV sites, with the RV sites accommodating RVs up to 36 feet. Campo Alto campground is another excellent choice for large RVs up to 40 feet. 

There are plenty of dispersed camping options in the Los Padres National Forest. Those hoping to do some boondocking will appreciate the Santa Barbara Ranger District, Monterey Ranger District, Mt. Pinos Ranger District, and Santa Lucia Ranger District. Don’t forget to verify that the area you’re looking to boondock in is open to campers.

Keep in Mind: If Los Padres National Forest is just one of many stops on your California adventure, be sure to learn how to find the best free camping in the golden state. 

Aerial view of tents and RVs at a campground along the ocean coast.

Enjoy a Well-Planned Trip in Los Padres National Forest

While you can explore some places by winging it, some are better with more planning. You can take a last-minute trip to Los Padres National Forest, but you might miss some of the highlights. Take some time to create a plan, and you won’t be disappointed.

Have you had the chance to explore Los Padres National Forest? What experiences do you feel others should add to their itineraries?

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