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Five Ways to Discover the Secrets of the Ojai Valley

lower ojai valley
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SoCal Wanderer's premiere episode "Anacapa to Ojai” follows host Rosey Alvero as she visits the Ventura Harbor before riding her bike into Ojai for dinner. Watch it online.

Even if you’ve never made it to Ojai – a Ventura County town with a population of about 7,500 – you’ve likely tasted its fruit or sipped its wine.

In fact, those two exports of Ojai are so popular – and, let’s face it, delicious – that you don’t even have to go to the local orchards or vineyards to get a sack of Ojai Pixies or a bottle of vino.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other things to see, do, and taste while you’re stomping through the foothills of Los Padres National Forest. Whether you’re a gourmand, an amateur aromatherapist, a history buff, or a mystic, the upper and lower valleys of Ojai – known collectively as “Shangri-La” – have got something for you.

Here are five of the best highlights where you can start your journey.

1. Drive the Dennison Grade

It doesn’t matter if approaching Ojai from the east is actually the shortest or most direct route from wherever you are, because California State Route 150 – known colloquially as the Dennison Grade – is an incredibly scenic and informative way to go. From up there, you can look down at the Lower Ojai Valley at a variety of vista points (some official and others a bit more ad hoc) after you’ve already passed the site of Ojai’s Oil Well No. 6 (a forerunner to the state’s oil bonanza, the historical marker says) and stopped for a patty melt or BLT (and a root beer, of course) at The Summit Drive-In.

The Thomas Fire raged through here in late 2017, ravaging the hillsides and obliterating some structures, as a stark reminder of the impermanence of the amusements and attractions that surround us. The upper part of the grade may not literally give you a 30,000-foot view of the ephemeral nature of everything that stands in the path of, well, nature, but it’ll give you pause for contemplation. And it sure is pretty.

You can take Highway 150 all the way to Lake Casitas and even farther to Carpinteria (as the Casitas Pass Road) for an extended adventure.

the summit drive in ojai
The Summit Drive-In |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
lower ojai valley
Lower Ojai Valley |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

2. Pick Your Own Lavender

Before you make your descent into the Lower Valley, make a detour south off the 150 at Big Canyon and make your way towards Sulphur Mountain, where you’ll find the farm stand and U-pick at Frog Creek Farm. Lavender season is short, and usually starts in June when the temperatures are already rising, so wear a hat and bring some water for your visit.

The farm will provide a basket and clippers and will steer you towards the best variety of this fragrant herb for you – whether the indigo hues and burly buds of the English variety (which blooms early) or the long-stemmed, delicate purple varieties from the Provence region of France. You really can’t go wrong with whichever you choose – they all give off a pleasant aroma that will last long after you dry them out. Even better, it’s the gift that keeps on giving – the scent of lavender is renowned for its relaxing properties and is often used in aromatherapy as a sleep aid. Lavender is also a great moth repellant and is non-toxic to pets.

When visiting Frog Creek, you’ll pay no admission fee and just $7 apiece for lavender bundles (the size of which is loosely defined) that you snip yourself (though pre-cut and pre-dried bundles are also available, as are other lavender products). You’ll also get a fresh cut, twine and a nice tissue paper wrap.

frog creek farm
Frog Creek Farm  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
frog creek farm
Frog Creek Farm  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. Tour (and Taste) a Grove of Olive Trees

We often talk about the places you should go while visiting any particular destination, but the people you’ll meet is often just as important. And a visit to Ojai Olive Oil Company is worth it if even just to meet the makers and, during harvest time in October or November, watch the workers handpick the olives by sliding a gloved hand down the branches, taking the young with the ripe.

Swing by anytime during open business hours for a free tour, much of which will be spent basking in the shade provided by a grove of Spanish olive trees (which grow Lechin de Sevilla olives) planted in the Mission Era, the oldest on the property, and chatting about the ranch’s origin story and current approaches to organically-grown olive oil. Inside, you’ll find the machinery that processes the picked olives (not a press but a mill), pits and all, and extracts the oil for bottling – which is also done by hand on site.

And last but not least, you can taste any and all of the olive oils offered – from Spanish to French and Italian-style as well as flavor-infused versions. Flavored balsamic vinegars are also available to sample and purchase, although the vinegars come from the Modena region of Italy.

olive trees
Ojai Olive Oil Company |  
olive oil
Ojai Olive Oil Company  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

4. Trace the Legacy of Ojai’s Founding Father

Were it not for midwestern industrialist Edward Libbey – the “father of the glass industry” from Ohio and founder of the Libbey Glass Company – the area formerly known as Nordhoff (named in tribute to writer Charles Nordhoff) might not have retained the small town charm it has today. And many of its Spanish Colonial Revival-style landmarks, which now characterize the Downtown area, might never have been built in the first place.

Starting at the Ojai Valley Museum and Visitors Center, you can learn about Libbey and the development projects he contributed since first vacationing in Ojai in 1908. Those include the post office bell tower (closed to the public but viewable from the street), the Arcade business district walkway, the pergola across from the arcade (destroyed by explosion in 1971 but rebuilt at the millennium) which leads into the former Civic Center Park (now Libbey Park), El Roblar Hotel (now Oaks at Ojai, currently under renovation), Ojai Valley Country Club (now Ojai Valley Inn & Spa), and the museum itself, which is located in the Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. Libbey partially funded the church’s 1918-19 construction to replace the wooden predecessor that burned down the prior year – and the glass mogul considered it his “crowning achievement” among all his efforts to beautify Ojai.

Several of these landmarks are within walking distance of one another, but you can also get from one place to another pretty easily by bike or trolley

ojai valley museum
Ojai Valley Museum  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
the oaks at ojai
Oaks at Ojai  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 
ojai bike path
Ojai Valley Bike Path |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

5. Get Mystical

Can any place possess healing powers? Well, there are plenty of ways to get in touch with your spiritual self in the great outdoors of southern California – whether adrift on the ocean, marooned on an island, lost in the desert, or tucked away in the mountains. But if you’re looking for a more guided experience in spirituality and mysticism, look no further than Ojai – and not just for that “pink moment” it’s known for in the final act of its sunsets. Besides the natural “calming vortex” that comes from being so close to wilderness, Ojai has a certain focus on wellness of the mind, body and spirit that goes beyond giving up dairy for soy and practicing mindfulness while standing in the checkout line at the farmers market.  

A good way to start your spiritual journey is to make a pilgrimage to Meher Mount, a “gateway to the divine” perched atop Sulphur Mountain. Founded by Agnes Baron in 1946 and sanctified by Indian spiritual master Meher Baba in 1956, the area provides 176 acres of views, wildlife, picnic areas and coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) – including one particular such tree that serves as a touchpoint for followers of Avatar Baba. In 1985, fire burned all structures on the property, leaving only a chimney from the guesthouse where the Avatar once stayed, which you can still visit today. Now, there’s a more recently built library that contains books, videos and 3-D slides for visiting spiritual seekers to peruse.

You can also wander the grounds of the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, which welcomes visitors of any or no faith to its Sanctuary of Connections, labyrinth and overnight personal retreat accommodations. Visit the onsite library and bookshop, do a little birding, and enjoy the native plants anytime daily from 7:00 a.m. to sunset. Or, head over to the Krishnamurti Educational Center, where you can learn the core teachings of J. Krishnamurti, the Indian-born philosopher and Ojai resident who broke away from Theosophy in 1929 to blaze his own spiritual trail. To access The Oak Grove, where Krishnamurti gave public talks until 1985, you must request a code online. On the website, you can also book a room to stay at the Pepper Tree Retreat and check out its historic structures while you ponder some of life’s biggest questions.

meher mount
Meher Mount | Flickr/sblairindia/CreativeCommons

Bonus: Meditation Mount

There’s another hilltop in Ojai, a public meditation center that has provided a meditative escape since 1971 – but tragically, Meditation Mount was all but obliterated by the Thomas Fire in December 2017 and is closed indefinitely, with hopes of recovery and reopening.

meditation mount
View from Meditation Mount, before the Thomas Fire in December 2017  |  Sandi Hemmerlein 

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