Guide to a Day Outdoors in Ojai

Boat dock and pontoon boats with Lake Casitas and mountains in the background.
Boat dock at Lake Casitas

This epic day is all about enjoying the great outdoors in Ojai. Most Ojai residents can basically walk out their front door to find a serene spot in nature, a gorgeous sunset spanning east to west, and a big starry sky. For me, this is at the heart of what makes Ojai so special and why people are so passionate about it.

With such a variety of options for what to do outdoors in Ojai from hiking to horseback riding, and so many guides already describing many of them, the thought for this day’s itinerary was to document something a little different, starting with rock climbing in the Sespe. I have to admit that I was seriously poo pooing the epic-ness of my plan for this day after seeing  a sycamore tree with “Pickup your trash please,” spray painted across its trunk when we tried to find a place to swim.  I was really questioning the authenticity of my localness by choosing to bring my 35+ Epic Ojai readers to a defaced tree. However, after cruising a pontoon boat on Lake Casitas, I felt totally vindicated and ready to face the Ojai Facebook scene.

The plan for the day:

Muffins and Chai to go from Farmer and The Cook
Rock climbing at Sespe Gorge / Black Wall
Swim and picnic on the river off Hwy 33
Pickup dinner supplies at Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop
Rent a boat at Lake Casitas
BBQ at Lake Casitas

Muffins and Chai from Farmer and The Cook

Pumpkin chocolate chip muffin on the dash of a care
Pumpkin chocolate chip muffin from Farmer and The Cook riding shotgun on our way up Hwy 33

Priority number one on this epic day was to pickup muffins and Chai at Farmer and The Cook. My sister-in-law and I enjoyed our breakfast in the car while we heart-to-hearted and took in the mountain view during the 30 minute drive to the climbing site.

Farmer and The Cook is a convenient place to grab a quick healthy, organic breakfast and/or lunch to go. In addition to muffins, scones, sweet breads, and quiche, there are usually pre-made sandwiches, hummus and juice in the fridge in the morning (more options and soup and salad bar by lunchtime), as well as many other snacks and drinks to choose from in the store. We also picked up several pounds of organic summer squash, cucumbers and colorful bell peppers grown on their farm in anticipation of the barbecue later in the day.

Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center with the morning sun shining through the trees
Stop by the Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center if you need directions. We did ’cause I forgot there’s no cell reception.

Living Vicariously: Rock climbing at Sespe Gorge / Black Wall

Black Wall at Sespe Gorge
Black Wall at Sespe Gorge
Monica sitting next to BFF belaying climber
BFF getting ready to climb and me not practicing basic climbing safety

Two of my best friends are accomplished rock climbers. They’ve given me ample opportunity to become one myself. I like to use the excuse that I don’t want to trust my life to a bolt in a rock, but really I’m too lazy to learn how to tie knots and not tangle rope. My BFF’s sister was going to put me in a harness and pull me up a rock the previous weekend, but she had to wait for a baby to be born instead (because she’s a midwife, duh). On this day, BFF was meeting some new climbing friends and went for a multi pitch route above my dangling skill set. I happily tagged along purely as a spectator and nature enthusiast, and my sister-in-law came to take pictures.

Sespe Gorge is gorge-ous, as is the drive up Hwy 33 to mile marker 31.18 (about 35 minutes from downtown). It was fun to explore the carved out sandstone rock at the base of Black Wall and sit back on a boulder by the creek and watch my friend climb the impressively tall rock. She and her friends went with one of the most popular routes at Black Wall called Tree Root. BFF described the climb as having just enough holds to maintain a steady pace but still challenge you. This climb is pretty exposed so you probably wouldn’t want to climb it on a day that went above 90 degrees.

Ojai has some great climbing, and Ojai rock climbers know this. It’s not a go-to Ojai nature activity for non-climbers because of the need for technical knowledge and equipment.  Do yourself a favor and rustle up someone with climbing gear who you can trust with your life, and take advantage of this opportunity for adventure in your backyard.  There are some basic to difficult top rope climbs as close as Foothill Road / Pratt Trail. If you’re a weekend visitor or don’t have climbing friends with benefits, you can hire a climbing guide.

BFF on the first pitch
Monica barefoot bouldering on sandstone rock with tree sticking out of it.

Ever heard of a trash can?: Not swimming and picnic on the Ventura “River”

In case you’re wondering, no, it’s not a greater good situation.
Monica and daughter in arms standing on boulder looking at swimming hole
It’s not even that hot today, people.

I need to let go of the nostalgia of my childhood of dividing my summer afternoons between swimming in the river and baking on a hot rock and accept the fact that we’re in a terrible drought, and I won’t be swimming in a pristine river in August until after the winter that my house washes away.  Until that happens, I officially recommend avoiding this swimming hole unless you want to do a community service by picking up the accumulation of trash, “dog” crap, and broken glass.

In wetter years, I can definitely see the potential in this swimming hole, located off Hwy 33 across from the rock quarry. Sadly though, it will take the river some time to flip the boulders and uproot the sycamore tagged in graffiti (there’s just no silver lining for that tree). If you’re reading this in a future where Ojai is not officially a desert, and you’re wondering where to swim, the best public swimming hole is managed by the Ojai Land Conservancy near the Oso Road Trailhead (it’s a graffiti-free dust bowl at the moment).

Green swimming hole surrounded by foliage and boulders. Slightly milky water.
Downstream a bit- I’d only recommend to swim here if you were on fire.

Buying beef at Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop

View through the window of Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop
Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop in beautiful Meiners Oaks

Before I headed home for my daily epic nap with my daughter, I stopped by Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop to buy beef for the barbecue later. This place is the real deal: pasture raised animals, most of them raised by the very owners of the butcher shop. How many places in America can you just walk in and buy meat from your local rancher? Not that I actually researched it, but I’m going with not many. To me, my after meat guilt is so much lower when I know it’s fresh, legit natural, and I can reflect on the majority of the animals’ lives without being utterly ashamed of humanity.

Watkins butchers the whole animal, so there are many affordable, interesting and delicious cuts to choose from. I usually buy tri-tip for barbecuing but went with a bunch of flat iron steaks since they were out. You can find Watkins Ranch Butcher Shop on El Roblar just a few blocks from Farmer and The Cook, where you can buy all organic produce direct from the farmer that grew it! We’re so spoiled, Ojai! I hope you’re all taking advantage of this extraordinarily convenient and local food, because it’s so good and truly special.

A very complicated Day of the Dead situation

This day just got a whole lot better: Pontoon boat ride on Lake Casitas

Monica and family walking across parking lot buildings under oaks to rent a boat.
Boat rental and cafe at Lake Casitas
Row of silver motor boats at Lake Casitas boat dock.
It’s all about the pontoon party boat.

Refreshed from the afternoon nap, I was ready to give this day another shot at the home of my beloved Lake Casitas Rowing Club. It’s been about 3 years since I’ve been out on the lake in a rowing shell and close to 30 years since the last time I (as in my dad) rented a motor boat here. I arrived at the lake by 5 pm with my husband, our almost 2 year old daughter, sister and brother-in-law and their 3 1/2 year old daughter.  In a split second epic decision, BFF decided to get dropped off at the lake gate en route to her home in Santa Barbara after her long day of climbing.

The boat rental staff was very friendly and kindly upgraded us to a pontoon boat at no extra cost since it was the end of the day. They sent us back to our cars to drive the 1/4-1/2 mile distance to the “new” boat dock, formerly know as the bottom of the lake. We rented the boat for an hour and were given ample time to enjoy a full hour on the water itself.

Talk about nostalgia, seeing my handsome husband guide the boat out into the gentle afternoon waves brought back a lot of summer vacation memories.  (BTW, those “gentle” afternoon waves and accompanying breeze might have felt more like an ocean hurricane had we rented kayaks.) The lake was shockingly low but no less beautiful in the golden pre-dusk light with mountain views in all directions. My daughter’s expression of total satisfaction and her tiny life jacket were hilarious, as was my sister-in-law in a billowy dress on the bow of the boat trying to take pictures and not flash us.

My daughter’s happiness lasted about 30 minutes before her attention turned to the orange torture device around her neck, so we headed back to the dock. There is plenty of lake surface still to enjoy by boat, and had we taken the full hour, I don’t think we would have even made it to the farthest point, allowing for dance breaks, obviously.

Close up of toddler girl on a boat wearing a life jacket.
Yah, I’m on a boat. NBD.
Corner of pontoon boat with dad and toddler at the helm and water and hills in the background.
Watch out Lake Casitas Rowing Club, toddler at the helm.

Local Yokel Dinner: BBQ at Lake Casitas

Far view of people at a picnic table with eucalyptus trees and Lake Casitas in the background.
A perfect spot for a picnic.
Back of 2 toddlers going down a twisty slide
Playground at Lake Casitas near the road to the boat rental dock

After we returned our boat, we set up camp at the nearest barbecue pit with a bit of lawn and a playground for the girls. We cooked a simple, delicious dinner on the grill with the local ingredients purchased in the morning: summer squash cut in half and tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, flat iron steaks tenderized with olive oil, and raw bell pepper and cucumber spears, plus I brought precious scraps of an olive and lemon sourdough loaf purchased earlier from Farmer (available Friday afternoons). We had a perfect spot to enjoy the evening light on the water and relax, cook and eat while our kids played.

There are day use sites spread all over the Lake Casitas Recreation Area with views of the lake and near playgrounds and bathrooms. The vehicle entrance fee is currently $15 per car, and the park is open from sunrise to sunset. In addition to boating, fishing, camping and picnicking, the lake has a small water park in the summer, a Frisbee golf course, biking and walking trails, and a cafe that serves a decent breakfast and lunch with traditional and Mexican inspired plates. The Ojai Wine Festival, among other events, is also hosted at the lake.

Woman barbecuing squash and steak wearing sunglasses
BFF lookin’ like a PYT on the BBQ
Steaks and yellow summer squash with charcoal marks on a barbecue.
Locally grown and raised summer squash and flat iron steaks

My epic day ended with nursing my little girl to sleep on our balcony under a big starry sky, but BFF still had to Uber home to Santa Barbara.  Her day was truly epic: she rock climbed from 9 am – 3 pm, then took in the disappointment of the swimming hole, joined us at the lake for boating and dinner, and then Ubered home with a young engaged couple from Oxnard, and it was a Sunday, so she had to go to work the next day!  Big sun hats off to you, BFF.

View from below of woman climber looking down.
Way to be epic, woman.

More Research

Rock Climbing in Ojai
Guided rock climbing in Ojai with Alex Bury
Description of climbs in Ojai on Mountain Project including Sespe Gorge/Black Wall (Tree Root under Routes)

Farmer and The Cook
Watkins Cattle Co.
Article in the VC Star about how Watkins beef is raised and slaughtered and cooking tips for grass-fed beef

Lake Casitas
Lake Casitas Day Use Fees
Lake Casitas Boat Rental Rates
Ojai Wine Festival at Lake Casitas

Photo credit and love to Amy Joy Bakken


  1. Well written, beautiful pics! Fun! I still wonder what is happening in the Day of the Dead vignette, what the heck is a PYT(pretty young tourist? perpetually yappy totalitarian? purposeful yacht tinkerer?) I like how Little M is pinching the lifevest into submission and how Little Z isn’t keeping her eyes on the lake-road.

  2. Sharon Bisaccia

    I totally enjoyed scrolling thru the latest delightful adventures with you in my hometown. Thank you, Monica, for a delightful trip. The text is very well done, the photos are super and it is fun to see you, your family and friends enjoying such a wonderful day.

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