There’s something in the air in Ojai for family travel. Or, perhaps, in the earth.
Whether it’s the sedative effect of spring’s sweet citrus harvest wafting over the breeze, the breathless awe of sunset’s famed “pink moment” against the Topa Topa Mountains, or the unseen pull of an actual electromagnetic vortex, Ojai has long drawn artists, spiritual seekers and those of us looking to escape L.A. for a spell.
“When I turn off the highway, I can feel my shoulder’s fall,” says Ericka Kreutz, a Los Feliz mom who regularly takes day trips to Ojai with her 5- and 3-year-old boys. “A day in Ojai can be an elixir, an energizer and a massage all at once. I just soak up the good vibes and take them home with me.”
Many of us, including Kreutz and myself, held our breaths this winter as the devastating Thomas Fire raged through the rugged mountains surrounding Ojai. And while the quaint downtown was spared, many locals lost their homes and businesses in blazes that scorched nearly 282,000 acres in Ojai and beyond.
In the aftermath of the fire, Ojai’s cafes, boutiques and galleries were quiet as the community pulled together to help one another rebuild. Recent rains brought with them the blessing of rebirth, as verdant grass sprouted through the charred earth, slowly turning the hillsides from black to green.
Spring in Ojai
Spring’s revival also signals the return of visitors just in time for pixie season, which is currently in full swing and runs through May. Thanks to the plentiful irrigation that citrus trees require, Ojai’s pixie harvest largely weathered the fire. In some places, you can still see where the flames edged right up to an orchard.
Looking for a spring escape that’s a mere 80 miles from L.A.? There are plenty of reasons why now is an ideal time to visit Ojai – including those sweet little pixies, easy-to-peel tangerines that will grace seemingly every menu, signature cocktail and spa treatment through spring. A visit now also supports local businesses and helps the area rebuild.
Confession: I guarded Ojai as my own personal escape for hikes, spas and spiritual pursuits for many years before considering that my favorite escape has plenty to offer my 5-year-old son as well. It all started with the epic playground at Libbey Park in the center of town. L.A. is clearly not short on parks, so what makes this one worth the 90-minute drive?
It depends who you ask. Three-year-old Tate Kreutz is crazy about “the [turf] hill where you put your bottom on the cardboard and go whoosh,” while my boy is enamored with “the spinny thing” and “the sprinkler,” a walk-through mister that offers sweet relief on hot days. As for us parents? Sunday’s excellent farmer’s market is part of the draw.
A perfect day in Ojai starts with an armload of fresh fruit, artisan popsicles and perhaps a breakfast burrito from neighboring Rainbow Bridge Village Marketplace. We mosey with our spoils to the park, where my son can easily stay entertained for hours while I marvel at how happy and relaxed Ojai locals seem to be.
An Ojai Institution
A few blocks from Libbey Park, Bart’s Books is a local landmark that charms kids and adults alike. The self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Outdoor Bookstore” (we happen to agree) was born in 1964, when Richard Bartinsdale built a series of bookcases along the sidewalk to offer his overflowing book collection to passersby who left payment in coffee cans.
Bart’s honor system remains, and you can pick up a book from shelves lining the store’s exterior at all hours for a handful of coins. Inside the sunny, partially roofed used bookshop, you’ll find nearly a million titles ranging from eclectic kids’ books to valuable out-of-print first editions.
Skeptical that a bookstore can captivate your kids? If exploring the cavernous shop’s nooks and crannies doesn’t do the trick, there’s always Pygmalion the shop cat – not to mention a wall of old-fashioned candy sticks.
Head for the Hills
While the beloved Meditation Mount was still closed for fire recovery at press time, most of Ojai’s many hiking trails have been reopened. For a kid-friendly hike conveniently close to downtown, take Signal Street north until it dead ends at the unpaved Shelf Road in the Valley View Preserve.
Perched on the side of a mountain, the dirt road skirts past avocado and tangerine trees to offer lovely valley views. For a challenge – and even better views – tackle the climb up Fox Canyon or Luci’s Trail, which start on Shelf Road.
Ojai by Bike
There’s no better way to explore Ojai than by bike – especially in the spring, when the intoxicating sweet scent of the citrus harvest fills the air. You can get pretty much anywhere downtown via the lovely and convenient Ojai Valley Bike Trail, which parallels the main road through town and continues all the way to Ventura.
Rent a bike at The Mob Shop, or better yet, sign up for one of their excellent bike tours. Spring is ideal for the Experience Ojai Tour, which takes you past the fragrant citrus orchards of the rural East End.
Catered to your interests and experience level, your guided bike tour may include a tasting at the Ojai Olive Oil Company, a visit with husky kunekune pigs on a demonstration farm or a stop at Krishnamurti’s mystical pepper tree.
If biking is the best way to explore Ojai, horseback riding is your best bet for experiencing the backcountry. Operating out of Oso Ranch, the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company is ideally located next to land protected by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy.
Meandering through the picturesque Ventura River Valley surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to see the Thomas Fire cutting through the landscape.
Oso Ranch owner Susan Gruber watched in horror from a nearby hilltop as the fire arrived “rolling like a wave and loud like a locomotive engine. Rocks in the river were popping and screaming, flames leaping 100 feet in the air,” Gruber says.
Fortunately, karma was on Gruber’s side. Just as she and her son said a tearful goodbye to their beloved ranch home, the wind changed direction and shifted the fire away from their property, saving the ranch from a fiery fate.
Oso Ranch’s animals weathered the fire as well, and after a ride kids can cozy up to miniature ponies, peacocks, bunnies, goats and all manner of farm animal. They also get to decorate a horseshoe to commemorate their adventure on horseback.
After a weekend spent exploring Ojai by bike, horse and “spinny thing,” it’s not surprising that my son is as enamored as his mama. “I like Ojai because I want to help the community from the fires,” he says, adding “and the views. If I could come here forever, I would sure pick that choice.”
Me too, Buddy. Me too.
Local mom Melissa Gage has been a freelance writer for more than 15 years.