There’s a place resting midway between the sea and the summit of sky-scraping Mt. Pinos, a sprawling maze of twisted earth not quite like anywhere else in the Los Padres: the Cuyama Badlands. I had spotted these mysterious lands first from atop Ojai’s Pine Mountain and wondered ever since what was concealed amid the alluvial folds. Coming down from a joyous MLK weekend snow-camping trip spent with friends atop Mt. Pinos, I needed one last escape before my regular life. I decided to finally visit the beguiling badlands — alone.
On the mountain and below it, I traveled through sacred lands. The Chumash of old regarded the looming Mt. Pinos as the center of the universe. To them, it was a land held in balance. Whether stargazing on its peak or viewed from afar, it’s easy to understand why: The gently sloping, rounded mound watches over the surrounding lands like a mother, cradling a peaceful landscape of quiet magnificence. The Badlands form the base of this cosmic centerpiece, becoming gradually more forested as they climb in elevation. Hiking through them, one can’t help but see the rocks as reverent, the strange red rock spires and cathedrals ascending upward to the snowy slopes and stars above.
The Cuyama Badlands are an enclosed world of their own, bordered by piney mountains on all sides and seldom visited. Eroded over many years by waters descending from the surrounding peaks and fractured by fault activity, the gnarled landscape defies easy navigation or settlement. Some have built ranches or vineyards upon the mineral rich soils, but most who visit seem to pass through on off-road vehicles. Three rugged dirt roads provide the main outdoor access to this region: Quatal Canyon, Apache Canyon, and Dry Canyon. I traveled down Dry Canyon.
Leaving from Dome Springs Campground, a spacious free camp hidden between piñon and juniper, I walked into the main Dry Canyon wash. A few rowdier campers have unfortunately littered the region with broken bottles and bullet casings — be careful where you tread. The first segment of the wash is a four-wheel-drive route, and you may share the road with jeeps or motorcycles, as I did. After some slow travel through the sand, the tire tracks thin and the trash fades, and the river bed leads to the Chumash Wilderness.
My journey took me to the end of Dry Canyon, where the hills rise in a jagged choir of red, pink, and white. The formations are incredible, reminiscent of the spectacular geology of the Mojave or what I imagine parts of Utah to be like. I came across hoodoos, arches, and mud caves, rocks of unbelievable color and shape. Dwarfed in the canyon corridors, enveloped in silence, I felt an ancientness and timelessness, myself a small blip in the Badlands’ millions of years of quiet witness. Archaeologists have discovered abundant fossils in these hills, and traveling among them, you are reminded of your own tiny role in the giant course of shifting geologic time. Here, you are very small.
Whether traveling for mystical or merely recreational reasons, the Badlands’ Dry Canyon area invites all kinds of adventure. There aren’t really trails out here, only washes and sparsely treed hills, making for excellent cross-country travel. Hikers would do well to stick to the washes, as hiking along the many rising hills often leads to a steep drop or impassable sharp ridge. The deeper you travel, the closer you get to the mystifying rock formations. You could spend an entire day here, or more. Each spur in the wash leads to its own canyon, each concealing its own surprises and secrets. Just be aware of where you have gone and for how long — the labyrinth of washes and ridges can be very disorienting, especially after a long, hot hike. Do not attempt it if your navigation skills are poor. Water does run through these dry lands after storms, so plan your own trip accordingly.
I rambled through the lands for several hours, exploring several tributaries. After a while, it became clear I would need another day, or many, to explore every aspect, and even then, the essence of the Badlands would still elude me. Silent and strange, it cannot be aptly summed up by any assemblage of words. Nor can I quite recommend a specific route, other than to just go along the major wash and explore for yourself. You will likely come out, as I did, awed, humbled, and centered. A land held in balance, indeed.