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Weekender: Your Guide to Ojai

A same day getaway to the Lost Horizon.


This oft-overlooked enclave tucked in the shrubby Topatopa Mountains between Santa Barbara and LA is known for its spectacular “pink moment” sunsets and spiritual retreats, and for supposedly serving as inspiration for James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” But don’t expect to stop just anywhere in Ojai and saunter into a Shangri-La.

There are three routes into the inner sanctums: 1) Pay your way in. You’re going to have to if you want access to the chichi Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. 2) Know someone. Many of the rumored naked starlit hot springs and Edenic parties are actually confined to the private properties of wealthy locals and LA expats (despite popular rumor, there are currently no hot springs open to the public). 3) Follow this guide.

The best way to experience the valley is to take a tour with Cloud Climbers. Ask for Glen, a former park ranger with exercises a truly native knowledge of the surrounding hills, welds metal sculptures in his spare time, and wears a scarf, trucker hat, and black leather-and-metal cuffs he made himself. He’ll lead you on a hike through the foothills, pause to show you orange blossoms, coastal sage, mountain nettle, and miner’s lettuce, and lay out a geologic timeline of the valley.

For a more intense trek, opt for the Mob Shop’s “Descent of Sulphur Mountain” tour, which carries you and your rental bike up to the 2,300 foot top of Sulphur Mountain so you can make the gravity-powered trip back down. Reward all that hard work with a wine tasting at the bottom. Or play tour guide yourself and rent a bike from the company’s new downtown shop and peddle 15 miles down the protected Ojai Valley Trail to the Pacific Ocean. If you’re feeling lazy, you can also rent an electric bike and cruise uphill on the way back.

People in Ojai are fond of repurposed buildings. There’s a Craftsman house that’s been converted into a nursery and a church that’s now a used book store, but the latest flip is a defunct gas station that’s now an upscale camping store, aptly named Summer Camp. Pendleton picnic blankets, sling shots, vintage thermoses, and porcupine quill wind chimes fill the shelves while a stately canoe dangles from the ceiling. 

The humble and inspired dishes at Feast Bistro are made with ingredients from the surrounding gardens and farms, served in a European-style restaurant complete with a sunlit back patio. As you dig into dishes like bone-in free range chicken breast with Ojai citrus, thyme, and pork belly, you’re more likely to rub elbows with local farmers and artists than fellow out of towners.

Ojai’s best Mexican food is hidden inside a hippy grocery store, the Farmer and the Cook. You’ll find a Mexican cafe next to the kombucha aisle. Thick corn tortillas serve as crispy vessels for homemade salsa roja and queso or veggie tacos topped with local goat cheese.

Make sure to hunt down some of Ojai’s famed pixie tangerines, stacked in pyramids at the Sunday farmers market through early summer. Or venture to Friend’s Ranch, where the Friend family has been growing citrus for five generations. On Tuesday and Friday mornings from 7 am to noon, the packing house sells tangerines, citrus juice, and local honey directly from the farmers. Orchard tours are sometimes available, but they book up well in advance, so call ahead. 

You could mistake Highway 150’s Ojai Rancho Inn for another lowly interstate motel if not for all the the porsches and BMWs in the parking lot. Recently, it was converted into a red ranch-style inn, upgrading its status to a covert party pad for those in-the-know. LA bands drop in for impromptu concerts or jam sessions at Chief’s Peak Bar, and all the rooms feel primed for some post-concert hedonism: Inside, indigo curtains shield whatever is going down in the elevated mid-room jacuzzi, while weighty ceramic lampshades offer only subtle illumination. At least they’re thoughtful enough to offer you a magic wand of sage to cleanse the place of previous guests upon check in.

For a more mellow spot off the beaten track, try the quirky but lovely Emerald Iguana Inn. A mosaic iguana sculpture guards the front of the complex of boutique bungalows tucked in a grove of sycamore and pepper trees. Enjoy spa treatments in your bungalow, or opt to hang by the kidney-shaped pool.


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