Monday, December 30, 2013

Exploration of West Falls Canyon, Matilija 12/29/13

There's a rumor out there, one that indicates that there are some interesting caves on the West Falls Canyon portion of the greater Matilija drainage. I had never heard anything regarding these caves and was immediately intrigued when I was approached by a guy named Josh Weir with some odd and anecdotal information he'd been able to compile. This information was second or third hand and came from a source which claims to have visited these caves around two decades ago. The clues given to Josh were highly esoteric, for instance, "Look high, look low."(that's a real gem), and "Look for a tree bent at an angle." and "Locate a forked tree, turn around and find markings on other trees.". Okaaaay. Seems we had a real Scooby Doo mystery on our hands. 

The day started with a run up Matilija to the West Falls. After a brief break we scrambled up the right side of said falls and stepped into untrammeled wilderness. Within five minutes of travel we had passed the furthest I'd ever been in this particular drainage. Josh had been about a mile above the falls but no further. I took point and had a good time figuring out the cleanest way to progress upstream. Water levels were low, which helped considerably. Tree limbs and deadfalls were a nearly constant issue but the brushier portions of the creek were easily dealt with. I had expected the going to be much worse based on my previous experience in Old Man Canyon.

We made steady progress upstream, often passing around pleasant pools and small waterfalls. Bear sign was literally everywhere and often we found ourselves following animal track over shale slides and through brush thickets. About 1.5 miles into this upper drainage we encountered an 80ft waterfall which is marked on Conant's map of the Matilija Wilderness. At this site water streams gently in a broad fan down a steep sandstone face, dripping into a shallow pool ringed with boulders. We ascended the right side of the falls using ledges which ceded to a chunky crack of poor quality stone. Climbing the falls required a few moves of easy Fifth Class and some confidence in one's abilities. Josh handled it fine.

The upper falls of West Falls Canyon, Matilija (and below).

By this time we were passing under the white face of Cara Blanca, that gleaming pyramid of stone which one can see from many portions of the Matilija Trail. We had intermittent views of Cara Blanca's face, though being right under it, we couldn't see the actual summit. We continued ascending the drainage, which alternated between areas of open scrub and narrow, arbored gorge. Eventually we saw a couple pines that might fit the "bent" description and I allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe there was something to this whole "caves" thing and that we were in the neighborhood. We saw no caves or anything that might conceivably be described as a cave in this vicinity. Continuing onward I began "looking high, looking low". Some time later we passed the point where the extinct Bald Hills Trail crossed the creek heading northwest. There was no sign of this trail's existence.

Cara Blanca from below and west.

Some time later we ascended a slabby waterfall of white sandstone, water channeled and polished. At the base of this dry falls there were numerous piles of bear scat and we found multiple bed-down sites. I led us upstream for a while without seeing anything that resembled caves, but then we encountered the partial wreckage of an old airplane. This was indeed interesting and it also afforded an ideal place to conclude our upstream search. By this time I was pretty certain that these caves were a myth and that we'd been sandbagged. 

Tangled in new growth trees a couple meters above the creek were the twisted remains of an old airplane fuselage. Portions of the plane had clearly been burned, whether this occurred as a result of the crash or in the last fire to sweep the area (1980) was impossible to determine. Josh pointed out that some of the older trees in the immediate area showed signs of fire damage and I noted that there seemed to be more undergrowth the further one got from the wreckage. Interestingly, much of the plane was missing. There were no wings or landing gear present, which led me to speculate that those parts had either burned completely, been washed downstream, or had been deposited on the steep and inaccessible hillside above the wreckage. This site can be found about 3.3 miles upstream of the West Falls.

After a decent break we decided to turn it around and began descending back the way we came. For quite a ways in our return trip I remained concerned with locating the caves we had been trying to find. We got back to the lonely, bent pine tree and I took some pains to climb well into a branch gully to, to no avail. I will allow that if there had been some kind of cave or caves in the portion of drainage that we explored, those caves may have been destroyed or rearranged by high water events, but overall I was left with impression that the caves were mythical. I won't go as far as to say that they never existed, but I will say that there aren't any caves in this canyon today, at least not in the 3.29 miles of drainage that we explored.

Cara Blanca from below and west.

Josh Weir descending the upper falls of West Falls Canyon.

As with most days in the wilderness, for me this day was primarily about exploring and experiencing the backcountry and seeing what I might find. No caves, no problem. I'd always wanted a better view of Cara Blanca and I was able to satisfy that yen. And finding the wreckage of an airplane was surprising to say the least (Craig Carey is going to look into it). Josh was good company and carried his weight well despite a recent ankle injury. It was an all around excellent little day of adventure.

Cara Blanca from below and east.


  1. I'm Steve. Josh's uncle. Nice work guys, sounds like fun. I love hiking

  2. David, nice report, thanks. The coordinates of the plane crash look to be 34.54897 -119.43652. I checked the NTSB database and but can't find anything near those coordinates. Nearest I found was the crash of the two Bonanzas just east of Potrero Seco Rd but that can't be what you found. Please post if you get any further info on the crash. --Don

  3. Will do, Don. Thanks for taking the time to look into it. Several other sources have come up empty as well. I heard (second hand) that the LPNF is aware but that's all that was said. -DS

  4. I grew up exploring those falls and area, and I know exactly where the cave you seek is. The reason you were told look high and look low, lets me know I am speaking of the very same cave system. It is at the top of the split falls on the west branch, about 100-200 yards beyond the top of the falls the cave is located in the middle of the stream under a very large boulder about the size of a small house/shack. If water levels are too high the entrance is covered. Even at low levels it is quite easy to walk right past. I can help you find it via email without question.. feel free to contact me