Pico Canyon cuts deeply into the rugged Santa Susana Mountains, a few miles south of the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. The canyon is considered to be the birthplace of the oil industry in California (ignoring the small-scale use of oil tar as a caulking agent by early Native Americans and missionaries). All of the wells in the canyon are capped today, and the surrounding property has become a part of the publicly accessible Santa Clarita Woodlands Park.
To visit Pico Canyon, exit Interstate 5 at Pico Canyon Road and head west. Drive 2.5 miles to the gated park entrance (open daily, sunrise to sunset), and continue 0.4 mile farther to the large parking lot/trailhead at the historic site of Mentryville. A few structures in this former oil boomtown remain intact: an 1890s barn and chicken coop, the 1898 home of oil driller Charles Alexander Mentry, and the Felton schoolhouse built in 1885 to serve more than 100 families residing in the canyon at that time.
From Mentryville, either by foot or by mountain bike, you may travel up the canyon as little as one mile to the rest stop known as Johnson Park, or as many as three miles to a canyon-rim perch offering a panoramic view of the entire Santa Clarita region. The latter option is not advisable during the heat of a typical midsummer day, but fine during the early morning, late afternoon, or early evening hours.
As you proceed uphill into Pico Canyon, right alongside the canyon’s sluggishly flowing creek, enjoy the green ribbon of riparian vegetation and trees — mostly live oaks, valley oaks, and arroyo willows. Natural tar still seeps into the stream, and it isn’t unusual to catch a pungent whiff on the passing breeze.
At Johnson Park, a former oil-company picnic site with picnic benches and restrooms, don’t mistake the wooden oil derrick you’ll see there for a historic artifact; it’s in fact an accurate replica of an early-20th-century oil rig.
At 1.3 miles up the canyon from Mentryville, two historical plaques indicate the site of the Pico Canyon Oil Field Well Number 4, which was not only California’s first commercially successful oil well, but also the longest continuously operating oil well in the world (1876–1990) at the time of its closure. Its yield of 150 barrels of oil per day was modest compared to modern oil wells.
On ahead a short distance, the Pico Canyon service road, graded dirt at this point, bends sharply left and rises very steeply onto the brushy slope of the canyon. After many twists and turns, at 3.0 miles, the road ends at the flat spot (elevation 2801 feet, some 1200 feet higher than your starting point). Look for a rusty old sign indicating a defunct Union Oil well. Intrepid hikers have forged a sketchy path along the ridgeline connecting this point to the Towsley Canyon unit of the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park. This effort is hardly within the scope of a casual visit to Pico Canyon, however.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Learn some early history about California oil at Pico Canyon in Santa Clarita.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 148 miles
Hiking or biking length: Up to 6 miles round trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderately strenuous