SANDSTONE PEAK, MALIBU
Distance: 3.5-6 miles
Duration: 3-4 hours
Transportation: Free parking available. Dogs on leash. No bicycles.
This is a long, lovely walk in the Malibu hills over a dramatic variety of terrain, with spectacular views of the Santa Monica Mountains, San Fernando Valley and Pacific Ocean. It offers solitude, a sweet picnic spot and sheer sandstone cliffs. Bring water and sunscreen, and watch for poison oak.
The walk begins high in the northern reaches of the Santa Monica Mountains. Drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway, past the Ventura County Line, then turn inland onto Yerba Buena Road. Climb past Iron Horse Ranch, Boney Pony Ranch and Circle X Ranch to find the Sandstone Peak trail head 6.4 miles from the PCH. If you're coming from the Valley, take Westlake Boulevard off the 101, follow it until it becomes Decker Canyon, turn right where Decker merges with Mulholland Highway, then turn right onto Little Sycamore Canyon Road. This becomes Yerba Buena. The trail head is 4.5 miles from the turn off Mulholland.
(Credit: Charles Fleming)
Climb the trail leading from the parking lot uphill into the mountains; in late spring it will be bursting with wild flowers and redolent of sage. Watch for a split in the trail. For the full loop, turn left onto Backbone Trail and head for Sandstone Peak. (For a shorter, quicker trip, turn right and head for Mishe-Mokwa Trail. This is more of a hike than a walk, and on a very hot day or a very wet day might be too arduous.) Don't be put off by the first half-mile. It's quite steep, but it's the only steep section of the walk to the picnic site.
Enjoy the first fine views as you go — down into the canyons and up toward Sandstone Peak, at 3,111 feet the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountain range. Hike up through scrub oak and chaparral. After about 45 minutes, you'll have done all the real hiking. Take the spur trail to the top of Sandstone for breathtaking views of the Pacific. Then continue along the Backbone Trail.
As the trail descends you are treated to amazing red rock outcroppings and sections of lovely, shady trail. (You'll also be treated to silence and solitude: On a Sunday morning, setting out at 9, we saw 12 cars in the parking lot, passed two people on the trail and then saw no one at all for the next hour.) The terrain feels at times like the area around Sedona, Ariz., and at others like Moab, Utah, except with shrubs. Overhead are hawks and crows, and in the bushes are hummingbirds.
The trail flattens and begins a long, slow descent into a wet, wooded canyon. As the walk bends east, the view switches from ocean and mountain to valley floor, with looks at Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. Where the trail splits again, choose the Mishe-Mokwa Trail, to the right, for Split Rock (not the Backbone Trail as it continues to the Boney Mountains and Tri Peaks). You'll find ample shelter and shade as this very well-designed and maintained trail hugs the hillside and slowly winds down to the creek below.
After about two hours you will arrive at Split Rock, an oak-shaded picnic area divided by a flowing creek and named after a set of huge granite stones cracked into sections by time. Their flat tops afford a pleasant picnic spot if you care to make the climb. Otherwise, there is a table.
The Mishe-Mokwa Trail leaves Split Rock at the opposite side, crosses the creek and begins a steep climb out of the canyon. Posted signs say it's 1.7 miles back to the trail head. But it's a serious 1.7 miles. The trail is steep and narrow in parts. If you've come for a pleasant weekend walk, not a hike, consider going back the way you came. If you're up for more than just a walk, press on.
As the trail rises it gives onto huge views of a deep canyon flanked by sandstone walls. Rock climbers gather here to test their mettle and can sometimes be seen — tiny, so far down below — clinging to the rock face. Above them is dramatic Balanced Rock, which hangs like an Easter Island head ready to tumble. Climb up and up, mindful of the poison oak along this part of the trail. Far below is Malibu Lake.
In time, the trail turns west again and begins a gentle climb out of the canyon. The terrain becomes drier and, if the season's right, the wildflowers return. As the trail crests, skip the left-hand turn for the parking lot visible below and stay on the Mishe-Mokwa Trail until it meets the Backbone Trail again. Bear left, downhill, and walk the last five minutes to your starting point.
Fleming is the author of "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles" and "Secret Stairs East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments and suggestions for future walks.