Seclusion Near the City
Western Santa Monica Mountains
Story and photos by Adam Nuñez
The entire Santa Monica Mountain range stretches east to west about 40 miles starting in West Los Angeles all the way to Camarillo in Ventura County. The elevation begins at sea level and reaches upwards to 3,100 feet. The Ventura County portion of the range sees less foot traffic than the busier regions closer to Los Angeles. This allows for more tranquility, and I daresay even solitude, especially on weekdays. Springtime is the ideal season to explore since the winter’s rains have led to bursting hues of green grasses and a rainbow of wildflower colors. And, waterfalls like Sycamore Canyon Falls near Newbury Park are more likely to be gushing with water.
Hikers, runners, and mountain bikers can explore to their heart’s content in the western Santa Monica Mountains. Painters and photographers will also love the area. The scenery is simply stunning, especially for city dwellers who might not expect to find such natural grandeur so close to urban life. Many of the best places to explore on foot or bike are easily accessible off Highway 101 or Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway). Other exploration will require 20 to 30 minutes of driving up the scenic and twisty Yerba Buena Road from Highway 1, or Highway 23 from Westlake Village.
Point Mugu State Park is the largest maintained space in the western Santa Monicas with 14,000 acres of land and more than 70 miles of trails. One of the best spots is the highest point in the entire mountain range: Sandstone Peak. There are a few ways to reach the summit. The most direct is either up the Mishe Mokwa Trailhead or Sandstone Trailhead. Both trails are approximately 3 miles round trip and start right off Yerba Buena Road. Because you have already driven up to about 1,500 feet in elevation, mountain and ocean views are spectacular the entire hike. Once you reach the top, you can jaunt your way around 2 to 4 miles of other offshooting trails. This area is exploration-central, with countless places to scramble around boulders or relax with a picnic while soaking up some incredible views. You’ll definitely want to remember the Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa Trailhead, which is located right off Potrero Road in Newbury Park. This is the start to many hiking and mountain biking trails which range from half-mile easy strolls to 12 miles of serious hiking.
You can reach the iconic Boney Mountain from the Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa Trailhead. This is a strenuous hike of about 10 miles total, with about 2,700 feet of elevation gain. Don’t worry, there are a few excellent family-friendly destination spots where you can turn around if you don’t want to make the whole trek. From the trailhead, follow signs to the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center and continue left up the wide dirt Danielson Fire Road. Keep in mind that no dogs or bikes are allowed on this trail (mountain bikers, you have other excellent options). Around mile 1.5 — when the trail makes a sharp right turn uphill — instead of following, continue straight onto another trail, and you’ll find Sycamore Canyon Falls. This is a popular spot, so you’ll likely find other people who can help direct you if need be. This is one of most idyllic waterfalls in the entire range. It cascades down approximately 60 feet of numerous boulders and small pools. This is a wonderful place to take the whole family, if they can manage a round-trip hike of about 3 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain. After leaving the falls, continue upwards about 1.5 miles to another picturesque spot to eat lunch and stretch your legs. It’s the shaded grove of Danielson Monument. This is a tribute honoring Richard Ely Danielson, Jr., who purchased the land in 1947. Danielson lived on 7,800 acres for more than three decades, and donated over 5,500 acres which became part of Point Mugu State Park. You can meander around the remnants of Danielson’s cabin.
At this point, you continue up the steep, rocky, and densely wooded trail, which you’ll find behind Danielson’s old rock chimney. Good shoes or hiking boots are highly recommended since the trail is lined with some low hanging bushes and steep gorges. After about 3 miles of this rough terrain, the views will open up and the trail will flatten (mostly). From here, rest up, relax, and enjoy the views. This makes for an epic day of hiking. No matter where you choose to explore in these mountains, don’t ever forget to bring plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing. And be mindful of your physical limits.
On a recent hike, I came across John from Thousand Oaks. On this particular day, he was cleaning a trail sign. He has been volunteering here for more than 20 years and is part of the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council. They are a nonprofit organization that establishes, preserves, and maintains public lands throughout the mountains. There are lots of ways to get involved if you feel compelled (see smmtc.org).
The Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa Trailhead is also the start to many more casual hikes and short strolls. Once at the trailhead you’ll encounter a large map, and probably other friendly walkers who can help direct you. The trails are clearly marked for peace of mind too. You can meander Old Boney Trail or the Satwiwa Loop Trail for 1 to 3 miles of leisurely fun.
If you’d like to add a bit of history and learning into your day, then visit the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center on Saturday or Sunday between 9 am and 5 pm. Here, according to the National Parks service website, you’ll find “Native Americans, representing Native cultures from throughout the United States, lead workshops, presentations, and art shows throughout the year.” It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the region. The native Chumash people who lived in this area considered Boney Mountain a sacred space.
Next is a very versatile trail, especially for biking. From the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, veer right to stay on the paved Sycamore Canyon Trail. The pavement is quite smooth, but it snakes downwards steeply for about three-quarters of a mile, then flattens out to hard-packed dirt. You can take this all the way to the beach! It ends at Sycamore Canyon Campground, which lies right off Highway 1. Of course, you can start at the campground and move northbound, which is an excellent option for a leisurely walk or bike ride. Lying in a steep canyon, the only sounds you’ll hear are the chirping of birds and the trickle of the stream. Depending on the rainfall, it could be more than a trickle!
The Sycamore Canyon Trail has many offshooting side paths, which are a mountain biker’s paradise. Guadalasca Trail and Overlook Fire Road will reward cyclists with gorgeous views of Boney Mountain and the ocean. Bear in mind that this area is quite secluded, so be prepared and plan ahead.
If you finish your day at Sycamore Canyon Campground on Highway 1, drive just 3 miles further east to Neptune’s Net for some delicious seafood. Established in 1956, this is a staple landmark of Highway 1. It’s located at the intersection of Highway 1 and Yerba Buena Road and is open 7 days a week, 364 days a year (only closed on Thanksgiving).
The western Santa Monica Mountains are a Ventura County gem. Full of natural beauty and history with rocky bluffs, cool creeks, and bucolic meadows, you can enjoy some serenity close to urban life.
Before heading to any of the Santa Monica Mountain trailheads, it’s always ideal to check with the National Parks Service to inquire about any possible parking lot or trail closures. You can also ask questions about trail options depending on what you are interested in. Call (805) 370-2301.