Just about an hour away from Los Angeles, a range of mountains called the Santa Monica Mountains are right in the backyard of the city. The Santa Monica Mountains is an LA outdoorsy person’s playground and almost like a huge botanical garden created by nature for the city. If you’re visiting around Southern California, you’ll love what this area has to offer, so put this on your list. Also known as Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, this area is north shore of the Santa Monica Bay and it is about 156,000+ acres, coming to be the world’s largest urban national park.
About Santa Monica Mountains
The national recreation area is known for a few things: Mountain lions being found there (and to assist with research; there are about 100 mountain lions since 2002 – could have decreased by now), being one of the five rare places to have mild Mediterranean climate and being one of the largest protected areas with the Mediterranean-type ecosystem, and for being an ecosystem with 1,000 plant species and hundreds of mammals to be found here.
Santa Monica Mountains is the definition of an open countryside that consists of elements of grassy meadows, chaparrals, rocky mountains, and oak forests. As mentioned, the Mediterranean climate also makes a perfect hot spot for vineyards to thrive in, which you can see a few of them along driving through it.
Watch me explore the Santa Monica Mountains
Driving Santa Monica Mountains
Driving through the mountains is an experience that gets you hanging tight to the handles of your car door because it contains steep drops that are sometimes driven without guardrails. The drive can be a nerve-wracking experience for new beginner mountain drivers, so take precaution and drive within the mile per hour. However, you would love the drive here because the views are splendid. You can see the heights of the cliffs down to the numerous ridges and to having open distant views of cities, depending where you stop by.
Due to a fire that occurred here in 2018, the Woolsey Fire destroyed much of Santa Monica’s once lively landscape and about 100,000 acres of it was affected. It is predicted by ecologists that it will take 10-20 years for Santa Monica Mountains to look the way it did prior to the fire. The sad remnants of this tragedy is easily visible from the moment you drive up to the mountains to the second you step foot to go on a trail.
There are a few scenic pull-outs you can take when driving the Santa Monica Mountains; although, some of them do offer limited space such as one or two cars to fit. I highly recommend stopping your car to look over the scenery and it makes for beautiful photographs as shown here below.
About Grotto Trail and How To Hike Grotto Trail
Santa Monica Mountains has a lot of trails you can choose to hike. The one I will be covering here and highly recommend you can do since it’s not too difficult yet comes with SO many beautiful views from each corner of your hike is Grotto Trail.
But, if you’re looking to do other trails if this one doesn’t peak your interest, you can scroll down below for more suggestions.
The Stats for Grotto Trail
Distance: 2.5 miles
Elevation gain: 561 feet
Route type: Out and back
Coordinates to use for directions for the GPS: 34.11004, -118.93735
You can watch the video I linked in the beginning of this post to see my virtual hike on it and you can just take note of where I go. Just don’t wear Van shoes to this hike like I did! It will kill your feet haha.
This trail starts off with you arriving by a ranch-looking building called Circle X Ranch. You can park right outside of there in the parking lot and you can also grab a National Services map if you’d like right outside that building. Once you’ve parked, you are probably wondering where the trailhead is. You’re going to have to make a left and walk down the hill left side of the building. Keep walking ahead and past by the scenic view.
You’ll pass by an off-white building and then if you go straight ahead, you’ll find a staircase with wooden steps. Step down there and then look to your left and while passing by picnic tables, just walk ahead until you reach a wooden fence with a sign that states “Grotto Trailhead”.
The hike is going to be very direct with a straight pathway to walk through. You’ll be going through the forests a lot and you’ll find what looks like an open dirt pathway with burnt meadows. This spot is a pretty photo opportunity as it gives such a wide perspective of the mountains ahead.
There are some sections that have a bit of switchbacks especially after hitting that part, but it’s not hard to cross by. Just stay cautious of walking on them as they can be rocky and it can be narrow enough to walk close to the edges.
You know you’re getting closer to the Grotto when you’re in a section with coast live oak woodland trees (as shown below). You’ll then come in crossroads with a canyon of big boulders and that’s where the Grotto will be. To get here, you can see on the right side there are trees besides the boulders. You will see tree roots formed on the bottom and on the sides. You can use this to guide you to be able to walk on those boulders and use the tree roots as handles to get a stable grip while walking along the sides. There may be a swarm of bees around but rest assure, they are the ones that do not attack.
The Grotto is mostly known for a spot beneath these boulders that have unobvious caves with a short waterfall. If you look through the crevices of these boulders, you can see water running if you stand above them.
I unfortunately didn’t get to go under the Grotto to see the water up close under the caves because it requires you to climb down and I was scared, as a solo hiker, to do it alone. If you’re using the AllTrails app, it won’t show you how to get down there or even to the Grotto area alone. It is however still marked on the map and you can use it to still guide you in this area, but it won’t show you a set marked route to follow along.
Regardless of not climbing down, I still feel accomplished to finish the trail. Although, at one point I was SO frustrated I couldn’t get down there, but eventually, I came to understand all the views I encountered from the mountain drive to the trail helped me experience a joyful time full of sightseeing.
Other trails you can hike besides Grotto Trail
Like I mentioned above, if Grotto Trail is not something you want to do, even though I heard it’s one of the prettiest hikes to do in a YouTube video I found while looking for trails to do in Santa Monica Mountains, you still have other options.
- Sandstone Peak – This is the highest point in the area at a 3,111 feet peak.
- Solstice Canyon Loop – This is a shaded canyon hike that also has sections of views of the Pacific Ocean.
- Mishe Mokwa to Tri-Peaks and Sandstone Peak – This trail takes you to a connection of sweeping landscaping views of the other iconic trails.
- Find a whole list over here.
Find A Place to Stay Near Santa Monica Mountains
If you’re planning on staying around the national recreation area longer (and if you want to tackle more trails around it), I recommend you find a nice location using my booking tool below. You can also consider reading my list of 7 Things To Do in a Day in Los Angeles, California for more ideas of how to make your Los Angeles trip memorable.
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