Charmlee Natural Area

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Featured in the Nobody Hikes in L.A. Guidebook!

Ocean view from Charmlee Natural Area, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, CA
Ocean view from Charmlee Natural Area
Oak woodlands, Charmlee Natural Area, Malibu, CA
Oak woodland in Charmlee Natural Area

Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the routes described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Charmlee Natural Area

  • Location: Western Malibu, at 2577 S. Encinal Canyon Road.  From Pacific Coast Highway, take Encinal Canyon Road (24 miles north of Santa Monica) north for 4 miles.  The entrance to the park will be on your left.  Drive down the dirt road for about half a mile to the parking lot.  Charmlee can also be reached from the San Fernando Valley: take highway 101 to Kanan Dume Road, go south for 5.7 miles, head right on Mulholland Highway, go a mile and bear left on Encinal Canyon and the park will be on your right at 3.4 miles.  There is a $4 parking fee.  The park is open from 8am to sunset (double check the precise hour with the park).
  • Agency: Charmlee Natural Area (City of Malibu); call 310-457-7247 for more information.
  • Distance: Up to 3.1 miles
  • Elevation gain: Up to 500 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2 hours
  • Best season: All year
  • USGS topo map: “Truinfo Pass”
  • More information: Trip descriptions (slightly different routes) here and here; Yelp page here; area trail map and descriptions here; Everytrail report here
  • Rating: 7

If the words that come to mind when someone says Malibu include “spas”, “salons”, “restaurants”, “galleries”, “beaches” and “celebrities”, you might want to give the Charmlee Natural Area a look. Granted, you will probably see “beaches” from Ocean Vista Point, and you might even see a “celebrity” or two, and you can certainly go to a “restaurant” for a snack afterward. Heck, you can even visit a “salon”, “spa” or “gallery.” But don’t forget about Malibu’s natural side.

Charmlee’s best season is probably the springtime, with its wildflowers, but its location–right next to the ocean but 1,000 feet above–and several nice groves of trees for shade–make it a good hike even on a hot day.  It is isolated enough that you will probably have the park more or less to yourself if you visit on a week day, yet it is still not that much of a drive from the Valley or Santa Monica.

The only problem with the park is that the trail signage is a little confusing.  I got lost on my first visit, didn’t make it back to my car until well after dark and got a warning from a ranger.  However, the basic layout of Charmlee is pretty simple: Most of the trails border a large meadow, similar to that at nearby Nicholas Flat, and a few lead down to an overlook where one gets particularly good views of the ocean.  You can follow the exact route described here, but as long as you head toward the ocean until you get to the view and head back, you will get the basic Charmlee experience. (Pick up a map at the bulletin board on the opposite side of the restrooms from the parking lot).

Pencils ready?

From the parking lot, head north on a fire road.  This initial ascent will get your blood pumping, but it is probably the steepest stretch of trail you’ll encounter.  At the top, make a hairpin left turn and continue climbing on Potrero Road, taking in nice views of the ocean.  At the next fork, the left road heads toward a water tank and the right road, your route, starts to descend to a T-junction.  Head right, and take a quick left on the Kouba Trail.  After working its way around the side of a steep ridge, the Kouba Trail enters a beautiful oak grove. At a T-junction, you can bear left and head into the meadow, but to extend the hike, make a hard right and follow the trail around a ridge, taking in excellent ocean views. A steep climb brings you to another junction, where both trails will lead you back to the meadow, reuniting at an old pump well.

Bear right and walk a short distance to an abandoned stone reservoir. The views here are good, but for even better ones, continue to a junction and bear right on a trail signed South Loop. Soon you’ll see a spur leading to an overlook. From here enjoy outstanding views of the ocean straight ahead, Santa Monica and Malibu to the left and Point Mugu to the right.  There are few places where you can get such a close view of the ocean from this altitude (1,150 feet) and even fewer that don’t have to be reached just by climbing.

When you’re done taking in the scene, head north, passing by several junctions (stay right; you can take a side trip or two into the oak grove at the east side of the meadow).  After passing the meadow, look for the Botany Trail (it’s easy to miss), and continue your ascent.  The Botany trail features posts marked with descending numbers (starting with 7) that head back to the parking lot.  There will be a juncture that is signed to make it look as if you head left, but head right, into another oak grove, past a picnic area and to a fire road.  Take a right on the fire road and return to the lot.

It’s actually pretty simple when you have the map.  Really, it is.

By the way Charmlee also offers guided hikes and nature programs, including monthly moonlight hikes.  Call 310-317-1364 for more information.

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