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.
The Grotto Trail
- Location: Western Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Malibu. From Pacific Coast Highway just past the Ventura County line, head north on Yerba Buena Road for 5.4 miles. The Circle X parking lot will be on your right. From the Valley, take highway 101 to Kanan Road. Head south on Kanan Road for 6.2 miles, turn right on Mulholland Highway and stay straight to connect with Encinal Canyon Road. Follow Encinal Canyon for 3.4 miles, take a right on Lechuza and another quick right on Decker Canyon. After 0.8 miles, take a hard left on Mulholland, go 0.4 miles and take a right on Little Sycamore. Little Sycamore becomes Yerba Buena, and after 4.6 total miles from Mulholland, the Circle X Ranch will be on your left.
- Agency: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area/Circle X Ranch
- Distance: 3 miles
- Elevation gain: 650 feet
- Difficulty rating: PG
- Suggested time: 1.5 hours
- Best season: Year round
- USGS topo map: “Triunfo Pass”
- Recommended gear: Hiking Poles
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
- More information: here; trip report here
- Rating: 8
I first hiked the Grotto trail after doing one of my all-time favorite hikes, Sandstone Peak. The Grotto trailhead is located about a mile south of Sandstone on Yerba Buena Road, and while I was worried that it would be a letdown after Sandstone, I found it to be very enjoyable. That being said, I didn’t make it back for quite some time, usually calling it a day after one of my six (as of this writing) repeat visits to Sandstone Peak.
However, I decided to revisit the Grotto and give it some love, and as with the first time I hiked it, it delivered. While it might not have the ocean and mountain views of Sandstone Peak, the short hike to and from the Grotto has a lot of the scenic variety of its northern neighbor trail. The Grotto is a rocky canyon deep in the Santa Monica Mountains, where the sense of isolation is strong. On a Saturday, when Sandstone can be very crowded, I only saw a handful of people on this trail. One group was in violation of the trail’s no dogs policy (although the canine in question did have his off-leash privileges revoked when he tried to jump on me).
From the day use area, head down a dirt road to a campground where you pick up the Grotto Trail. You head into a wooded canyon and soon pass the turnoff to the Canyon Trail, which leads to Yerba Buena Road across from the Sandstone trail head. Head right, past the edge of a cliff (and seasonal waterfall), and head up briefly before arriving at a meadow. On the other side of the meadow, the trail dips into the mysterious inner sanctum of the Arroyo Sequit’s west fork. The oaks are thick with convoluted branches that block out the sun (especially if the coastal fog rolls in). At the bottom, you cross the stream bed and soon arrive at the Grotto.
This is a surreal area where gigantic boulders fill the gorge and oaks and sycamores tower above. There is a waterfall that can be accessed by (carefully) climbing down the boulders, but most hikers will probably be happy to hang out here in the peaceful quiet before returning back to the Circle X ranch.