Newton Canyon Falls (Lower and Upper)

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Upper falls in Newton Canyon
Frost on the Backbone Trail in Newton Canyon

Text and photography copyright 2011 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.

Newton Canyon Falls (Lower and Upper)

  • Location: Santa Monica Mountains, near Malibu.  From the Pacific Coast Highway, take Kanan Dume road north for 4.5 miles and park in the lot on the left (just past a footbridge) at mile marker 9.5.  From Highway 101, take Kanan Road south for 7 miles (it becomes Kanan Dume) and look for the parking lot on the right, just before the bridge.
  • Agency: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
  • Distance:  5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 3 hours
  • Best season: December – May
  • USGS topo map: “Point Dume”
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles
  • Recommended guidebook: Afoot & Afield Los Angeles County
  • More information:  Trip report here; trail map here; video of the lower falls here; upper falls here.
  • Rating: 9

Twenty four hours before writing this, I did not know about the amazing waterfall high in Newton Canyon, and if not for a couple of lucky breaks, I probably still wouldn’t.   The original plan was to visit the more popular lower falls, which I knew would be very strong following heavy rains over the weekend.  But at the trailhead, I saw on the map that this section of the Backbone extended all the way to Zuma Ridge Road, and that farther along was a seasonal waterfall.  I grabbed more provisions from the car and decided to make the trip.

From the parking lot on Kanan Dume, the Backbone Trail switchbacks down into the canyon (if temperatures are unusually cold, as they were yesterday, look for frost on the ground).  After half a mile, take a left onto the spur for the lower waterfall.  The Backbone continues uphill to the right.  On the spur, take the second left and begin switchbacking down to the waterfall.  Be careful on the wet rocks.  At the bottom of the hill, take a left and enter the canyon.  After some easy scrambling, you arrive at the base of the waterfall, which cascades about 20 feet down the rocks, splitting in half as it goes.

Retrace your steps and continue along the Backbone Trail.  Soon you enter an open area along the side of the hill, where you can see ocean views.  The trail descends into a wooded area, crossing a footbridge, and makes another moderate climb.   At about 1.5 miles from the trail head, you get your first glimpse of the big waterfall.  The trail continues to head northwest, winding around the side of the hill.  Several obscure trails branch off, but the main route stays straight.

I was assuming that I’d have to settle for admiring the waterfall from afar, and had I not noticed a trail branching off as the main route makes a hairpin turn at about the two mile mark, that’s what would have happened.  The trail appears to get as close as it ever will to the waterfall before bending sharply to the left and heading uphill, where it makes a half-mile ascent to meet Zuma Ridge just south of Encinal Canyon Road.  If you have time and energy, this last section is certainly worth a visit (you even pass by a third waterfall, perhaps fifteen feet tall, which can be accessed by scrambling down a short hillside).  But if you want to get a look at what can be one of So-Cal’s best waterfalls, take a right and head downhill through some bushes.

The going is a little rough, but after a short descent, you arrive at a floodplain, where a path heads to the left, toward the waterfall.  Note this location for your return.  The trail gets a little obscure in places, but overall shouldn’t be to difficult to follow.  At the stream, you begin your scrambling.  There’s no one best route to take; the climbing is rigorous but not too extreme (comparable to the boulders at the top of Sandstone Peak).  Just be careful on the wet rocks.  The higher you climb, the trickier it gets, but without too much effort, you can reach the base of the waterfall’s lower tier, which falls about 15 feet.  You can see the upper level, which is at least twice as large.  More rock climbing – beyond the ability of the author – is required to get there.

After admiring the cascade, head back down, and pick up the trail you took, making sure you remember your point to ascend the hillside to rejoin the Backbone.  It’s now just an easy two mile trip back to the car.


  1. I did this hike about 80,000 years ago when I was single and child free. And much more limber and fast. Ah, those were the days.

    Anyway, awesome trek summary and photos. Keep up the good work. I have to live vicariously through *someone.*

  2. ***I hiked this area and remember passing the awesome lower falls and then continuing on the trail I saw a mountain side with a trickling large falls. A trail dashed thru a marsh to and seemed to go right to the edge of the falls; is this the same trail? Due to winter time constraints, I had to pass up the extended voyage. However, I did snap a picture. Based on my research, I thought that I discovered the Zuma Falls, but maybe I am wrong. Can you take a look at my post? Are we talking about the same waterfalls or am I missing something?

    1. If you click on “location” it should open up a link to a map to the Trailhead. If there are technical difficulties let me know.

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