Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sandstone Peak

View ftom Sandstone Peak towards Thousand Oaks and the Santa Ynez Mountains
6 miles loop, 1400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; short rock scramble to reach summit of Sandstone Peak
Access: Paved (but narrow and windy) mountain road, free but limited trailhead parking

Sandstone Peak is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Perched high along the Malibu coastline, the summit offers one of the most sweeping panoramas in Southern California and is accessible an easy hike starting near the Circle X Ranch. This is a perfect hike for winter, when the high peaks of the San Gabriel are cold and snow-capped. This hike traverses some beautiful terrain in the Santa Monica National Recreation Area, visiting interesting rock formations and providing views of the ocean, the city, and the mountains. On the loop approach to Sandstone Peak, the hike isn't just about the destination: the journey provides consistent views, interesting rock formations, and comparatively lush vegetation for Southern California. It's a highly recommended trip for anyone interested in exploring the mountains around Los Angeles.

This hike is easily accessible from points in West Los Angeles, Oxnard-Ventura, or the San Fernando Valley. From downtown LA, take I-10 west to its terminus in Santa Monica and head north and west on the Pacific Coast Highway (California Highway 1) past Pacific Palisades and Malibu to Yerba Buena Road, which is around a half-hour out of Santa Monica. Turn right on Yerba Buena Road and drive just past Circle X Ranch to reach the trailhead for Sandstone Peak on the left side of the trail. It is also possible to reach the trailhead from the Valley or Ventura by taking US 101 to Ventura and then heading south on California Highway 23 to the Mulholland Highway, then taking the Mulholland Highway west for a short stretch and then turning right onto Yerba Buena Road and continuining on to the trailhead. Yerba Buena Road is exceptionally windy and pretty narrow no matter which approach is taken.

I hiked this trail on a sunny January day with my good friend in L.A. We started from the trailhead up the Sandstone Peak Trail, a wide former road with immediate good views towards the east of the Santa Monica Mountains. From the trailhead, we could already see the great cliffs of the Sandstone Peak massif that we would hike up to later in the day. After about 0.3 miles of ascent, the trail intersected with the Backbone Trail; we took the right fork towards the Mishe Mokwa Trail. After a short stretch along the Backbone Trail, we came to the fork with the Mishe Mokwa Trail, which we followed downhill to the left.

The Mishe Mokwa Trail began a gradual descent along the side of a lush canyon. We had great views from the trail of the canyon itself and of the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

Canyon on the Mishe Mokwa Trail
The greenery along the Mishe Mokwa Trail was remarkable, especially after two years of drought: with the exception of the nicely watered lawns in Beverly Hills, it had been a while since I had seen such a verdant shade in Southern California. Green grass and actual trees lined the trail.

Greenery along the trail
After leveling out from the gradual descent, the trail began to climb again. The canyon narrowed and the views of the San Gabriels gradually began to disappear behind the sandstone cliffs of the upper canyon. We passed by Balanced Rock, a large, pointed block of sandstone on a precarious cliff-top perch.

Balanced Rock
Past Balanced Rock, the trail stayed flat through Split Rock, a large boulder with a crack running down the middle that was about a mile and a half from the trailhead. Here, a spur trail branched off to the right that apparently led to a closer view of Balanced Rock; we decided to skip it, continuing on the Mishe Mokwa Trail. The next mile and a bit was a continued gradual ascent along the bottom of the upper canyon; however, taller vegetation and smaller rock features made this one of the less interesting sections of trail.

The Mishe Mokwa Trail met back up with the Backbone Trail about 3 miles into the hike. We turned left at the junction to take the Backbone Trail towards Sandstone Peak. The landscape around the junction was a drastic change from the Mishe Mokwa Trail: all of sudden, we were surrounded by a collection of oddly shaped sandstone cliffs and spires.

Rock formations along Sandstone Peak
The trail made its way gradually uphill through these formations, eventually coming to the first good ocean view of the hike. The many layered ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains dropped away to reveal the intense blue of the Pacific. Far to the south, we could see Santa Catalina Island draped across the ocean with its bipartite ranges lining the horizon. Santa Barbara Island appeared closer, but was miniscule by comparison. In the far distance we could make out the flatter outlines of San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands, the most remote of the Channel Islands.

Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island
Views also opened up to the north: we could see Thousand Oaks and both the Santa Susana and Santa Ynez Mountains.

A little over a mile after we left the Mishe Mokwa Trail for the Backbone Trail, we arrived at a junction with the spur leading to the summit of Sandstone Peak, at a large, flat clearing where the Backbone Trail makes a sharp turn to the left. We took the spur for a short distance to the base of the summit; the last 30 meters or so to the summit required a simple scramble up some rocks.

Summit scramble
The summit, perched at 3,114 feet above sea level, was a rather narrow spot: there's not much room at the top. The top of the mountain was marked by a large monument for a W. Herbert Allen, who was apparently closely involved in the Boy Scouts of the Los Angeles area. The plaque claims that the summit is called Mt. Allen, but that appears to be an unofficial designation.

The views were outstanding and nearly all-encompassing. To the west, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands rose above the Santa Barbara Channel and the Santa Ynez Mountains formed a long backbone above the Oxnard Plain and the Santa Barbara coastline. To the south was the ever-blue Pacific; to the east, that backyard of Malibu, the many low, rocky peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains; and to the north, the Santa Susana Mountains and the hills dividing Oxnard and Thousand Oaks from the San Fernando Valley. Far off, the high peaks of the San Gabriel and the snowy summit of Mt. Baldy rose above the LA sprawl.

Anacapa and Santa Cruz from the summit
After a short time at the summit, we returned to the Backbone Trail and finished the last section of the loop, a somewhat steeper 1.5-mile descent to the trailhead. Along the way, we had glorious views of golden hour lighting on snowy Mt. Baldy.

Snowy Baldy from the descent
The Backbone Trail reconnected with the trail returning to the Sandstone Peak trailhead about a mile after leaving the summit, at the first junction after the summit junction. We turned right at this fork and followed our initial trail downhill back to the parking lot, catching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific just before we returned to our car.

Evening light on the Santa Monicas

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