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USA - SANTA MONICA Dreams.

Summary: Less than hour's drive from the heart of Los Angeles are the Santa Monica Mountains, providing for an adventure to those looking to explore a new side to this glitzy city.

A mention of Los Angeles is most likely to conjure images of Hollywood, Venice Beach, high rise buildings of downtown, Baywatch Malibu and the endless food joints lining the streets everywhere. Not many would think that within less than an hour's drive of LA centre lies the world's largest groups of urban parks referred jointly as Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), which offers one of the world's best Mediterranean climate ecosystem with flora and fauna diversity among the highest. Even less would know that SMMNRA houses one of the world's highest densities of archeological sites for any mountain range. Santa Monica Mountains have deep gorges, blue alpine lakes, rivers, trails, wildlife, and snow in the winters and everything that a true mountain range has to offer except for altitude.

While driving along the Pacific Coast Highway admiring the beaches and surfers and the diving seagulls, one cannot help but ponder upon the seemingly endless mountain range blue in the distance that accompanies the coast line almost parallel for the entire duration of the drive through greater LA. There are diversions from the highway to lead into this mountain range and many do go through them as there are also large farmlands and farmhouses amidst the rugged wilderness of SMMNRA. I discovered this wonderland during one of my trips to LA and quickly got enamored by its ease of access and endless offering of adventure, climbing and hiking possibilities. I made numerous trips across its length and breadth and on one occasion I had the highest peak of the entire Santa Monica Mountain Range, the Sandstone Peak, in my sight.

Besides climbing Sandstone Peak I also intended to explore the area a bit more hence I planned for a two nights outing and booked the group camp ground of Circle X Ranch noting much to my delight that though this campground is for a minimum 10 person group, the website booked me and my friend for a much lesser amount while ensuring that we two would be the only occupants of the campsite.

We drove along the Pacific Coast Highway and then turned right into Yerba Buena Road at Malibu. About 20 minutes of winding climbing road we reached the office of Circle X Ranch that used to be a Boy Scout camp in yesteryears. We parked at the campsite and realised that it could easily host 70 people and a dozen tent whereas now we were only two with a tiny two-person tent. The campsite was resplendent with lush grass and tall Live Oak and California Sycamore along with mixed chaparral.

Usually people who come for a day trip park at the Sandstone trail car-park and then take the short trail to the top and back. But I wanted it the longer and harder way. We went down deeper into the forest towards the Grotto trail and then climbing along the picturesque Canyon View trail across several waterfalls and trickling rivers emerging back on the Yerba Buena Road at the Sandstone trailhead. From here we followed the steep trail winding up and around the mountain towards Sandstone.

I wanted to work out my cardio system hence I pumped ahead overtaking nearly everyone on the way. The final bit to the summit lies through a bit of red stone scramble and opting for the steep direct route to the top I again overtook many who were still on the loop trail. On reaching the summit at 3111 ft I had a mesmerising view of the Pacific Ocean to my south, snow crested top of Mt Baldy to the east and the channel islands of Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz to my west. Right at that moment a jet flying far up above left a pair trail of white stream across the sparkling blue sky. I gaped at the summit marker with the engraved face of W Herbert Allen (who did pioneering exploration in this park) for a while pondering what he must be thinking and then put my name in the register kept inside a cavern for all summiteers of Sandstone Peak.

From Sandstone summit we took to the Backbone trail (which runs the entire length of the Santa Monica Mountains) and crossing the Boney Peak and Inspiration view point, joined the Mishe Mokwa Trail to make a comeback loop. The trail was wide and well trodden through high sage bushes, often wild hens and raccoons darting across our path in mad frenzy.

There were enough boulders around for all sorts of bouldering problems. We had a quick look at the skull rock and split rock and then along the Echo Cliffs sighted the famous Balanced Rock, so named since a massive rock stood perfectly poised on a needle point without toppling over. We could see many rock climbers on trad routes all along the Echo Cliffs that is a famous trad climbing area. We had to wade through several more waterfalls and pools on steep grounds carefully. The forest cover was significant and there were many birds around. We finally got back to the trailhead and back on to our campsite for the night. It had been a hard day with numerous height alterations across steep grounds through thick forests and rock faces. We slept sound at night even though the coyotes and mountain lions growled nearby.

Next morning after a hearty breakfast we took to the Grotto trail at leisure. Soon enough the sky clouded up and a swift breeze ruffled our hair. The trail was hard and rugged and dropped down significantly ensuring an uphill return. Our shoes skidded on the rocks smoothened by water through years and at places we had to jump across waterfall pools. Wild flowers and birds of prey floated almost everywhere and then suddenly a grey fox jumped out of the bushes startling us no less than what we must have startled it.

Through the wild grass we walked with caution as the area is replete with rattlesnake and other venomous slithery creatures. Gradually the Grotto trail grew wild buried beneath heaps of dry leaves as we expected. There were silent pools of water reflecting the deep foliage overhead. Frogs were croaking through this typical snake country. We had to often bushwhack through dense undergrowth and then we reached the end of the trail in the midst of high rock walls all around with large fist sized holes scattered across the facade. It was a strange place and a dead-end. Wanting to get a higher view I scrambled up a steep slope to my left pulling myself up on the roots on ground. I gained about 100m and had a wonderful panoramic view of the canyon right till the distant Sandstone Peak Mountain. I climbed down and by a mountain stream we ate our snack in silence enjoying the quietude that only nature can offer.

The sun slowly crept towards the sea and it was time for us to go back to the urban jungle. We sped further east on Yerba Buena Road, joining eventually the Mulholland Highway and then reached the Malibu Creek State Park that has the Santa Monica Mountain Visitor Centre and a magnificent rock climbing area overlooking a deep pool of green. We did several free hand rock pitches and bouldering problems hovering over the water, where one slip would drench us completely. Then we entered the visitor center and met the volunteers within who offered us cups of steaming coffee in exchange of which I offered them a quick lesson on generating and retaining body heat in extreme cold conditions. We left just as the camp gates closed for the night. The drive back was winding through the canyons and sky reaching rock faces and a lovely moon hovered over the vast Pacific like silver glow.

At a Glance

Getting there

Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway and there are many canyon roads branching off to the north--each canyon road leading to particular sections of the park. An alternative is to turn right just after crossing the Getty Villa into Topanga Canyon Blvd and then drive to Mulholland Highway and then driving west all along. There is no public transport into the park.

Season

Though it is an year round park, the best time would be the winter as it gets some rain, adding some stunning waterfalls, clear pools, mountain streams.

Fee

There is no entrance fee for park visit though for overnight camping there are designated campgrounds spread across the park that needs to be booked in advance by paying a small fee.

Tip

You can try nature photography, horseback riding, even swimming, and pets can be taken anywhere.

Things to Remember

Keep a sharp watch for poison oak, tick, rattlesnake and other poisonous insects--go with a guide.

No wood fires are allowed anywhere as the park is highly vulnerable to forest fires, especially in the summers.

Most of the natural and historic features are protected by strict laws hence do not collect any old rocks or stones, and so on.

Collecting or gathering of wood is prohibited.

Only tent camping in designated campsites are permitted.

Rules against trash are very strict hence collect and dispose off all your trash.

Carry plenty of water as most of the stream or pool waters are not safe for drinking.Reproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2013. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
Words:1612
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