Hiking with Kids in the Santa Monica Mountains


On the cultural landscape of California, the Central Coast region stands distinct, neither so densely urban as the great Southern California metropolis that abuts it on the south nor as cluttered with resort towns and tourist attractions as the region from Monterey north. In climate and geography it likewise stands apart, a transition zone straddling the divide between the well-watered northern part of the state and the arid south, a place where mountains run the wrong way, snow falls within sight of the sea and cactus grows on sandy slopes kissed by salt-tangy fog.

It is, for the purposes of this article, the region lying within 30 miles of the ocean in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, bordered on the north by the wild, forested mountains of the Big Sur country and on the south by the arid land beyond the Tehachapis. This area includes some noteworthy natural areas: the south half of Los Padres National Forest, a sprawling preserve draped across the mountains of the Transverse Ranges; Channel Islands National Park, a unique string of windswept islands reaching west from the Santa Barbara-Ventura coastline; the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a patchwork of state and federal properties preserving a host of dwindling ecosystems within a few miles of the state's largest urban area; Morro Bay State Park, a rare combination of coastal marshes, estuaries and oak woodlands; Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, a vast expanse of coastal dunes interlaced with wetlands; and Montaqa de Oro State Park, a sweep of hills cut by streams that empty into the Pacific along a craggy shoreline dotted with tidepools.

There is a rich diversity of topography, wildlife and cultural resources in this Tri-Counties region: ancient Chumash pictographs, California condor habitat, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, snow-capped peaks forested by big-cone spruce, islands inhabited by rare endemic plants and animals, vast coastal dune systems, marshes, tidepools and streams.

The human population rests lightly on this land, even though it contains some of the oldest communities in California. The biggest cities are small by contemporary standards; ranching and farming still dominate the inhabited strip along the ocean and in the inland valleys, often tied to communities grown up around 18th-century Spanish missionswhich in turn were typically built on the location of native villages. Much of the remaining terrain lies within the boundaries of state and federal park lands, which preserve a remarkable diversity of natural and cultural resources. Most are within a few hours' drive of even the major urban areas of Southern California, and are thus well suited to day trips.

The following material is designed to aid visitors whose time is limited or who are accompanied by children. The hikes have been selected to offer a maximum return for a moderate investment in time and effort. They range from easy nature trails that can be walked in an hour even by young children, to a more challenging route suitable for a long day hike.

As a special aid for hikers with children, each trail has been assigned a"child rating" that gives the minimum age at which a youngster might reasonably be expected to complete the hike under his or her own power. In general, easy nature trails of a mile or less are considered suitable for kids three and up, while those of 1 to 5 miles that do not involve strenuous climbs are rated for youngsters five and older. In general, hikes of more than 5 miles, and shorter trips that include steep ascents, should be considered suitable only for children 10 and older. These mileage ratings are conservative, and are based on the author's personal experience and on the recommendations of pediatricians and child-development experts.

As a basic rule, keep in mind that children vary greatly in stamina, determination and distractibility. A hike that would prove easy for one five-year-old might as well be an ascent of Mt. Whitney for another child of the same age, whereas a motivated and energetic seven-year-old may be able to complete any hike. View this guide as only a rough estimation, prepare to move slowly, and be ready to turn back at any time even if you haven't reached your objective unless you don't mind hiking back to your car or campsite with a cranky or sleeping child on your shoulders.

A word of caution: the USGS topographic maps of the Santa Monica Mountains are almost worthless for hiking, for two reasons. First, they are quite out of date, showing almost none of the campgrounds, roads and trails built in the past 30 years (and those improvements that have been mapped are often incorrect). The other reason is that the USGS cartographers, for reasons known only to themselves, decided to make the contour interval absurdly tiny on the maps of this region20 feet on some quads, 25 on others. This is about half the distance used on almost all other quads. and as a result there are twice as many contour lines as necessary on the maps depicting these mountains. The density of the lines makes the maps quite unreadable even with a magnifying glass.

A far better bet is to purchase one of the greatly superior sets of trail maps, complete with a reasonable amount of contour information, published by private firms. Best bets are A Recreation Guide to Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains by Canyon Publishing Co. in Canoga Park, and Trail Map of the Santa Monica Mountains West by Tom Harrison Cartography in San Rafael.

The trails described in the following pages are concentrated in three main areas: Point Mugu State Park, Rancho Sierra Vista, and Serrano Valley. These are just some of the dozens of individual parks and beaches making up the patchwork known as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, but together they account for nearly all the public land in the Ventura County part of the area. The trails offer a sampling of all the attractions the park has to offer: rocky peaks, open grasslands, sycamore-shaded creeks, and wildflower-strewn hillsides.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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