Los Angeles Area Hikes

Escondido Canyon and Falls
By Ann Marie Brown & Julie Sheer
  |  Gorp.com
escondido falls
Gold at the End of the Rainbow (Photo © SMMC Archives)
Key Info
Level : Easy/Moderate
Total Distance : 4.2 miles round-trip
Hiking Time : 2 hours
Elevation Gain : 250 feet
Summary : A stroll through a sylvan canyon to the tallest and most beautiful of all the waterfalls in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The Hike
This is a strange and wonderful waterfall hike. The strange part? You have to walk a mile just to reach the trailhead, following a paved road through an opulent neighborhood of gargantuan Malibu homes. As you walk by these mansions dressed in your hiking clothes, you half expect a resident to ask if you are looking for a job raking leaves or pulling weeds. But, no, they are accustomed to hikers wandering by.

The wonderful part? The payoff is access to a charming sylvan footpath in Escondido Canyon, where a huge, multitiered limestone waterfall awaits—the highest cataract in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Start your trip at the well-signed hikers’ parking lot at the start of Winding Way. Walk up the paved road for one mile, gaining ocean views as you climb. Try not to gawk too much at all the affluence. When you reach the trail sign for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy lands, veer off to the left, heading into the canyon.

Walk upstream, ignoring all trail junctions and keeping close to the creek. You’ll cross it a half dozen times, and, if the water is running high, you will have no choice but to get your feet wet. The lush canyon trail is nearly level, extremely well maintained, and gorgeous to boot. Most of the path is shaded by sycamore trees, but coastal sage scrub and wildflowers make an appearance, too. On a spring day, there isn’t a more pleasant walk anywhere in the Los Angeles basin.

In 0.5 mile, you’ll catch a glimpse of the big waterfall far ahead, tucked into the back of a high box canyon. One look will be enough to make you quicken your pace. Fifteen minutes later you’ll be standing at the base of the lower tier of Escondido Canyon’s limestone fall, oohing and aahing at the 50-foot length of streaming water pouring over a wealth of ferns and moss. Horsetail ferns grow around its base, and a couple of rope swings hang from a sycamore tree. The rotten-egg smell of sulphur, coming from the spring that gives birth to this stream, is often very noticeable here.

If your scrambling skills are good, don’t stop here. That big cataract you saw a half mile back is still waiting above this one, and it is accessible by following the use trail on the right side of the fall. This easy stroll through the canyon now becomes an adventure, and it’s a good idea to know your limits before you start. Ask yourself a few questions: Is the slope dry? Are you wearing solid lug-soled boots? Are you comfortable with off-trail scrambling? If you answered yes to all of the above, a careful 15-minute ascent using both hands and feet will get you to the upper fall, an immense limestone tier that is 150 feet high. Along the way, you’ll pass a middle cascade about 15 feet high. The scrambling becomes more challenging on the final push to the upper fall.

A common remark heard at this spot on one April day was simply “wow.” Yes, this is a “wow” waterfall. You’ll want to kick off your shoes and wade into its shallow pool. If you do, be careful not to step on the giant newts who make their home here. They are unusually large water babies, appropriately oversized to match this amazing cataract.

If after visiting Escondido Falls you are hankering for a little more exercise, drive 2.4 miles west on Highway 1/PCH to a right turn on Bonsall Drive, across from Westward Beach Road. Drive to the end of the road and the trailhead for Lower Zuma Canyon, where you can choose from several trail options. Our suggestion is a loop on Ocean View and Canyon Trails, followed by an out and back on Zuma Canyon Trail, about four miles total.

From U.S. 101 in Agoura Hills, exit at Kanan Road and drive 12.5 miles to Highway 1/Pacific Coast Highway on the Malibu coast. Turn left (east) and drive 1.4 miles to Winding Way East. Turn left, then left again immediately into the well-signed parking lot.

Information and Contact
There is no fee. Dogs on leash are allowed. Download a free trail map at www.lamountains.com (click on Hiking Trails and scroll down to Escondido Canyon). A map of Malibu Creek State Park, which includes Escondido Canyon Natural Area, is available for a fee from Tom Harrison Maps, 800/265-9090, www.tomharrisonmaps.com. For more information, contact the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, 5750 Ramirez Canyon Road, Malibu, CA 90265, 310/589-3200 or 310/858-7272, www.lamountains.com.

Published: 2 May 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Agoura Hills


Sheraton Agoura Hills Hotel


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »