Malibu Creek Walk Offers Winter Solitude and Autumn Color

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In the second feature in our special three-part holiday hiking series, we look for the ‘Road Less Traveled’ in Malibu Creek State Park.

If the scenery in Malibu Creek State Park seems oddly familiar it may be because it has doubled over the years as Africa in Around the World in 80 Days; Korea in the film and TV series M*A*S*H; Wales, in How Green Was My Valley; and as the Planet of the Apes in the original film.

In the summer this park is packed with visitors, but on a winter morning, one often has even the most popular trails to oneself. A December walk in the riparian heart of the park offers not only a welcome respite from the noise and haste of the holiday season, but a little autumn color. 

Malibu Creek State Park is in the geographic heart of the Santa Monica Mountains. The canyon is surrounded by high peaks, creating a phenomenon called cold air drainage. It’s not unusual to encounter frost on a winter morning, or even patches of ice on the trail after a rain. When conditions are right, all of that cold air transforms the native cottonwoods, ash trees, willows and sycamores into living gold for a few short weeks in midwinter.  

Malibu Creek State Park is large—7,881-acres, and offers 15 miles of trails and a wide variety of habitat and landscape, from rolling oak woodland, to volcanic outcroppings, but the creek is the dominant feature, meandering through the park.

Rock Pool is the most popular destination in the park, for good reason. It’s an easy two-mile round trip walk with spectacular scenery, starting on the wide oak-lined section of Crags Road that crosses the valley floor, before narrowing into a cliff-lined gorge just past the bridge over the creek. Cross the bridge for spectacular views of the gorge and for a trip to the small but delightful visitor center, housed in the historic Hunt House, before continuing on to Rock Pool itself, below the dam at Century Lake in the shadow of the massive volcanic Goat Buttes. 

The buttes are popular with rock climbers, but they are also often the scene of emergency rescues.

Adventurous visitors climb across the pool and continue up the gorge to the dam. It’s not unusual to see people wading or swimming in the pool, even in winter. Although this may look tempting, it’s not advisable. The pool’s water routinely tests positive for high levels of E-coli and other unpleasant bacteria. Rock diving is also unadvisable. Rock pool gets its name for a good reason. Many of the rescues at the site involve traumatic head injuries.

Instead of attempting to climb up the gorge, it’s safer and easier to return to Crags Road and continue up to Century Lake by the less exciting but infinitely safer main trail. A side trail leads down to the dam from above. For a longer walk, continue to follow the creek up to the M*A*S*H film site, with its burned out prop ambulance and jeep.

For a less traveled walk that also offers woodland autumn color, try heading for the campground, where a short trail segment leads through oak woodland into adjacent Tapia Park. From there, one can cross under Malibu Canyon Road at the bridge, with a grove of golden cottonwood trees as the destination. 

This small woodland, just a couple of acres tucked under the road bridge, is as close as the Santa Monica Mountains come to poet Robert Frost’s “two paths diverging in a yellow wood”. On a winter morning Malibu Creek State Park, despite its popularity at other times of the year, becomes the road less traveled. 

Wildlife in the park includes the Malibu Creek deer herd, a wide variety of raptors, including white-tailed kites, red-tailed-hawks, barn owls, great-horned owls, cooper’s hawk, and sometimes even a rare golden eagle. Sharp-eyed visitors may be lucky enough to spot a long-tailed weasel in the meadow near the campground. These tiny fierce predators share their hunting ground with great blue herons and great egrets, as well as with coyotes, bobcats and gray foxes. The noisiest residents are the black-hooded parakeets, colorful non-natives who have successfully naturalized and thrive in the park. 

Malibu Creek State Park is truly in the heart of the mountains and forms a hub for long-distance hikers, bikers and equestrians traveling the Backbone Trail or entering from one of the adjacent parks, like Corral Canyon Park and Liberty Canyon Wilderness. 

All of the walks described in this article are easy. Only the walk up to Century Lake has an appreciable elevation gain. Malibu Creek State Park burned in the Woolsey Fire, but the fire hopscotched across the park, leaving some areas unscathed and other sections badly damaged. Repairs are ongoing. Check the trailhead notice board on the way in or ask a ranger about trail conditions before setting out.

The main entrance and parking lot for Malibu Creek State Park is located at 1925 Las Virgenes Road. Parking in the main lot is $12 for the day and the money goes to maintain California’s State Parks. A two-hour pass is $6—plenty of time for a leisurely stroll to Rock Pool and back, but probably not enough to visit Century Lake or add the Tapia trail to the walk. Street parking is available on Mulholland Highway, but fills up fast on weekends. There is limited parking on the corner of Malibu Canyon and Piuma. Trailhead smash-and-grab car burglaries are a problem in this area. Do not leave valuables behind. 

 

For more information visit https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=614

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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