Hiking for the Holidays

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Whether it’s too much pie, or too much holiday stress, the Santa Monica Mountains and coast offer an antidote. In this special three-part holiday series, the Messenger Mountain News takes a look at three of our favorite coast, canyon, and mountain parks, for a walk, a hike, or just a few minutes of peace and tranquility. To start with, Malibu’s Zuma and Westward beaches offer a welcome break from holiday stress. 

Summer is over, the crowds are gone, the water temperature has dropped into the 50s, and the unneeded lifeguard towers have been moved off the beach, but for surfers, solitude seekers, whale watchers, and anyone who loves to see the sun set over the ocean, peak beach season is just arriving.

There are 30 miles of coastline within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), stretching from Topanga State Beach to Mugu Rock in Ventura County. All along Pacific Coast Highway are beach access ways that range from narrow staircases between houses that lead to small patches of beach, to vast expanses of sand and sea with ample parking and few or no houses.

The LA Urban Rangers are access activists, who maintain a website and app that list every path to the beach in Malibu (http://laurbanrangers.org/site) We prefer the large western beaches, with ample parking and winter solitude.

One of the best options is Zuma County Beach, which connects to Westward/Point Dume State Beach, the Point Dume Nature Preserve on the eastern side, and Broad Beach to the west. This is one of the longest and most scenic stretches of public beach in the county. The area offers some of the best beach walk option of  whale watching and sunsets views on the coast, together with ample parking. There is something here for everyone.

Free roadside parking is available on Westward Beach Road and along Pacific Coast Highway at Zuma. Paid parking is available in the Point Dume State Park lot at the end of Westward Beach Road, and the vast Zuma lots along PCH. Winter weekday fees are $6 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and weekend rates are $8. There are also special sunrise and sunrise/sunset rates of $3, from 6-9 a.m., and 4 p.m. until dusk.

Hikers can walk the entire length of these beaches year round, regardless of the tides. It’s an eight-mile round-trip walk from Point Dume at Westward Beach to Victoria Point at Broad Beach. For a less strenuous walk, park at the end of the Point Dume State Park lot for a quick one-mile walk up to the top and down again, or walk in from the street parking area along the beach for a two- to four-mile walk.

The aptly named Westward Beach offers one of the best sunset viewing locations on the coast, and it’s one of the best places to look for migrating gray whales (December-late April). The year-round resident population of dolphins and sea lions are often spotted close to shore along this stretch of coast.

While the crowds are much thinner than they are in summer, it’s not unusual to see surfers; whale watchers with binoculars; plein air painters; dog walkers (dogs on leash are welcome in the parking lot, but not on the beach or the trails); people doing Tai Chi or yoga on the beach, or holding religious services; children playing; lovers taking a sunset beach stroll; wedding parties; and film crews shooting everything from commercials to feature film scenes.

It’s easy to leave the crowd on the street or in the parking lot behind by simply opting to walk on the wet sand at the edge of the ocean instead of on the concrete. One often has the beach to oneself, especially after a storm, and stormy weather is a key ingredient in a good sunset. Ideal conditions include enough clouds to catch the light but not so many that the sun sinks out of sight into gray oblivion.

The Santa Ana conditions that often follow a storm aren’t conducive to sunsets, but they can generate some other solar phenomena: mirages that transform the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Channel Islands, and any passing ship into tall towers or flying saucer-like shapes. Sometimes the sun itself is transformed by this optical illusion, becoming a strange shape, or giving a glimpse of the elusive green flash just before it appears to set.

Even a gray evening without a visible sunset has its rewards. Whales and dolphins can be easier to spot during gray weather, especially when the sea is calm and there are no wind waves. On a still, foggy day gray whales can sometimes be heard breathing before the observer actually spots them in the water. On a stormy day watching the big waves and the surfers pursuing them is another unforgettable winter beach experience.

In the summer, the beach is a playground for humans; in the winter it reverts to being a vibrant, dynamic natural environment, one with an amazing variety of species. Look for the tiny endangered snowy plover birds on the shore and a variety of gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, and sandpipers, sometimes joined by the resident osprey or the red-tailed hawks that hunt in the nature preserve.

One may even find wildflowers blooming on the sand dunes near the parking lot. Purple sand verbena, and golden beach primrose. Delicate flowers that survive and thrive in the shifting salty sand. The winter beach is an amazing place, whether one spends an entire afternoon, or a few precious minutes snatched at the end of busy day.



  •     It gets cold and windy in the afternoon. Sunset at Westward Beach is one time when a winter coat and a pair of gloves come in handy.
  •     Lock the car and don’t leave valuables behind. Unfortunately, vehicle burglaries are common at beach access ways and trailheads throughout the area.
  •     It gets dark fast after the sun sets. For long walks, or a sunset hike up to the top of the headlands, make sure to bring a flashlight or that your cellphone has enough charge to use as a light.
  •     Point Dume State Park has fragile plant populations and equally fragile cliffs. It’s important to stay on the trails and not be tempted to get too close to the edge of the cliff.
  •     For hardy souls who enjoy swimming in winter, there are always lifeguards on duty during the day at Zuma and Westward, but not as many as in the summer. It’s a good idea to swim near an active lifeguard tower, and to stay away from storm drains and creek outflows, especially after the first rains of the season, when toxins and contaminants can be washed into the ocean.
  •     Beach hazards include rip currents,  sneaker waves that can catch the walker unaware, bees on the wet sand, and wind-blown sand.

Point Dume State Park and the Point Dume Nature Preserve are located at the end of Westward Beach Road. The main entrance to Zuma Beach is located at 30000 Pacific Coast Highway, just after the turnoff for Westward Beach Road.

Pay to park in any of the eight lots, or park for free on PCH. It’s a good idea to park on the ocean side or else close to the Morning View Road stoplight. Jaywalking across PCH is not for the fainthearted. 


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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