Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area


I know what you’re thinking…

“If only there was only a National Park or Recreation Area closer to the Kardashian family, I’d be TOTALLY in!”

Well, through a cooperative arrangement with California State Parks and even a couple of private home owners, your wish is the National Park Service’s command. Introducing, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

It’s hard to believe something so naturally beautiful could be so close to one of our planet’s most booming cities. Los Angeles of all places. I don’t know about you but, when I think LA, I’m surely not thinking about rolling ranch lands, rocky canyons, and ink black night skies. But then again, Southern California has surprised me before and I’m happy to report they’ve done it again.

Miles and miles of pristine coastline, shoulder parked cars, and meticulously cared for hiking trails cut through the wilderness and converted ranch land as far as you can see. Hike, camp, surf, stargaze, wander through an old Hollywood western set, commune with nature in a Satwiwa Tribal ‘ap…All of that and more is to be discovered.

Tired of getting dirty? Want a shower and a decent meal? Just drive down the hills and turn either direction on the Pacific Coast Highway. If you can keep yourself from getting sidetracked by the iconic vistas with which you’ll want to crush Instagram’s servers, you’ll find a decent meal at essentially any of the Malibu restaurants peppering the coast.

If you’re a Southern California native and haven’t made the trip, PLEASE let this review be your call to action. If you’re from afar, with some planning, it can absolutely be worth the trip!

Address –  26876 Mulholland Highway Calabasas, CA 91302 ***Yes. THAT Calabasas.***
Phone – General Park (805) 370 2300 / Visitor Center (805) 370 2301
Hours – Year round, sunrise to sunset. Parking lots open at 0800 and close with the sunset.

Suggested Stay: 3 – 4 Days. You could stay longer and continue to enjoy what Malibu has to offer but, three or four days will definitely buy you a good feel for the mountains.

Getting There: Navigation gave us a fit. Waze did its job on the way to Santa Monica, helping us to cruise by what would have otherwise been stand-still traffic but, wasn’t up to the task once in the mountains. In all fairness, it probably wasn’t Waze. I’m sure their maps are just fine. The real reason for our navigational missteps is that we’re among the .000001% of the population who uses T-Mobile. Having T-Mobile made a helluva lot of sense when we lived in Spain and were about to be living in Bahrain…Here in the States…much less so. Our reception was average to poor throughout most of the trip. We chatted with some passers-by to see what their signals were like. Didn’t talk to a Verizon user but, Sprint and AT&T seemed to be doing just fine.

Save yourself the trouble and either download maps to your phone for use without signal or, pick up some hard copies at the Visitor Center. We used the official recreation area pamphlets and were well on our way.

While You’re There:
Visitor Center – The Visitor Center is located at the historic King Gillette Ranch. Restrooms and water fountains were fully operational and the center itself was beautiful and loaded down with informative exhibits. Elaborate displays of “wildlife to see” and “plants not to touch.” The Junior Ranger Program was an interesting experience as I had a hard time figuring out if Ainsley was becoming a Santa Monica Junior Ranger or enlisting in the US Marine Corps. Full Metal JacketAs most parents with any sense do, I requested a duplicate badge for our two year old in an effort to stave off a “she got one and I didn’t” melt-down but was quickly stared into submission by the Ranger staff. However, to their credit, they were as knowledgable as they were zealous in their Junior Ranger gatekeeping. They offered many trails to consider and shared some insight on how senior citizens get a discount. Not entirely sure how that came up but, great. Senior Citizens get a discounted entry fee at our National Parks. For all fee related information, please click here!

Backbone Trail – Writing about the Backbone Trail here because if we didn’t you’d probably be asking, “I wonder why they didn’t write about the Backbone Trail?” Simply put, we think it would hard to enjoy the trail with three kids under 5. The Backbone Trail is the ridge-line of the Santa Monica Mountains.  It stretches 62 miles from Will Rogers State Historic Park, passes over nearly every mountain and ranch, before culminating at Point Mugu State Park. We snapped a couple of pictures from the trail and agree, it’s beautiful but, probably best saved for when the girls are moving more under their own power.

Solstice Canyon TrailIMG_8242This hike was appealing to us because it is described as customizable. There are ways to make it easy, moderate or strenuous, depending on which off-shoots you choose along the way. The trail itself is about 2 miles out and back. There are several unmarked forks in the trail but, all will lead you to the waterfall and back.  We started our trek just after lunch. The Visitor Center staff warned us that the parking lot was small and would likely be full. They were right but, we lucked out with someone leaving as we were arriving. While we were unloading and lathering up with sunscreen, the line to wait for a parking spot grew quite long. Clearly, an earlier start would’ve been a better idea. If the kids are up to it, make this one a sunrise start.

Western Town at Paramount Ranch – We discovered at the Visitor Center that a Star Festival would be held at Paramount Ranch. We adjusted our schedule to attend. We weren’t sure what to expect but showed up in advance of the festival to take in the other sites. Boy are we glad we did! Paramount Ranch, specifically Western Town, is a kid venture gold mine. In 1927, Paramount Pictures purchased 2,700 acres to be used as a “movie ranch”. Ownership has changed hands many times but, a small portion is owned by the National Parks. They revitalized the Western Town portion for what seems to be the express purpose of giving your kids a place to have fun. It was quaint. Perfect little area for the kids to walk around before the Star Party. Western Town is the site of more movies than we can list. As card carrying millenials, we didn’t recognize many of the movie names. Just Scream and American Sniper. Someone’s seen the 1965 classic “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” but it’s not us.

Satwiwa Native American Culture Center at Rancho Sierra VistaIMG_8250 Though Rancho Sierra Vista is home to an eight mile, ocean bound, through hike, we opted for a more cultural experience. It was hot and the girls were reaching their limit. We got creative, pretended to be on a  secret mission and snuck-up on the Native American ‘Ap display. Once inside, we pretended to take different stations within the tribe making Norah our Chief. We were like a luffed sail that found wind. A six pack of Red Bull couldn’t have been as effective. I’m laughing to myself thinking about how happy they were to play pretend for as long as we’d let them. Luckily, it was just enough excitement to motivate them to not complain on the short 1/4 mile walk back to the car. Though our window was limited to the Native American exhibits, it was clear that Rancho Sierra Vista has much to offer. While there, we saw a number of people on horseback and riding mountain bikes. IMG_8271Want to also mention the quality of the Satwiwa Visitor Center. It’s a small outpost but, the staff was warm, inviting, and quite knowledgeable. Though small, they had a kids’ table set up where the girls played for almost 45 minutes (while we geeked out over National Park stamps). Although many items were turned into weapons to be used against one another, there was nothing breakable and the Ranger encouraged them to really explore with the “artifacts.” The girls dug it!

Ounces = Pounds: backpacks
We knew we wouldn’t be too far from our car on any of our hikes, so we limited what we packed. We did add a travel blanket to our usual snacks, first aid kit, and water supply. We’ve learned that it makes for more cooperation during rest/snack time and can come in handy during an emergency diaper change. For the weekend, we packed light. Just threw jammies and a change of hiking clothes into our bags and were off. Note for next time: Pack extra socks. In the immortal words of LT Dan Taylor – “There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks! Cushion sole. O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’. I want you boys to remember to change your socks wherever we stop.”gump

Haha. Anyway…Trails have dirt on them and we definitely could have used a change of socks.

Summer Star Festival – We seriously lucked out being here this weekend. Honestly, the Star Party is worth its own post. Gabino and Xochitl from Santa Monica Mountains Youth (SAMO Youth) were among the many “big kids” who set up crafts and info stations for their little astonomers. They converted one of the old Western Set jails into a dark room with night sky, helped the kids make bats from sticks and construction paper, created star constellations, and strung bracelets of glowing UV beads. Even had a pretend campfire for story time. The girls walked away with some really special mementos and even better memories.

But the best part, perhaps of the whole trip, was the stargazing. Following sunset, we were treated to a presentation on the constellations which would be in sight. We politely ducked out early in part because toddler attention spans plummet after 8:00pm but moreso because 34 year old attention spans plummet when near REAL telescopes. No, not that thing you had in your bedroom as kid. We’re talking the REAL deal, can’t touch them, set them up and peak back into the origins of existence telescopes. Vendors, local universities, and even some amateur astronomy enthusiasts volunteered their glass. Describing it here doesn’t do justice to the amazement on our children’s faces when they were able to positively identify Jupiter and Saturn with three visible moons. If Ainsley’s, Clarke’s, or Norah’s curiosity blooms into work as theoretical physicists or astronauts…we can say with absolute confidence that the seed was planted on this day. Wish we could have taken a picture..but alas, it was dark.


-Lots of car time. Three hours getting there, through LA traffic, plus considerable driving between trailheads. Most of the trails at each sight are intertwined so if you have a certain trail in mind, you more than likely will have to hike a portion of another to get to it. 

FullSizeRender-Rough start to the trip. Expected to leave at 7:00am but ended up shoving off at 8:30am. Got a late start trying to appease one child only to have a hat-trick of meltdowns occur simultaneously. 

-The restrooms at the Solstice Canyon Trail are probably not something you need to see in person. To call them a restroom would be generous. Find a spot on the side of the trail if you must, but we can’t in good conscience recommend them.

Food Tips:
Neptune’s Net – Shout out to our good friends Adam and Shannon for the heads up on this place. This trip was spur of the moment, which meant we knew meals would be on a whim. We sent Shannon a message (an expert on the area)IMG_2905 as we were leaving the trail asking for a “good food” recommendation. Quickly realized we’re in “Malibu” and added that we were gross, sweaty, and had our hangry kids in tow. She immediately recommended Neptune’s Net. A perfect fit. Casual (sign out front says “Here’s how it works: Claim a seat. Order your food. Pay.”), loud (no one even cared that hangry meltdowns were happening all around) and yummy. Matt was elbow deep in heavenly fried seafood. Kind of touristy, particularly among surfers and bikers but, you’re in Malibu. Have fun with it. 

IMG_8216Paradise Cove – Again, SUPER touristy. We went in for breakfast wanting some hiking fuel before hitting the trails on our second day. Paradise Cove did not disappoint. There are no gourmet chefs and you may get some sand on your feet as you walk to the restroom, but it was just what we needed. Our waitress, Susan, is a local and was perhaps the only one in the restaurant. It was pricey (for breakfast), but we were expecting it.IMG_8220 The view alone made it worth every penny. Even if you are seated inside, you can’t beat an ocean view. Worth mentioning: it costs $8 to park there, even if you’re a restaurant patron. Since it’s attached to a public beach, the parking lot is busy. Management is squared away and has a free valet service set up to keep traffic moving.

Malibu Seafood??? – No idea what was going on in there but the line was a quarter mile long. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Looked like a great spot for kids if no one has seafood allergies. Their site has a nice slogan…”The reason we don’t open for breakfast is we’re out catching lunch.” Lines like that sing to us.

Let’s be Real:
Our kiddos made this trip challenging. As with most hastily planned adventures, we didn’t give them much to work with. No time to mentally prepare for the outing. They were grumpy and unimpressed for significant portions of the trip. Nevertheless, we did make headway worth celebrating. There were several “bee encounters” on the trail. Not enough to mention as a lowlight, but enough. During one such instance we had a HUGE breakthrough with the girls. Normally, ours are the kids you see frantically running from any flying insect, but here…in this lovely National Recreation Area, they stood calmly and allowed a bee to LAND ON THEM and fly away again without betraying the slightest sense of, “Holy Cow I’m Gonna Freak Out and Make Everyone’s Life Around Me a Living Hell Because I’m So Scared and Don’t Really Know What To Do With All This Scarediness.” Progress, my friends. It’s all about the little things.

Also, we regrettably didn’t make it all the way to the Solstice Canyon waterfall. The trail was not overly strenuous but, Norah seemed a bit too uncomfortable so we made the EASY decision to turn around. Jen and I have noticed we’re faced with this from time-to-time. There’s a tendency to want to power through. From behind our computer monitors it’s easy to say “turn around,” but when you’re there, you find yourself wanting to see what’s around the corner. Make the commitment now. Promise yourself you won’t be foolish enough to put yourself or your family in danger for the sake of seeing Mother Nature’s equivalent of a leaky garden hose. It just ain’t worth it. Jen and I have a saying: “Being here IS the summit.”

Also in the interest of progress, Clarke (who has been seriously against allowing her feet to touch the trail these days) willingly gave up her seat in the “big girl pack” because Norah was upset in the Ergo. She walked nearly the whole way back without any complaints and only a little carrying by Daddy.

Various Disney soundtracks. You read that right. The meltdowns were plentiful… We were doing anything we could to make them happy.

Quick Reference Map:

This map represents the entire Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area. Please click here for an interactive .pdf version and more specific park area/trail information.

SAMO_Park Map GA_2012


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