Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The 150,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), established in 1978, preserves the region’s unique ecosystems and rich cultural and natural history. This beautiful, diverse area, bounded by Mugu Lagoon and the Oxnard Plain on the west, Conejo Valley and San Fernando Valley on the north, and the coast on the south, reaches all the way to the on edge of downtown Los Angeles 46 miles east of Point Mugu.

A patchwork of 60,000 acres of parks and the famed Malibu coast comprise the Recreation Area. With a resident population of about 80,000 people, it nestles in the midst of the vast urban development of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It offers diverse recreational opportunities including hiking on 570 miles of trails, camping, backpacking, cycling, horseback riding, plant and wildlife observation, and visiting cultural sites such as Chumash villages, historic ranches and movie sets. The coast offers many water-oriented pursuits on miles of beaches. A variety of cultural events such as art shows and concerts occur at various locations.

The unique Mediterranean climate, hot summers and cool, wet winters, creates a varied ecosystem with chaparral, oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, and riparian woodlands. Fifty-three species of mammals live here including mountain lions, deer, gray fox, badger, striped skunk and coyote. Birds of 263 species reside or visit here, including more types of raptors than are seen anywhere in the United States except one area in Idaho.

The National Park Service oversees the SMMNRA, coordinating planning activities among more than 60 government agencies and countless private landowners, acquiring new parkland, and informing the public. Park literature lists 47 individual features, with California State Parks running the largest units including 15,000-acre Point Mugu State Park (with the only officially designated wilderness area), 7000 acre Malibu Creek State Park and 10,000-acre Topanga Canyon State Park. Other highlights of the SMMNRA include: 

  • Will Rogers State Historic Park – Highlighted by the ranch house the famed humorist built in 1928, which contains abundant artifacts from his life, the park also includes an active polo field, stables and several miles of trails including the eastern trailhead of the Backbone Trail. 
  • Circle X Ranch – This old Boy Scout camp now administered by the National Park Service features campground and the highest point in the Santa Monica range, 3 lll-foot Sandstone Peak. The popular Mishe Mokwa Trail circles the peak through spectacular mountain scenery.
  • Leo Carrillo State Beach – This coastal park features several miles of beach and a campground under giant sycamore trees along the creek. Nicholas Flat Trail leads to an upland oak valley with a small lake. 
  • Paramount Ranch – Western Town, an active movie set open to the public even during filming, is the main attraction here. Since the 1920s, hundreds of movies and TV series used the location. Several trails explore the area, with links to Malibu Creek State Park and the Backbone Trail.
  • Santa Monica Pier and Beach – The wide sandy beach, the most popular on the west coast, hosts millions of visitors each year, with everything from rollerblading to surfing to body building. The pier amusement park features an antique carousel with 44 hand-carved horses. Downtown Santa Monica sits adjacent to the beach and pier.
  • Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa – Here you’ll find historic evidence of the equestrian heritage of Spanish and American settlers and of the Chumash Indian culture at the Native American Indian Culture Center.
  • Malibu Creek State Park – This park features astounding natural features and a campground. Malibu Creek, with the second southernmost steelhead run on the west coast, winds through the wild Goat Buttes area, oak woodlands and rich riparian zones before descending a deep a canyon to the sea. Twenty trails take hikers into wild and remote country in this 7000-acre park.

Information for this article was adapted from Mountains to Ocean, A Guide to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, published by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association.

For more information on the SMMNRA, contact these agencies:

  • National Park Service SMMNRA Visitor Center 3040 | Agoura Road Agoura Hills, CA 91301 (818)597-9192
  • California State Parks 1925 Las Virgines Road Calabasas, CA 91302 (818)880-0350
  • Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy 3700 Solstice Canyon Malibu, CA 90265 (310)456-5046

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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