Posted by: GeekHiker | November 13, 2007

Hike: Nicholas Flat

Sometimes the hike you end up on isn’t the hike you’d planned.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of hiking in the Los Angeles area: flexibility is key. That’s not always a bad thing, mind you.

So the hike I’d planned today in the newly-reopened Angeles with spectacular views got put aside when I woke up to cloud filled skies and misty rain. I love to hike in the rain, but saying “this hike has great views” then posting pictures of fog, well, that makes for some pretty dull blogging.

Rain hikes beg for smaller locations and a slower pace, a hike where the details come out. Nicholas Flat is a small area in the Santa Monica Mountains that I often go to when it rains: it’s amazingly quiet and peaceful.

Of course, don’t avoid the park just because it’s sunny out, either. In any weather, Nicholas Flat is rarely crowded, popular with a few locals who meander about the area or the occasional equestrian out on the trail.

The route described below follows a figure 8 pattern, with a short spur to a viewpoint. You can shorten the hike as time or energy requirements demand.

From the trailhead parking area, start hiking south past a metal gate (not the one under the wooden archway to the right). You’ll quickly plunge into a shady oak woodland, following an old road bed (the area was previously a cattle ranch) with the normally dry creekbed to your right.

Nicholas Flat 01

Starting down the trail in Nicholas Flat

After .4 miles, you reach a fork in the trail; turn right and cross the dry creekbed and continue angling right past a second trail junction.

The trail heads uphill through chaparral with occasional views of a meadow and oaks to your right.

Nicholas Flat 02

Lichen covering oak tree branches

After this short climb of about .3 miles, you reach a trail junction of the Nicholas Flat and Meadow trails. Turn left and walk along the edge of the meadow. Large oak trees flank both sides of the trail and make for good picnic spots in warm weather. Warm spring days also yield a nice crop of wildflowers.

Nicholas Flat 03

Late season wildflowers

Nicholas Flat 06

Raindrops on spider web along the trail

The trail continues up past more chaparral and an old cattle pond, finally ascending a ridge where the ocean can be seen beyond (on clear days at least).

Nicholas Flat 05

Pile of old barbed wire from the area’s cattle ranching days

Reaching another trail junction, turn left. Follow the trail upward, staying left past another two trail junctions (the second signed as leading down to Leo Carillo State Park campground) and ascend a small knob above the ocean. Rest here for a few moments and, on clear days, enjoy the 360 panorama of ocean in front of you and the scrub-covered Santa Monica’s behind you.

Nicholas Flat 04

Funnel spider web

Returning to the trail junction on the Nicolas Flat trail, turn left and continue following the path you were on before. The trail circles around the meadow, crossing under towering chaparral and the occasional oak glade.

Nicholas Flat 07

Oaks along the trail

Nicholas Flat Pano 01

Panorama along the Meadow Trail

When you arrive back at the Nicholas Flat/Meadow trail junction you’ll start back down your original trail, but about 20 feet from the junction look for a trail heading off to the right. This trail will lead you down to a large artificial pond at the head of the canyon.

Nicholas Flat Pano 02

Panorama of the nearly dry cattle pond

Most years this pond is quite full, but with this year’s drought almost no water is left. The stain on the rocks shows the pond’s average height.

Spend some time exploring here. Look for a spur trail off to the right that will take you to the rocks at the south end of the pond, overlooking San Nicholas Canyon and the Pacific far below.

Nicholas Flat 08

Looking down San Nicholas Canyon towards the distant shore

The most random finding from my explorations? A full sized kayak, full of holes and unfit for the water, sitting serenely under the oaks some distance from the pond. If only there were some way to know the story of how it got here.


Nicholas Flat 09

Random finding: an abandoned kayak; perhaps found at the bottom of the nearly dry pond?

When you have finished exploring, follow the trail north along the pond’s edge. This will take you back to your original route: turn right and then left to make the final climb back to the parking lot.

Total distance: ~4 miles

Elevation Gain/Loss: 350’/350′


Directions: From PCH (State Route 1), turn north onto Decker Road (State Highway 23) and drive 2.5 miles north. Turn left on Decker School Road and follow it to the end. Park along the edge of the turnout, being sure not to block either gate.



  1. Whenever you post these pics of cool trails, I want to ride my mt. bike! 🙂 Love the old kayak pic!!

  2. Wonderful writeup. Thanks.

  3. The abandoned kayak has been placed there as a shelter for you to live in when you decide to burn your money and check out of mainstream life.

    Please don’t wait ’til spring to try to leave lest you find yourself trapped behind a raging river of melted snow. Oh then I suppose you could just kayak on out. But don’t eat the berries!

    J/K – nice looking hike!

  4. Hmmm … I posted a comment and it never appeared. Oh Well.

    I’m glad you could find a hike that could turn this gloomy day into a fun, dew covered day. I did this hike back in September when it was overcast but with a little sun peaking through. You’re right, it is nice in the sun too. I started from the Leo Carillo campground which make it a little tougher but you have some awesome ocean views.

    It’s amazing how much the pond water level has dropped since I was there. It will be gone altogether if it doesn’t rain soon. When I was there the kayak was on the edge of the pond stuck in the mud.

  5. *kb* – That Kayak was the most random find!

    Aaron – Thanks!

    Charlotte – Heh, excellent wilderness tips! 😉

    Homer – That’s pretty cool that you did the trail before, and saw the kayak no less!

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