Posted by: GeekHiker | April 14, 2008

HIKE: The Grotto

(A few very cool photos that didn’t quite make the post text here.)

The weather forecast for the weekend was a mini heat-wave, with temperatures in the nineties possible in the Valley. It’s the kind of weekend where one should really just hunker down with copious quantities of cold drinks and stay cool or head to the beach.

But, you know me. I’m not much of a beach-goer (I think I can lay on the sand for about ten minutes before I’m bored) and I just couldn’t resist a short hike. Where to go, when temperatures in the Santa Monicas would probably hit the 100’s? One place sprang to mind: The Grotto.

It just sounds cool, both in temperature and as a destination, doesn’t it?

Located in the Circle X Ranch (the same park as the Sandstone Peak/Mishe Mokwa Trail hike), The Grotto is a good hike for a hot day if you get an early start. It’s also a great hike to see the riparian woodland of the Santa Monicas.

Grotto 14

Entrance to the Circle X Ranch

The Grotto is a fairly easy hike, though it is an upside-down hike: descending first and ascending on the return. As such, I can only recommend it on a warm day if you plan to stay a while; hiking back in the cool of the evening is really the only way to go.

From the parking lot at the Circle X Ranch, descend the road to the group campground. Years ago, I might have recommended taking the old road on the descent to the campground that used to exist just above The Grotto, but the NPS has let it grow over completely:

Grotto 01
The overgrown road to the old campground

Tick city. Don’t do it.

Grotto 02
Start of the trail down to The Grotto

At the parking area for the group campground pick up the signed trail heading south. You’ll descend along the west wall of the canyon in sun for most of the trip. At the second stream crossing (in wet years), you’ll cross above the brink of a small waterfall.

Grotto 03
Waterfall near the start of the trail, almost dry for the season

The trail will then head up to a meadow:

Grotto 04
Trail crossing through meadow; the rock formations ahead are at The Grotto

Grotto 05
Flowers along the trail

And then descend the rest of the way to the canyon bottom. Here you’ll cross the creek again, which Saturday appeared to be dry:

Grotto 16
Dry creek bottom, water flowing underground

Like a lot of streams in Southern California (including the LA River before they channelized it), the water is still flowing, but underneath the bed through the gravel deposits.

Grotto 06
Spring greenery at the flat canyon bottom

The trail will work it’s way over a small rise before finally descending to Happy Hollow, a beautiful oak clearing just above The Grotto.

Happy Hollow Pano
The shady glen of Happy Hollow

NOTE: from this point forward the trail requires scrambling over rocks and rock-hopping along the stream. If you’re not confident you can do this or get nervous at any point, turn back.

Past Happy Hollow, the canyon walls pinch in suddenly and the canyon is filled with boulders that have fallen from the walls. Cross the stream and start working your way along the canyon wall, following the well traveled foot path. Soon you’ll find yourself standing on a massive boulder that forms The Grotto Roof. Past this point, you can continue up a short incline and decline, working your way over a short stretch of loose soil to reach the Grotto itself.

Grotto 07
Working the way down into The Grotto, the creek disappearing under the rocks

If the day is particularly hot, bask in the cool breeze of the waterfall and mist. Find a nice rock, break out a picnic and a good book, and stay a while.

Grotto Pano
Looking down from above The Grotto; note the creek emerging at the bottom

Unfortunately, as beautiful as it is, The Grotto isn’t easy to photograph without a tripod, so I’ll let that be a surprise for you. Since there weren’t as many wildflowers as last week, I became fascinated with the new spring leaves on the trees. They’re part of the photos for this set here.

And, of course, if you’re quiet enough, the wildlife starts to emerge:

Grotto 08
Lizard eying me in the canyon

Although not a crowded place by any means, The Grotto does get a fair share of people on all but the hottest days. I met several friendly hikers, a number of whom I directed to last week’s Las Virgenes Canyon hike. Still, there’s usually not a crowd and it’s a wonderful place for peace and quietness a world away from the city.

You can explore further downstream as well (crossing back and forth across the stream to find the best path). Eventually you’ll reach a fairly dicey drop off that makes a good stopping point as well as picnic spot. Further on the stream passes into private land.

Return by the same route.

Total Distance: 3.4 miles round trip

Park: Circle X Ranch (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area)


Directions: From the 101, exit at Westlake Blvd (State Route 23 South). Drive south until the road intersects with Mulholland Highway and turn right. Continue right as Mulholland intersects with Decker Canyon Road, and very shortly thereafter turn right on Little Sycamore Canyon Road. Little Sycamore will head west and turn into Yerba Buena Road as you cross from LA county into Ventura county (the road will also become rougher and narrower at this point. Continue on Yerba Buena Road until you see the signed entrance to the Circle X Ranch on the left. Backbone Trail parking lot. From PCH (Highway 1), turn north on Mulholland Highway approximately 6 miles and turn left on Little Sycamore Canyon Road. Follow the directions as above. The lot has parking for a few cars, or you can go all the way down the road (skip the first right) and park at a shaded picnic area. The upper lot also has a small visitor center, restrooms and water.



  1. Of course the best part of the hike is the Grotto itself. There are two grottoes, actually, where water cascades down the face of room-sized boulders. One grotto is a kind of vestibule, but the other is a kind of “pirate’s cave.” It’s a great place to meditate…and then there’s a nice little chimney that you can climb out.

    Good Friday at the Grotto

  2. Phil – I couldn’t agree more. When I wrote the post, I thought leaving the Grotto itself a bit of a mystery for the reader to discover, but I like your description. Nice photo, too!

  3. I hiked to the grotto last year. I thought it was one of the better destinations in the area. I like rock hopping. Very interesting.

    Great picture of the lizard.

    Here are some of mine:

  4. A mystery for the reader? As the occasional avid caver, I was disappointed I had to get my pics from your hiking-blogging-competition. 😉

    The first photo (with the moon) in the set was awesome, BTW!

  5. G.H., if you keep posting such awesome photos, I’m going to have to move up my trip to CA. I can’t get there until at least December, and seeing pics like the waterfall and the view from the top of the Grotto don’t make waiting any easier.

    As always, gorgeous shots :o)

  6. Homer-Dog – I hadn’t gone last year due to the low water, but it’s a beautiful location. The lizard was nice enough not to move for about 15 minutes while I photographed hime!

    A-Ron – LOL, sorry for your disappointment!

    East Coast Teacher – Well, summer tourist season is almost here!

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