A beautiful hike in the coastal mountains. Phenomenal flower blooms in the spring, strong sun in the summer, and a small spring and waterfall (during wet years), the main attraction are large swaths of native California grassland — some of the last remaining unspoiled areas in the state. A well-traveled area with lots of trail options can make this area and easy couple of hours or a full day excursion.
5/28/13 – This area was badly burned in the Springs Fire in May of 2013. Official trails are open to hikers but may be closed depending on safety and erosion. Please check with rangers before you head here to make sure the route you’d like to do is open.
La Jolla Canyon was one of the first hikes I did when I started “taking hiking seriously.” I remember two things — one, that it was gorgeous, and two, that it was about 100 degrees out and the trail had a total of four shaded areas. I don’t think I’ve ever been covered in more sweat. And so, on a hot, sunny weekend, I figured this would be an appropriate reintroduction to hiking, after being forbidden by my doctor for over a month.
After a long and relaxing drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll enter Ventura County and pass the so-called “Great Sand Dune.” Across the street from Thornhill Broome Beach is the entrance to La Jolla Canyon. It’s a popular trailhead and a nice campground, too – so it’s very clearly marked.
Park on the PCH or in a small lot inside the park. When you see the gate posted with ominous signs about ticks and mountain lions, take the small trail to your immediate right — the Ray Miller Trail.
This trail will slowly wind and switchback its way up the mountain, in full view of the Pacific. Its 2.7 miles — like the rest of the trail — are not shaded, but it’s nice to get the bulk of the elevation gain done with at the beginning of the journey.
And while you’re climbing the trail, you’ll have plenty to look at — especially if it’s spring time. This place is absolutely teeming with wildflowers and the animal life that goes with it. Lillies, yuccas, and poppies were blanketing the sides of the path, while swarms of ladybugs and honeybees filled the air.
On this trail, it’s tempting to keep your eyes glued to the ground to try to take in all of the colorful blossoms and blooms, but it’s also worthwhile to look up every now and then. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping vistas of the Pacific and the rugged Santa Monica mountains surrounding you.
The Ray Miller Trail ends when it intersects with the Overlook Fire Road. Turn left to continue north on this broad fire road as it continues a gradual ascent along a ridge. To the southeast, you’ll have great views over the wide Big Sycamore Canyon with some of the more angular coastal mountains in the distance.
It’s another two miles from the Ray Miller Trail junction to a five-way intersection to the north. As you hike the mostly-level route, you’ll get your first glimpses inside the La Jolla Valley Nature Reserve, with its unspoiled landscape and large patches of grassland. From up here, they just look like green swatches amidst the chaparral — but in just a short distance, you’ll get to see them in much greater detail.
At the intersection, take La Jolla Valley Fire Road west, back toward the trailhead. After just .2 miles, the trail splits again. If you want to explore the entire valley, bear to the right. This path travels past three trail camps through tall grasslands before returning to the main trail or climbing the ridge of Mugu Peak (this side route adds 2.8 miles to the trip). If you’re pressed for time, or just want to meander through the grass, bear left and onto the La Jolla Canyon Trail — right away, you’ll find yourself walking through thigh-high grass.
If you take the trip later on in the summer, this sea of green will turn golden — and will give you an idea of what Ms. Bates was thinking of when she wrote about “amber waves of grain.”
Regardless of the season and your current levels of musical patriotism, this is probably a good place to make frequent tick checks.
The trail continues south, passing a small, swampy pond along the way. When I did this trail a few years ago, the water was flowing up and over the trail itself, but this time, the pond was nearly empty. It is enough water to nourish large clusters of poison oak, though, so watch your arms and legs while trekking. But this is by far the shadiest stretch of the entire route — so if it’s hot and sunny out, be sure to enjoy it.
From here, the trail stays to the south of a creek bed (which may be bone dry) and follows it back to the trailhead, through an area of relatively narrow canyon walls. There are a few steep sections, and one area that was destroyed by a recent landslide, but everything is easily passable. If you’re lucky enough to have water flowing, you will even be treated to a small waterfall. Otherwise, just enjoy the canyon walls and odd plant life.
In no time, you’ll find yourself back at the trailhead. If it’s during the warm months, you’ll probably be out of water and covered in sweat. Although the ocean is tantalizingly close, the beach right across the PCH from the trailhead is all rocks. There are plenty of unnamed beaches on the way back south toward L.A. Just pull your car over on the side of the road and crawl down the rocks to chill out in the sand and cool water. It’s a great way to cap off the day.
This post was written by Casey Schreiner on April 29, 2008