Distance (round-trip)

3 mi

Time

1.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

600 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

The Grotto Trail is a short hike to one of Southern California’s classic hiking destinations. An easy route that can extend as far as you want, with great opportunities for climbing and a wonderful place to refresh your bouldering skills.

The drive up the coast to the Santa Monica Mountains is one of my favorites. The skies were clear, the surf in the Pacific was choppy, and a steady breeze filled the air with that great salt scent. When I got to the Circle X Ranch, I couldn’t resist grabbing a shot of Exchange and Sandstone Peaks with the ranch’s flagpole:


I Claim These Mountains ...

If you are interested, the ranger / info station at the Circle X Ranch offers some occasional interesting ranger-led programs. They’re happy to answer any questions you might have about the area … and they have a water fountain and flush toilet if you need it.

There are a few ways to reach the Grotto – you can also hike in from two different trailheads for the Canyon View Trail further east along Yerba Buena Road. For this trip, start at the Circle X Ranch parking area and begin your hike

From the parking lot on Yerba Buena Road, I could see clear down to the narrowing canyon walls of my destination. Unlike many hikes in the Santa Monicas or San Gabriels, the Grotto Trail starts up high and ends down low. So while it will be easy going in, just remember that it’s all uphill on the way out.

The Circle X Ranch used to be a Boy Scout Camp, and still sees a lot of action from the pint-sized outdoorsmen. Early on in the trail, I passed a reservation-only Group Campground, notable both for its close proximity to the main road and for having two of the nicest-looking outhouses I’ve seen at any park so far.


Rustic Outhouses
Group Camp

Shortly after the group camp (at about the 0.1 mile mark) you’re finally off the dirt roads and onto the actual Grotto Trail – a very well-maintained footpath that starts off through some low brush and chaparral. There’s a bit of shade but the sun breaks through most of the cover.


Grotto Trail Begins

Spring was starting to strike the trail, and the canyon was full of beautiful green grasses and all kinds of things in bloom. If you can ever catch this part of the Santa Monica Mountains just after it rains, not only will you likely see a great collection of flowers, but you’ll also get the full range of chaparral scents. Something about a fresh rain really gets that sage scent into the air. For me, I was happy with just the scenery.


In Bloom
More Flowers

The Birds And

After a few minutes of painless descent through the brush, the trail meets up with the (often dry) West Fork of the Arroyo Sequit and at 0.5 miles you’ll hop across it at a junction with the Canyon View Trail near a hillside meadow of the Classic California variety. There are few things as peaceful as watching a grassy meadow swaying in the breeze, then looking up to see coastal mountains and the choppy ocean …


Meadowlands

… but for me, turning around and looking back at the Circle X Ranch, surrounded by Boney Mountain and Sandstone Peak, was pretty close. I do love that mountain.


Centered

Passing only a single couple on the way down, I made my way through a few more small meadows and dry creek beds to Happy Hollow at 1.28 miles, a small stream side clearing completely covered by old, twisted canyon oaks. These are the kind of trees that have seen a few things in their day. If you brought dogs with you (dogs are allowed on-leash on the trails here), you can’t take them past this point on the trail.


Gnarled

Just past the hollow, the established trail gives way to a rough use trail in a stream bed filled with jagged boulders, which grow larger and more angled as you hop across them. It’s still very much Beginners’ Territory, though. I mean, if Boy Scouts can scramble their way over this stuff, you probably can, too.


Climbing Down

The actual Grotto itself is just past Happy Hollow at 1.4 miles. Look for a large flat rock in the middle of this formation, just before a short cliff drop-off. There are plenty of cracks and corners to climb around, and if you can get beneath the main slab, you’ll get yourself into a beautiful little cave, with a small waterfall and pool. I apologize for the bad focus on these pics … just assume that everything is a bit sharper than it looks here.


Underground
Exit

There are also plenty of little skylights, so the cave itself isn’t that dark.


Look Up
Spiderweb

Enjoy the strange formations at the Grotto as long as you’d like – or you can continue down a thin pathway on the westernmost canyon wall to further explore the canyon past the rock formations. This path looks steep from the top of the rocks, but once you get onto it you’ll see it’s not that bad at all.

Past the bottom of the Grotto, the rocks get a bit less interesting, but they do go on for quite a while. From there on out, it’s basically a stream bed stuffed chock full of boulders that you can explore to your heart’s content. This track stops around the 1.5 mile mark, but it is possible to keep going down the Arroyo – just know that it’s completely unmaintained and further exploration is done entirely at your own risk.

When you’re done, remember that the trip back to the trailhead is entirely uphill … although it will be tough, you will have some excellent views to keep you going!


Sandstone Peak
Grotto Trail 029

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





Camping

Historical Interest

Kid-Friendly

Multi-Use Trail

Potable Water

Water Features

Trail Map

9 Comments

Grisel Calcagno

Grisel Calcagno Jun 14, 2016 18:06

Hi guys. Is it 1.5 hours of hike until you reach that kind of cave with water? I'm thinking of going there soon. Also, is the trail marked?

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100hikes.com: Resolving to hike 100 times by 2010. Mar 5, 2011 13:03

[...] Hiking the Grotto Trail | Modern Hiker [...]

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Sam R. Jul 18, 2010 09:07

Hiked the grotto yesterday with 4 or 5 friends, including a 12 year old. We were very happy to find so much water still down there this late in the year. Within the grotto, the water was about 4 feet at the deepest point and wide enough for a couple of swim strokes. When we arrived a couple with inflatable pool floats was just leaving...

Word of caution, it gets HOT up there. Our car thermostat read 69 at Leo Carillo State Beach, but 98 up at the circle X trailhead! The trail was exposed and fairly hot, but the grotto was a wonderful oasis. There is a water fountain at the ranger station.

Really fun hike overall.

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Jill Coert Mar 21, 2010 23:03

Did this hike today - first time and it was gorgeous. Plenty of water to splash around in. We took our boots off and went behind the falls. Saw a rattler so just have your eyes open. We continued on for quite a ways past the grotto and the boulders are great fun and challenging for this 51 yr old lady. Water shoes would have made playing in the water better cuz those rocks can be a little sharp. It was a two and a half hour round trip for us.

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100hikes.com » » Hike 27 – The Grotto Trail Aug 25, 2009 02:08

[...] Hiking the Grotto Trail | Modern Hiker [...]

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hubogsukat.com Blog » Blog Archive » The Grotto … continuation … Aug 11, 2009 19:08

[...] Actual entrance is through the Circle X ranch- for a more detailed hiking references please follow Hiking the Grotto Trail | Modern Hiker [...]

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The Grotto … continuation … « Jojo Kahanding’s Blog Aug 10, 2009 21:08

[...] leave a comment » Actual entrance is through the Circle X ranch- for a more detailed hiking references please follow Hiking the Grotto Trail | Modern Hiker [...]

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EpicTrendz » Blog Archive » If State Parks Close, What’s Left? Jun 9, 2009 14:06

[...] Ranch where you can climb to the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains at Sandstone Peak (the Grotto Trail is cool, [...]

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Blake Mar 30, 2009 09:03

My girlfriend and I did the short hike to the Grotto yesterday. Really easy and fun hike. The valley was beautiful on the way down with some low lying clouds. The Grotto was cool. Hung out by the lower pool for a while. The hike out wasn't bad at all. A real easy hike. There was a fair amount of foot traffic but everyone seemed cool and respectful. I did see a rattler!

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