A picturesque, shaded canyon hike. A popular, well-maintained trail with opportunities for less-traveled spurs. Highlights include a small waterfall, the oldest still-standing stone building in Malibu, and the ruins of a burned-down mansion.
Solstice Canyon is a unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It was one of the first trails I did in L.A. back when I first started hiking, and coming back for a return trip was just as nice as I’d remembered.
Just a quick turn off the Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu, the entrance to Solstice is just a few hundred feet away from the sometimes crowded beaches, but it feels a world away. A short road winds its way through a few hills and over a small stream to a moderately-sized parking lot with plenty of picnic areas, an amphitheater, and some bathrooms. This is a popular trail, and there is an overflow lot closer to the PCH. If you’ve got extra time (or don’t have a car), this is one of the most easily accessible hikes from Metro – the bus stop for Metro Bus 534 is just a few hundred feet south of park entrance – and will save you the hassle of fighting for a parking spot.
At the north end of the parking lot you are presented with your trail options – you can either take an easy stroll down the paved Solstice Canyon Trail heading straight in, or you can climb a staircase and dirt path that leads to the more rugged, more exposed, more secluded Rising Sun Trail. If you’re up for a bit of a workout, head up the stairs to the Rising Sun Trail.
Just a few hundred feet up the trail, and you’ll start to get some great views of the coast … and a little bit of the parking lot you just crawled out of. Not the most awe-inspiring vistas, but it’s a pleasant view of the Pacific.
The Rising Sun Trail ascends the eastern edge of Solstice Canyon along a well-defined, wide trail. There are long stretches of climbing but nothing steep enough to get worried about. There is, however, very little shade on this stretch of the trail — so if it’s hot out, be prepared to sweat.
As you ascend (especially in the spring or after a rain) be sure to pay attention to the fragrant chaparral and California bay trees lining the trail as you ascend.
Eventually, you’ll reach the crest and be able to peer down into Solstice Canyon again. When I hiked this, we had an extremely parched year so far in Southern California, and most of the brush was pale and dried out. However, there is a small stream that constantly runs through the canyon and a brilliant band of green hugging both banks. Because everything else was so thirsty, the watered areas really stood out in the scenery.
As the trail begins its descent back down into the canyon, observant hikers will notice a brick chimney peeking out from some of the greenery. More observant hikers will notice the palms and other non-native plants still thriving in the area. These are the first remnants of the “Tropical Terrace” house you’ll be able to see from the Rising Sun Trail.
You’ll reach the stream after a quick descent — and it will be difficult to resist dunking your head in to cool off. But there’s more exploring to be had — if you stay on the east bank of the stream and climb up a few ruined steps, you’ll reach a the beautiful ruins of a statuary. To the south, it’s empty, but to the north, a Virgin Mary statue remains, complete with pinecone offering dish. It’s quite a peaceful spot for a short rest.
After getting your share of meditation your attentions will most likely turn toward the sound of rushing water coming from your immediate north. Just around the corner from the house is a small, multi-tiered waterfall with plenty of boulders to scramble around on.
Crowded or not, this is one of the nicest easily-accessible waterfalls. It’s covered in shade, has a few shallow pools for foot-soaking, and is generally less crowded than the San Gabriels’ Switzer Falls. It’s also fantastic relief after the sauna of the Rising Sun Trail.
After you’re done cooling off, you can scramble up above the waterfall, or backtrack a bit and explore the ruins of the Tropical Terrace House. Despite burning down in 1982, the ruins are fairly well preserved. There are still several walls and chimneys standing, and you can still make out some of the stoves and furniture.
From here, you can just return to the trailhead via the paved path. But if you’re in the mood for more mileage, look for the junction with the Deer Valley Loop Trail just south of the ruins of the house. This trail is much less-traveled and isn’t in quite as good of a condition as the trails you’ve hiked on so far, but it’s a nice, more rugged option in the park that will help get you away from the crowds a bit.
Eventually the trail meets up with the Deer Valley Loop, a 1.3 mile round trip that provides some great aerial views of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, if you take the trail south first it sort of disintegrates in a meadow with no clear path. It was this, combined with the heat and my rapidly draining water supplies, that made me decide to call it a day and head back down to the main trail when I hiked … but I hear it’s nice up there.
Either way, you can get a nice perspective on the canyon from Sostomo.
On your way back to the parking lot, the Solstice Canyon Trail switches from pavement to dirt road a few times, and hugs the banks of the Solstice Canyon Creek. This is a very easy stretch of trail with plenty of shade and ample opportunities to hop off the path and splash around in the water a bit — just watch out for poison oak.
And if you’re down for a little bit of history on the way out, you’ll pass an enormous, gnarled tree on the west side of the trail, marked with a small plaque. This is the ‘Keller Family Oak,’ named for ‘Don Mateo’ Keller, and Irish immigrant who owned 13,300 acres of Malibu and Topanga after the Mexican-American War. His family’s stone residence is across the river, and is believed to be the oldest existing stone building in Malibu.
His stories for Modern Hiker have brought regional and national attention, and have been featured on Good Morning America, NPR, and the Associated Press.
Casey is also an award-winning television writer-producer, and was Series Producer of pivot's TakePart Live and Head Writer of G4's Attack of the Show.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on September 5, 2007