The Santa Monica Mountains are not lacking in trails with beautiful ocean views, but Temescal Canyon is definitely one of the more popular ones. Maybe it’s the easy parking, or the fact that you can really do whatever kind of hike you’d like here – a quick loop, a trail-run up to the ridge, or a full-day trek deep into the mountain ranges – but Temescal is definitely an L.A. hike worth knowing about.
A word of warning, though – because this trail is so popular and because you can do some very easy routes here … and because it’s also located so close to some excessively wealthy areas of Los Angeles – don’t be surprised if you see people in yoga pants and expensive tops strolling in the woods with Starbucks cups while talking on their phones. I honestly think I may have passed three or four people in the lower stretches of the Canyon who were wearing perfume or cologne. Another hiker I passed was playing her workout music from speakers (what is WITH that?). If that sort of stuff bothers you, then I’d suggest heading to a trail further in the mountains, or just hiking quickly through the lower Canyon – those types thin out quite a bit once you start approaching the ridge.
OK, that said – this hike starts out in the southwestern corner of the western parking area. If you’ve decided to park inside the park’s lots, just keep heading in that direction. If you parked on the street, this is on the north side of Sunset just west of the park’s entrance. Look for a large green metal gate near a metal debris dam, just below a small information kiosk. The hike starts here:
Head down the short descent and hop across the small bridge, enjoying the shade and fragrant blooms along the way.
This section of trail doesn’t have any signs on it, and there are a LOT of little spur routes heading to the stream and to the parking areas. If you’re heading north into the park, just keep staying to the left at the junctions and you’ll make it, although all the trails will get you to the Canyon entrance one way or another. It’s about 0.4 miles to the main Temescal trail junction.
When you get there, you’ll see a lot of signs. The Temescal Canyon Trail is to your right, while the Temescal Ridge Trail enters Topanga State Park and makes an ascent to your left. The Temescal Canyon Trail stays relatively flat for a little while before making a steep but shaded ascent to the Ridge, while the Ridge Trail makes a more gradual ascent but spends more time in the direct sun. Feel free to take whichever direction strikes your fancy, but on my trek I went to the right and headed further into Temescal Canyon.
This clear, well-maintained trail stays relatively flat for the next 0.3 miles as it skirts another large debris dam and some camp buildings. When you come to a small stretch of pavement near an old cement structure, just cross the road and continue in the same direction. The trail’s a bit faint, but it’s still there.
At the 0.7 mile mark, you’ll hit the edge of Temescal Gateway Park and the southern boundary of Topanga State Park. If you’re hiking with a dog, you’ll have to turn around here (Topanga is notorious for ticketing dog-owners). Otherwise, continue into the Canyon, where the trail becomes significantly more rugged.
You’ll spend the next 0.8 miles dodging trail boulders and finally starting to climb a bit. You’ll be surrounded by green but don’t forget to take a moment every now and then to turn back for some great views down the canyon.
The incline is slightly steeper here than it is on the other route, but it’s still manageable. And the good news is, most of this route is very well shaded, so if you’re doing the hike on a sunny day you won’t sweat out half your body weight along the way!
It’s 0.8 miles from the trail junction to Skull Rock – it’s pretty easy to spot from the trail. There will be a short but very apparent use-trail you can use to scramble through a bit of chaparral to the rock itself, and once you get there you can climb on, over, underneath, or even next to the rock if you want – the view from the top (or from nearby, smaller rock structures) is pretty amazing.
When you’re done soaking in the views and scrambling, backtrack to the Temescal Ridge Trail junction (at about the 2.8 mile mark), then keep to the right to stay on the Ridge Trail. You’ll pass the junction with the Bienveneda Trail just a few yards further – ignore that one and stay on the Ridge Trail as it starts its descent. If you get confused, don’t worry – the trail signs will tell you which route takes you back to Sunset Blvd. The trail starts out in the sun with some really nice views of the coast and toward the city, but there are sporadic sections of shade along the way.
It’s 1.4 miles back down to the junction with the Sunset Trail. Ignore all the side-trails (and the fancy houses that are really too big for anyone to need) and return back to the trailhead the way you came in.
And if you parked in the parking lot – WATCH OUT FOR THAT STOP SIGN CAMERA!
He has also been featured on Good Morning America, NPR, and the Associated Press, as well as in documentaries for Columbia Sportswear and the OTIS College of Art and Design.
Casey was one of eight people chosen by the National Parks Foundation to participate in the 2015 Find Your Park Expedition and is currently writing a book on day hikes in Los Angeles for Mountaineers Books.
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This post was written by Casey Schreiner on February 1, 2013