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Sandstone Peak's Dramatic Scenery Makes It a Must-Do Hike for 2012

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By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

If you only take one hiking trip in 2012, make your destination Sandstone Peak, the highest summit in the Santa Monica Mountains. If you are a veteran hiker, Sandstone Peak is likely to rank among your favorite trips, and if you’ve never been on a hike, this is one that’s worth training for. Even if you can barely walk up the stairs without breaking into a sweat, Sandstone Peak is an achievable goal for the end of the year (and there's a good chance it might help you keep your New Year's resolution).

Is Sandstone Peak the best hike in all of Southern California? That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but the 6-mile trip offers a huge variety of scenery that few other trails can boast. On the way to the 3,111-foot summit, you will pass by a deep canyon, see some geological landmarks, walk through a quiet woodland, see views that extend east to Mt. Baldy and the San Gabriels and west to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, and finally, approach the edge of a cliff that drops seemingly straight into the ocean.

While the hike is challenging, it’s shorter than other famous So-Cal hikes such as Mt. Baldy and Mt. Wilson; it requires no special equipment (although sturdy boots or shoes, sunscreen, bug spray and hiking poles are recommended) and except in hot summer days, it can be done in virtually any season. Unlike Mt. Baldy, San Jacinto or San Gorgonio, Sandstone Peak’s modest height doesn’t present problems to those sensitive to high altitudes. Make no mistake, however: three thousand feet might not sound like much compared to the taller peaks in the ranges that surround L.A., but the view from the top is stunning.

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Sandstone Peak is located in the Circle X Ranch, a large parcel in the western Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service. The trailhead is a large parking lot on the left side of Yerba Buena Road, 6.5 miles from Pacific Coast Highway. Yerba Buena is shortly past the Ventura County line, before Pt. Mugu, about 30 miles from Santa Monica. (If you’re coming from the San Fernando Valley, consider taking highway 101 to Kanan Road to P.C.H. Parking is free - no passes are required, as they are for Mt. Baldy or Mt. Wilson, although the lot tends to fill up on weekends (if this is the case, alternate parking is available a few miles farther down Yerba Buena Road.)

From the parking lot, the trail ascends steeply, arriving at a junction in a quarter mile. Head right on to the Mokwa Connector Trail, and left at the next junction. This is the Mishe Mokwa Trail, which heads around the back of Sandstone Peak.

Soon, you get dramatic views into Triunfo Canyon, as the trail skirts the edge of the drop-off. You will notice huge Balanced Rock, perched on the opposite side of the canyon, looking a little bit like a giant nose. Two miles from the start, the trail descends into a peaceful wooded area. A seasonal stream flows through it, and there’s a picnic table, but the real attraction is Split Rock, which gets its name for an obvious reason. The gap in the giant boulder is big enough that most people can walk through it; doing so is a Sandstone Peak tradition.

After leaving Split Rock, the Mokwa Trail continues up the backside of Sandstone. You cross the canyon again, and soon you reach the Backbone Trail, the main route through the Santa Monica Mountains, coming in from Point Mugu State Park to the west. A popular detour is to visit the nearby Tri-Preaks, the second tallest summit in the Santa Monica Mountains.

You head east on the Backbone Trail, and soon you get some great ocean views. On clear days, up to six of the Channel Islands are visible. To the north, you can see Thousand Oaks and the Santa Susana Mountains. Along the way, you can take a short detour to Inspiration Point, where you get some more great views.

Just over four miles from the start, the Backbone Trail makes a sharp “S” curve. At this point, you’ll see a brown sign directs you up a staircase cut into the rocks, leading to the summit. A clearing provides a nice place to rest and take in the views before making the last push.

The stairs climb steeply, soon giving way to the rock itself. There isn’t much of a trail this point; you get to the peak by scrambling over the rocks. There are plenty of handholds, so it’s not too difficult to make the final ascent to the summit - although the sharp drop off the cliff may test the nerves of some hikers. The summit is marked by a large plaque that reads, “Mt. Allen” - the peak’s alternate name. W. Herbert Allen was a former president of the Los Angeles council of the Boy Scouts. The BSA dedicated the peak to him, although the name hasn’t been sanctioned by the National Park Service.

As great as the views were on the way up, the 360-degree panorama from the summit is even better. To the south, the mountain drops off nearly vertically, with the ocean close by. To the east, the San Gabriels and even the San Jacinto and Santa Ana ranges are visible, as is the Palos Verdes Peninsula. To the west, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands can be seen off the Ventura coast, and to the north, the western San Fernando Valley and Conejo Valley are spread out.

After enjoying the view, scramble back down the summit and the stairs, and continue heading east on the trail. You head uphill briefly before beginning a steep descent, dropping a thousand feet in just over a mile. On the way, you get more ocean, city and mountain views. If you look carefully, you can see Balanced Rock and Triunfo Canyon below on the left side of the trail.

Finally, you return to first intersection. Head right and retrace your steps downhill to the parking lot.

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As a veteran of over 500 hikes in the L.A. area, the author ranks Sandstone Peak within his top ten. The stunning views, huge variety of scenery and challenging terrain make it a trip that should not be missed. When the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, 2012, if you have climbed Sandstone Peak, you will undoubtedly consider it one of the high points of the year.

You can find more information about Sandstone Peak here.