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Location: Circle X Ranch (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area)
Highlights: Most inclusive view in the Santa Monicas and volcanic rock formations
Distance: 6 miles (loop)
Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,400'/1,400'
Hiking Time: 3½ hours
Optional Maps: Trails Illustrated Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area or USGS 7.5-minute Triunfo Pass and Newbury Park
Best Times: OctoberJune
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Trail Use: Dogs allowed
Sandtone Peak is the quintessential destination for peak baggers in the Santa Monica Mountains. The 3,111-foot summit can be efficiently climbed from the east via the Backbone Trail in a mere 1.5 miles, but the far more scenic way to go is the loop outlined below. Take a picnic lunch, and plan to make a half day of it. Try to come on a crystalline day in late fall or winter to get the best skyline views. Or, if it’s wildflowers you most enjoy, come in April or May, when the native vegetation blooms most profusely at these middle elevations. In addition to blue-flowering stands of ceanothus, the early- to mid spring floral bloom includes monkey flower, nightshade, Chinese houses, wild peony, wild hyacinth, morning glory, and phacelia. Delicate, orangish Humboldt lilies unfold by June. Beware of poison oak growing alongside the trail.
Sandstone Peak lies within Circle X Ranch, formerly owned by the Boy Scouts of America and now a federally managed unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The National Park Service generously provides free trail maps at the trailhead.
To Reach the Trailhead:
The Sandstone Peak Trailhead is located near the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains, a few miles (by crow’s flight) south of Thousand Oaks. From the Pacific Coast Highway near mile marker 1 VEN 1.00, turn north onto Yerba Buena Rd. and proceed 6.4 miles. Or from US 101 in Thousand Oaks, take CA 23 south for 7.2 miles. Turn right (west) on Mulholland Highway, then in 0.4 mile turn right again onto Little Sycamore Canyon, which soon becomes Yerba Buena Road and reaches the trailhead in 4.5 miles. On either approach, you face a white-knuckle drive on paved, but very narrow and curvy roads.
Start hiking at the large parking lot on the north side of Yerba Buena Road, 1.1 miles east of the Circle X Ranch park office. Proceed on foot past a gate and up a fire road 0.3 mile to where the marked Mishe Mokwa Trail branches right. On it, right away you plunge into tough, scratchy chaparral vegetation.
The hand-tooled route is delightfully primitive, but it requires frequent maintenance so as to keep the chaparral from knitting together across the path. Both your hands and your feet will come into play over the next 40 or 50 minutes as you’re forced to scramble a bit over rough-textured outcrops of volcanic rock. You make intimate acquaintance with mosses and ferns and several of the more attractive chaparral shrubs: toyon, hollyleaf cherry, manzanita, and red shanks (also known as ribbonwood), which is identified by its wispy foliage and perpetually peeling, rust-colored bark. You also pass several small bay trees. After about a half hour on the Mishe Mokwa Trail, keep an eye out for an amazing balanced rock that rests precariously on the opposite wall of the canyon that lies just below you.
By 1.7 miles from the start you will have worked your way around to the north flank of Sandstone Peak, where you suddenly come upon a picnic table shaded beneath glorious oaks beside Split Rock, a fractured volcanic boulder with a gap wide enough to walk through (please do so to maintain the Scouts’ tradition).
An unmaintained trail on the right leads to Balanced Rock, but you continue on the vestiges of an old dirt road that crosses the canyon and turns west (upstream). You pass beneath some hefty volcanic outcrops, and at 3.1 miles come to a signed junction and turn left onto the Backbone Trail toward Sandstone Peak. Pass some water tanks on the right and an unsigned service road up to the tanks. Shortly thereafter, a sign on the right indicates a side trail to Inspiration Point. It takes you about 50 yards to the top of a rock outcrop. The direction finder there indicates local features as well as very distant points such as Mount San Antonio (Old Baldy), Santa Catalina Island, and San Clemente Island.
Press on with your ascent. At a point just past two closely spaced hairpin turns in the wide Backbone Trail, make your way up a slippery path to Sandstone Peak’s windswept top. The plaque on the summit block honors W. Herbert Allen, a longtime benefactor of the Scouts and Circle X Ranch. To the Scouts this mountain is Mount Allen, although cartographers have, so far, not accepted that name. In any event, the peak’s real name is misleading. It, along with Boney Mountain and most of the western crest of the Santa Monicas, consists of beige- and rustcolored volcanic rock, not unlike sandstone when seen from a distance.
On a clear day the view is truly amazing from here, with distant mountain ranges, the hazy L.A. Basin, and the island-dimpled surface of the ocean occupying all 360 degrees of the horizon. To complete the loop, return to the Backbone Trail and resume your travel eastward. Descend a twisting 1.5 miles to return to the trailhead.