Exploring the Saddle Peak Trail

In every issue, we'll introduce you to one spectacular Malibu hike. For spring, we're highlighting the Saddle Peak Trail, an true underrated gem that boasts the 6th highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, and panoramic mountain and ocean views to boot.

Written by Isabella Breda | Photographed by Julie Wuellner & Kevin McDonald

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Ready to get out of the office and unplug for a while, we decided to head up to Saddle Peak on a beautiful Friday afternoon. After the recent rains, it was a clear day and the mountains were filled with luscious grasses, yellow wildflowers and the sweet scent of salmonberries. The trailhead to Saddle Peak via the Backbone Trail was fairly simple to access. The trail begins on the west side of the “V” intersection of Schueren and Stunt Road, marked by a trail marker reading, “Saddle Peak Trail.” However, it can be easily mistaken for the smaller dirt trail directly in the middle of the V. While it is less maintained and steeper, it quickly converges with Saddle Peak Trail.

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We were surprised to find that the ascent to the top of the sixth highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountain range was a mere 450 feet from the trailhead. The hike took us no longer than 30 minutes to the top. The traverse began through a thickly wooded area, filled with wild berries and native Humboldt lilies in full bloom. After the tree cover parted, we were out in the open where we could feel a pleasant ocean breeze that lasted most of the way up the mountain. Along the trail we encountered everything from impressive rock formations to historic canyon roads and famous estates nestled in the hills. As we began to climb, it seemed that the horizon was expanding in front of us, encompassing views of Cold Creek Canyon, Malibu Creek Canyon, Calabasas Peak, other prominent ridges and the Pacific Ocean.

While the views were incredible throughout the entire trail, the view from the top was truly breathtaking. From the 2,805-foot mountain we had panoramic views all the way from Orange County and the Santa Monica Bay to Point Dume. On a clear day, Catalina Island and the Channel Islands are faintly visible on the horizon, contributing to the draw of Saddle Peak as an ideal panoramic sunrise or sunset trail.

Saddle Peak makes for a great all-day excursion for families. The trail is well maintained and not too steep, allowing even the youngest hikers to enjoy it. Parking is free and can be found along the side of Stunt Road. Though the hike is not dog friendly, horses are permitted, creating a scenic opportunity for equestrians. However Iliana Espinoza, of the National Parks Association, warns that “larger horses, such as warm-bloods, may have trouble fitting through some of the steep and narrow stretches with steps.”

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Other adventure enthusiasts can be treated to the immensity of the cliffs surrounding Saddle Peak. The climbing area here is notably one of the best in the Santa Monica Mountains and the Greater Los Angeles area for both sport and top-rope climbs. In good weather, there are frequently novice to expert-level climbers taking to the Saddle Peak Ridge along the 22, 60-foot-plus climbing routes. The challenging “Corpse Wall” is the most popular. The climbing area can be accessed by taking the trail to the right by the fork in the path at the summit. The trail will lead to a large crag, followed by another split in the trail. Here the trail straight ahead will take you to the top of the rock and the other trail will take you to the bottom. The various different climbing routes are all at a slight slant, making them perfect for beginners.  

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The cherished geology composing Saddle Peak is often assumed to be sandstone, similar to that present throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. However, the rosy pinks and soft purple tones throughout the cliff faces and rock formations is actually a result of volcanic activity. The underwater eruptions that took place millions of years ago were met with seawater and created the rock structures unique to the Santa Monica Mountain Region called pillow lavas. The largest prominence of the Santa Monica mountains, Sandstone Peak, is visible from Saddle Peak and is made entirely out of volcanic rock, providing its painted mountainside appearance full of iron-rich reds and bright orange hues. Though the Santa Monica Mountains are no longer active, they left beautiful terrain to be enjoyed for years on.

The geological complexity of Saddle Peak has been sought after since trail construction began in 1935. “At some point the US Army bought the Saddle Peak area as a Nike Missile site,” which created the trail alignment seen today, said Espinoza. “The rest of the Saddle Peak trail was constructed by Ron Webster and the Sierra Club Trail Crew, only relatively recently opening to the public in 1990.” Espinoza highlighted “any typical hiker, would enjoy the trail if they like being on narrow footpaths rather than wider trails or service roads.” However, there are steps, and “visitors who can’t navigate staircases due to knee or heart problems would probably not enjoy this stretch of trail,” Espinoza said. On the other hand, the endurance challenges presented by the gradual incline makes this a perfect hike for wellness enthusiasts and athletes who are cross training.

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Alternative routes to Saddle Peak summit include access from Fossil Ridge is visible from Saddle Peak and and Piuma Ridge to the west. There is limited parking in the unmarked dirt lot on Piuma Road. The Piuma Ridge entrance is perfect for hikers who enjoy lengthier, more gradual climbs. From the entrance, the trek is roughly nine miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of nearly 2,000 feet. This route includes a traverse through various ecosystems including vibrant meadows with chirping songbirds, as well as dark, cool and damp riparian areas full of amphibious creatures. The Fossil Ridge entrance begins from Stunt High Road and adds 2.5 miles to the round-trip route from Calabasas. The Fossil Ridge entrance showcases even more expansive view across the region, but with a greater focal point over Calabasas and surrounding urban areas.

The Saddle Peak region also features various equally popular ridge hikes such as Piuma Ridge Trail, Eagle Rock and Mesa Peak Motorway. These trails consist of roughly 12 miles and feature similar climate and natural amenities as the Saddle Peak hike. These trails are accessible from the Saddle Peak trailhead and their individual trailheads off Las Virgenes Road and Topanga State Park. Espinoza recommends Eagle Rock at Topanga State Park for its “unique rock formations and nice 360-degree view of the mountains and ocean.” Finally, she suggests this hike during the summer when it allows for more shade and downhill ocean breezes.

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When adventuring to Saddle Peak, it is highly recommended to bring a daypack of supplies since the area is perfect for lengthier exploration. We recommend packing a camera since the views from the top are stunning, especially during sunset. If you are planning to hike closer to mid-day, bring sunscreen as the majority of the trail is exposed. Hiking shoes with good tread are advised since the terrain may be loose closer towards the peak. In the summer months, wearing clothing that can protect against ticks and/or rattlesnakes is also advisable. Check with a park ranger regarding trail reports if you are concerned about the wildlife.

Saddle Peak’s fusion of rugged mountainous region and crystalline ocean waters exemplify the natural oasis that Malibu offers, making it a gem nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains. We highly recommend this as a sunrise or sunset excursion, as golden hour makes the view even more spectacular. More information about hiking in the Malibu Canyon Region can be accessed at hikespeak.com, or you can contact the land manager at Malibu Creek State Park. Check back next issue for another great Malibu hike! MM

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Holly Bieler