A large rock balanced precariously with receding mountains in the background

Wanna avoid the weekend crowds? Take a weekday day off or leave work early for a journey to the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. On this expedition you will drive through the heart of the mountains on the scenic Mulholland Drive, hike six miles to the top of Sandstone Peak, and end the day with the a colorful California sunset on the beach.

From Los Angeles, approach this trip from the north via the 101. You’ll take a scenic inland drive to the trailhead and then time the trek to end just before sunset. This way you can cruise home along the Pacific Coast Highway, feeling the cool breeze on your sun-kissed face.

This is for semi-experienced to experienced hikers, and you will need to be prepared. Extreme heat would make this a no-go trip, but you also want the longer days of summer (so you don’t get stuck in the park after dark). Remember to pack:

  • Light layers
  • Comfortable hiking shoes
  • Sun protection
  • Trail map
  • Headlamp, in case it gets dark
  • Hearty snacks
  • Lots of water, at least two liters per person

2:00 PM Start the Adventure

The visitor center is a long, one-story building with a round tower in the middle
Start your trip with a quick visit to the Interagency Visitor Center at the beautiful King Gillette Ranch.

If you have to go in the office for a while, that’s fine, just start your adventure after lunch. Head north on the 101, stopping to grab enough snacks to last the six-mile hike (don’t forget your water!). If you don’t have a good map for this hike, take the Las Virgenes Rd exit to the Santa Monica Mountains Interagency Visitor Center at King Gillette Ranch.  There you’ll find friendly rangers and all the maps and natural history field guides you need. If you do this hike in late spring (April to early May around these parts), you’ll want a wildflower guide, too. You can also check the wildflower reports from your smartphone.

3:00 PM Up, Up, and Away!

Take Kanan Rd and climb steadily into the heart of the mountain range. About halfway to the coast, turn off of Kanan and make a right onto scenic Mulholland Drive. You’ll bypass a very curvy section of Mulholland this way, but still have plenty of canyon driving ahead of you. If it’s a hot day, stop at Rocky Oaks to rest in the shade. 

3:30 PM Ride the Ridgeline of the Mountains

Keep on Mulholland and enjoy the drive, but also keep your eye on the somewhat-narrow road. Take the slight right turn on to Little Sycamore Canyon Dr and follow this country road all the way into Ventura County (if you look carefully, you’ll see the road change composition). At this point, the road becomes Yerba Buena. Keep on and follow it to the Sandstone Peak parking lot on your right. You could also park in the Mishe Mokwa dirt lot before this, but note that there’s no restroom there. From the main parking lot, take a look around; many of the rocky outcrops that rise out of the chaparral-covered slopes were created some 13-16 million years ago through explosive volcanic activity.

4:00 PM Feel the Crunch of the Trail beneath Your Feet

Three people hold themselves up in a narrow slot between two large rocks

Take a break from the hike and test your strength at Split Rock.

Start out for the Sandstone Peak/ Mishe Mokwa trail in a counter-clockwise direction. MAKE SURE you have plenty of water, map, sun protection, and food. The hike takes up to 4-5 hours and can be strenuous. With a bit of preparation, you can safely enjoy dramatic views, quiet canyons, and the call of the little Wrentit, also known as the Song of the Chaparral. Along the way, stop and wonder at the gravity-defying Balance Rock and, further down the trail, Split Rock. Stop for a rest there and snack under a quiet and beautiful coast live oak canopy. After Split Rock you’ll be in direct sun for most of the trek.

As you continue up the trail keep an eye out for red shank chaparral, a tree-like shrub with reddish-brown bark, clusters of thread-like leaves, and small bunches of white flowers in July and August. Once you reach Sandstone Peak, take another break to soak in the 360-degree views. Depending on the visibility of the afternoon, it’s amazing how far you can see. The islands to the West are California’s Galapagos, aka Channel Islands National Park. Can you spot all 8 of the Southern Islands?

8:00 PM Back at the Car

Close up of colorful sea anemone in a tidal pool
Look closely to discover a hidden world in the shallow tidal pools.

You’ve done it!! You’re tired and sweaty and deserve to cool off. Head downhill on Yerba Buena and arrive at the Pacific Coast Highway near Leo Carrillo State Park. Stop there or at any of the other semi-secluded beaches nearby to enjoy the sunset (or take a dip into the briny to really cool off.)

8:30 PM - 10:00 PM PCH Cruising

There’s no better time to cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway than the early evening when the ocean takes on a deep purple and the lights of Santa Monica and the city dance on the waves. Before you return to the city, grab a bite at any of the seafood restaurants along the way. Celebrate with your friends knowing that you’ve just started off the weekend in proper So Cal fashion.

Last updated: April 22, 2015