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DAY HIKE

New Sunny Trail to Explore in Solstice Canyon

December 23, 1989|JOHN McKINNEY | McKinney is the author of hiking books and a regular contributor to The Times.

Solstice Canyon Park in the Santa Monica Mountains is enjoyable year-round, but winter is a particularly fine time to ramble through the quiet canyon. A newly opened path--Rising Sun Trail--lets you explore the park's upper slopes, from which you might even sight gray whales migrating past Point Dume.

Winter solstice, to us modern city dwellers, may seem nothing more than a scientific abstraction--the time when the sun is farthest south of the Equator. However, to some of the earliest occupants of Southern California, the Chumash, the winter solstice was an important occasion. It was a time when the cosmic balance was very delicate.

The discovery of solstice observation caves and rock art sites have convinced anthropologists that the Chumash possessed a system of astronomy that had both mystical meaning and practical application. To those of us who buy all our food in the supermarket, winter solstice is just a date on the calendar, but to the Chumash--who needed to know when berries would ripen, when the steelhead trout would run up Malibu Creek, when game would migrate--the day was an important one.

Solstice Canyon Park, carved out of land owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, opened on summer solstice in 1988. The park is administered by the Mountains Conservancy Foundation, the operations arm of the Conservancy.

The park's most recent project is the just-completed Rising Sun Trail, which climbs the east wall of Solstice Canyon. Master trail builder Bruce Heckel and his crew reworked an old dirt road and blazed some new trail to complete the path.

It's easy to say that a trail on the east wall of a canyon called Solstice would be named Rising Sun Trail; however, the name did not arise out of anything so obvious. In fact, you'd need to be a darn good Southland historian to figure out how the trail got its name.

The story began in 1851, when an Irishman named Mathew Keller arrived in Los Angeles and opened a general store on Los Angeles Street. Keller purchased property on Alameda Street where Union Station is now located. Soon he built a home, planted fruit trees and vineyards. In 1852 he established a winery, known as the Rising Sun Vineyard. At full capacity, the winery could turn out 200 gallons of brandy and 1,000 gallons of wine daily. Keller's sherry was particularly good and won many awards at county fairs.

Keller was very active in civic affairs and served terms on both the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council. He also pursued a broad range of entrepreneurial ventures: Keller was one of the original directors of the Farmers & Merchants Bank and is often credited with being the first to raise cotton in California.

Keller bought and sold many pieces of property in Southern California, among them the 13,OOO-acre Rancho Malibu. During the early 1880s, he planted 500 acres of vines on this ranch.

Today, looking at the ugly freight yards near Union Station, it's almost unimaginable to contemplate the beautiful vineyard planted by Keller along Alameda Boulevard. However, Keller's other property--Rancho Malibu--has retained much of its pastoral quality. Part of the old rancho is preserved as Solstice Canyon Park.

The whole family will enjoy a walk through Solstice Canyon. Along the way, you'll pass the Keller House, built in 1865, and believed to be the oldest house in Malibu, perhaps in the Santa Monica Mountains. When restoration is complete, the house will become a museum and visitor center.

Directions to trailhead: From Pacific Coast Highway, about 17 miles up-coast from Santa Monica and 3 1/2 miles up-coast from Malibu Canyon Road, turn inland on Corral Canyon Road. At the first bend in the road, you'll leave the road and proceed straight to the very small Solstice Canyon parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, the park access road is usually closed; however, on some weekends, visitors are permitted to drive in and park in a second, larger lot, located just up the road.

The Hike: Walk up the park road to a small house, which is headquarters for the Mountains Conservancy Foundation. Trail maps are available at a small dispenser in front of the house.

Walk along the creek bed on the one-way road. You'll pass El Alisar Picnic Area and begin to angle north on the canyon road, Old Solstice Road. Before long, you'll spot the stone 1865 Keller House to the right of the road. A short distance farther along the bottom of Solstice Canyon is Fern Grotto Picnic Area.

The road travels under the shade of oak and sycamore to its end at the remains of the old Roberts Ranch House, destroyed in a 1982 fire. Palms, agave, bamboo and bird of paradise and many more tropical plants thrive in the Roberts' garden gone wild. A waterfall, fountain and an old dam are some of the other special features found in this paradisiacal setting, now known as Tropical Terrace.

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