At first, when you turn inland off Pacific Coast Highway onto Bonsall Drive and enter Zuma Canyon, the canyon looks like many others in the Santa Monica Mountains: huge haciendas perched on precipitous slopes, accompanied by many lots for sale.
But the road ends and only footpaths enter Zuma Canyon. And therein lies the difference between Zuma and other canyons--no paved road violates its sanctity.
Malibu and Topanga, Temescal and Santa Ynez--perhaps these canyons and others in the Santa Monica Mountains looked like Zuma a century ago: a creek cascading over magnificent sandstone boulders, a jungle of willow and lush stream-side flora, fern-fringed pools and towering rock walls.
Zuma Canyon, a National Park Service property, finally opened to public use in 1989 after much negotiation with private property holders. It's one of the gems, if not the scenic gem, of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Hikers can partake of Zuma Canyon's grandeur via two routes: by following a trail from the mouth of the canyon, or by a dirt road that drops into the canyon's midsection.
In the future, hikers can expect more trails to be built into the canyon. In particular, a long-contemplated, long-missing segment of the 65-mile-long Backbone Trail will be constructed--though just when this will occur is anybody's guess.
For an easy family walk, join Zuma Canyon Loop Trail, which leads up the west side of the canyon, then explores the canyon mouth. After a little over a mile, the trail ends. Kids will enjoy emulating the considerable frog population by splashing in the creek.
Hardy hikers will relish the challenge of the gorge. Two miles of trail-less creek-crossing and boulder-hopping is required in order to reach a dirt road that crosses the canyon. A return to the trail head via Zuma Ridge Trail (a dirt road) offers another perspective of Zuma Canyon.
Except for times of flooding, Zuma Canyon is accessible all year, but each season has its advantages and disadvantages. During winter and spring, the water level is apt to be high, making it a wet and wild journey through the canyon. Fall is pretty nice, especially if a little water has lingered in the creek. A summer trek, with high temperatures, is something of an ordeal. The high rock walls of the canyon, combined with a cloud cover, create a steam bath effect. It's not the heat, it's the humidity, hikers complain.
A hike through Zuma Canyon's rugged middle section requires sturdy shoes. Allow for at least two hours--and maybe three--to cover the canyon's two trail-less miles. And during winter and spring, plan to get wet.
Directions to trail head: From Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, head up the coast 1 mile, past an intersection with Kanan-Dume Road and turn right on Bonsall Drive (this turn is just before the turnoff for Zuma Beach). Drive a mile (the last hundred yards on dirt road) to road's end at a National Park Service parking lot. At the trial head, you'll find a drinking fountain on one side of the gate, a horsy guzzler on the other.
The hike: Follow the wide path into the oak- and sycamore-dotted mouth of the canyon. The trail soon splits: The quickest way into Zuma Canyon is on the path straight ahead, but for a bird's-eye view of the canyon, go left, where you'll soon arrive at a second trail junction.
Signed Ridge Access Trail continues straight uphill (connecting to Zuma Ridge Trail; it will be part of your return route if you choose the strenuous option of this hike). Join signed Zuma Loop Trail and begin ascending, soon arriving at yet another junction, this time with Rim Trail. Continue on the loop trail.
After descending through a sycamore-filled ravine, the loop trail brings you back to the canyon floor, where you turn left, up the canyon. The trail crosses the creek, passes a stand of eucalyptus and dead-ends. You can return to the trail head by retracing your steps down the canyon floor and following Zuma Canyon Trail through the lush creek-side vegetation.
Hikers continuing through Zuma Canyon will begin boulder-hopping up-canyon. The canyon walls soon close in on you. Way up ahead, you'll see towering Saddle Rock, a Santa Monica Mountains landmark.
When you see the power lines (very high) overhead, it means you have but half a mile of travel to reach the dirt road that will take you out of Zuma Canyon. Turn left on the dirt road and begin a winding and somewhat steep ascent of the canyon's wet wall.
High atop the canyon wall, you'll intersect Zuma Ridge Trail (another dirt road) and turn left. Your shadeless descent will take you past numerous junctions with lesser roads servicing the electrical transmission towers, but you should ignore them and continue on the main road.
In truth, Zuma Ridge Trail offers better views of Triunfo Canyon on your right than Zuma Canyon on your left. Ahead of you, at your feet, lies Zuma Beach and the so-called Malibu Riviera.
Zuma Ridge Trail ends at a big-enough-to-stop-a-locomotive steel gate at the end of Busch Drive. Follow the dirt road below some water tanks, then pass through a fence and join Canyon Access Trail for the short descent to the floor of Zuma Canyon. Turn right on Zuma Canyon Trail and return to the trail head.
Santa Monica Mountains. Zuma Loop Trail Where: Zuma Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Distance: Around the mouth of Zuma Canyon, 2 1/2 miles round trip; through the canyon, return via Zuma Ridge Trail, 9 miles round trip, with 1,700-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Deep, V-shaped gorgee sculpted by mountain stream. Highlights: Most rugged and pristine canyon in Santa Monica Mountains. Degree of difficulty: Easy family walk at canyon mouth, but strenuous hike (partly without trail) through gorge. For more information: Contact the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, 30401 Agoura Road, Suite 100, Agoura Hills 91301, (818) 597-9192.