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GETAWAYS : Escape Into the Hills : The Santa Monica Mountains' upland valleys offer delights for hikers. Three hold particular appeal.

March 19, 1993|WALTER HOUK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Walter Houk, a Woodland Hills writer, is an avid hiker.

Of countless delights the nearby Santa Monica Mountains conceal from motorists, few are as surprising as the upland valleys only the hiker sees.

Walk into one and you can revel in a sense of escape from that vast metropolis that has vanished beyond those blue ridges. Right now, you will find meadows greening up, water babbling in brooks, wildflowers coming out and birds bursting into spring song. Of a dozen such reclusive vales, three beckon with a special lure.

La Jolla Valley, Jewel of Point Mugu

Finest of the highland enclaves, La Jolla Valley nestles in the western tip of the range above La Jolla Canyon off Pacific Coast Highway. The path inland takes you from a gently climbing canyon bottom up a rocky mountainside, past a small waterfall, then up a slope splashed in late winter with the sunshine of yellow giant coreopsis flowers erupting from feathery green leaf crowns.

At one mile in and only 600 feet up, you reach a junction with the four-mile-long La Jolla Valley loop trail. Take the branch to the left, up over chaparral hillsides and down beside the west fork of La Jolla Creek. You pass a side trail to Mugu Peak to the left and another to the right over a low divide between the two parts of La Jolla Valley--but save that for another time.

At last you cross the stream and emerge from the forest into upper La Jolla Valley, larger of two slanting mini-prairies more than a mile and a half long by half a mile at the widest, enclosed by rounded mountains. Their green is softened by silvery stalks of last year's tall grass and laced with lines of dark brook-side oaks. The country is so open you can see where you will be going.

Bearing to the right around the valley, the trail looks away from Laguna Peak's stark white missile-range electronics to the west and toward the emerging spectacle of rugged, rock-ribbed Boney Mountain rearing beyond an unseen canyon to the east. This is the scenic climax of the Santa Monicas; to witness its splendor from this vantage point is worth the trip.

Then the ridge sinks slowly out of sight as you descend into the lower meadow. Here a trail camp (with water and restroom) tucked away in an oak grove lets backpackers stay after day-trippers go home. A shortcut trail leads back down to La Jolla Canyon, or you can follow the loop trail all around and then down, for a six-mile round trip.

Nicholas Flat in Leo Carrillo Back Country

At 2,000 acres, Leo Carrillo State Beach is more like a state park. But although thousands throng its shore every year, few know its high hinterland and Nicholas Flat, another of our hideaways. Like La Jolla, it is a pair of slanting former pastures separated by a hill and ringed by coastal sage, chaparral and oak woodland slopes.

There are two main trails. The one from the seaside climbs more than 1,500 feet in two miles. Starting by the park's entry kiosk, it splits into two branches that rejoin to form the steep main Nicholas Flat trail. Or let your car do the climbing so you can start at the top on a lazier quarter-mile access path inland at the end of Decker School Road.

The goal is a shallow vale half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide in the upper meadow. A two-mile trail forms a lopsided figure eight around the meadows, along their edges or beyond, with points of interest at the four corners. The coast trail comes in high at the southwest corner, the upland trail low at the northeast.

At the northwest corner, a vista point looks out at the dramatic, craggy gorge of the west fork of Arroyo Sequit. At the southeast corner is a scenic highlight that invites you to tarry: a boulder-backed pond fringed by oaks and tules, and home to waterfowl and redwing blackbirds. Access and meadow trails add up to round trip of six miles from the coast side and 2.5 miles from inland.

The Meadow Hidden in Charmlee Park

The smallest park of these three, the smallest meadow (a quarter of a mile across), easiest to get into and the shortest walk (two to three miles), Charmlee presents a microcosm of the secret valley with all its magical quality.

Beyond a picnic area and nature center, a wooded trail leads over a rise to a grassy bowl among hillsides of coastal sage and chaparral, live oaks and great boulders. Again, you can see almost the entire landscape and backdrop heights, including Boney Mountain. But more; here the seaward ridge looks right down on costly sea-bluff houses, east along the coast to Point Dume and out to an island-dotted horizon.

Take along a picnic, stroll the paths, stop to smell the flowers, listen for the meadowlark, scan the sea. Suddenly it's not this island on the land but the city that's remote.

Nuts and Bolts

* All three locations are open from 8 a.m. until sunset. Figure 1 to 2 m.p.h. for walking, 3 m.p.h. for vigorous hiking. Wear sturdy shoes and, on longer trips, take along lunch and a quart of water per person. No mountain bikes are allowed in La Jolla Valley or Nicholas Flat. Bikes are permitted in Charmlee.

After a heavy rain, call (818) 880-0350 for trail closures at Point Mugu and Leo Carrillo (when we tested the service, they did not give current information), (310) 457-7247 for Charmlee.

* At Point Mugu State Park, La Jolla Canyon trail head and parking are on Pacific Coast Highway opposite Thornhill Broome Beach. There is no entry fee, but walk-in camping costs $3 per person per night.

* Leo Carrillo State Beach is on Pacific Coast Highway at Mulholland Highway. Day-use fee: $6 per car, or park on PCH and walk in (no fee). Upper Nicholas Flat access (free) is at the end of 1.6-mile Decker School Road (not Decker School Lane, a mile farther inland) off Decker Road, 2.2 miles seaward of Mulholland Highway or 2.5 miles up from PCH.

* Charmlee Natural Area Park is on Encinal Canyon Road 3.8 miles from PCH. Fees: $3 per car parking weekends and holidays. Trail use, beginning April 1, $6 per person 16 and older for a 3-day pass, or $23 for an annual pass.

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