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Hiking: Santa Monica Mountains

Natural Drama Unfolds on Calabasas Peak

March 13, 1994|JOHN McKINNEY

From fire and flood comes a flowering beautiful to behold.

The Santa Monica Mountains, scorched by brush fires and inundated by winter rains, are beginning to bloom again. While springtime in the Santa Monicas always means floral rebirth and renewal, the changes this spring are particularly dramatic after the devastating fires last November.

A brush fire removes dead wood, relieves floral overcrowding and gives healthy plants room to grow. Chaparral, the hardy shrubs that blanket the Santa Monica Mountains, not only have evolved to live with fire; they require it for good health. "It's nature's way of cleaning house," naturalists say.

The chaparral's rebirth is best seen along Calabasas Peak Trail, which cuts through the fire zone and offers grand views of both charred and uncharred areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

One of the first plants appearing after the fire in the Calabasas Peak area is the wild cucumber, a vine whose four-inch-long, bright green fruit has soft, spiny prickles. (Though it's called a cucumber, there's nothing edible about this plant.)

Another plant quick to recover from fire is laurel sumac, a six- to 12-foot evergreen shrub with smooth, reddish-brown bark. Also much in evidence along Calabasas Peak Trail is the humble, homely Santa Susana tarweed.

"As spring advances, look for white and pale blue ceanothus blossoms, Indian paintbrush and Catalina Mariposa lily," suggests Milt McAuley, author of "Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains" (Canyon Publishing Co.; $15.95).

The hike to Calabasas Peak, over blackened hillsides, is definitely not for everyone. Some Southlanders dislike walking through chaparral, burned or not. Others will find the blackened hillsides about as charming as burnt toast.

The main (pre-fire) incentive for climbing Calabasas Peak--the terrific view--hasn't changed. Calabasas Peak (2,163 feet high) stands head and shoulders above neighboring summits and offers great clear-day views of the Santa Monicas, the San Fernando Valley and the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains.

Directions to trail head: From the Ventura Freeway (U.S. 101) in Calabasas, exit on Las Virgenes Road and travel 3 1/4 miles south to Mulholland Highway. Turn left (east) and proceed four miles to Stunt Road, bear right and drive exactly a mile to the parking area on the right side of Stunt Road. The trail head is on the left side of Stunt Road by road paddle "1.0."

The hike: Ascend north on the fire road. Behind you is a view of Cold Creek Canyon, considered (until the fires, that is) one of the treasures of the Santa Monica Mountains. The slopes of the north-facing canyon are already healing, and no doubt the canyon will again nurture a rich variety of ferns and flowering plants.

Trail-side geology, laid bare by the fire, is fascinating. Large, tilted slabs and fins of sandstone have been sculpted by erosion into weird shapes.

Three-quarters of a mile from the trail head is a saddle, sometimes known as Red Rock Saddle, and a three-way road junction. The right-forking road descends two miles through the blackened Red Rock Canyon to Old Topanga Canyon Road.

A very rough, bulldozed road ascending from the saddle leads to a narrow ridge. A trail-less, milelong, ridge-top route winds among sandstone rocks, then joins a dirt fire road for another half-mile ascent to Topanga Lookout. From the lookout are views of downtown Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica Bay. (Don't try this route if it's wet; it gets slippery.)

Your path, Calabasas Peak Trail, is the fire road that continues north from the three-way junction, leading another mile past intriguing sandstone formations. After a couple of very sharp bends in the fire road, you'll gain the top of a ridge and stand just south of Calabasas Peak.

The road edges a bit east, but you join a left-branching fire break leading directly to the peak. Enjoy the view east to Topanga Canyon, west to the famed Goat Buttes towering over Malibu Canyon, and north to the metropolis.

Calabasas Peak Trail

WHERE: Calabasas Peak

DISTANCE: 4 miles round trip, with 900-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Charred, chaparral-covered hillsides.

HIGHLIGHTS: Nature's inspiring recovery from fire; great vistas.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the Mountain Parks Information Service at (800) 533-PARK.

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