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This hike's gonna hurt, but look at that view

June 12, 2008|Pete Thomas

I've CLIMBED higher and higher still, side-stepping lizards, sweltering under a searing midday sun, craving even the slightest sliver of shade.

I turn to gaze at the ocean, which is invitingly blue but too far away to leap into. Thankfully, it issues a sweat-cooling breeze that allows me to continue my quest to find Nicholas Pond.

I'm on the Nicholas Flat Trail within Leo Carrillo State Park in the western Santa Monica Mountains, and descriptions I've gleaned from the Internet are apt.

"This one's a real butt-kicker if you're out of shape," promises one.

"Great vistas on this hike, but you pay for them," assures another.

The eight-mile round-trip trek features an elevation gain of nearly 1,800 feet, but a payoff in the form of spectacular ocean views, a large pond if you can find it, and a return trip that is almost entirely downhill, facing the ocean.

Wise travelers will embark early or during late afternoon. Naively, I hit the trail at 1 p.m. with just one bottle of water, which I'm rationing in the manner of a wayward cowboy who missed the watering hole.

But I'm not dead yet. That tree tunnel ahead -- the first real shade, after nearly two hours afoot -- is no mirage.

I step gingerly beneath its verdant canopy and spook to flight an enormous turkey vulture, whose massive wings nearly clip my head.

I sip and rest, then emerge to discover a decreasing gradient and landscape of oaks as well as chaparral, sage and cactus.

The most difficult two-hour stretch is complete.

Ocean views are far more stunning from up high, but they're best enjoyed while stationary as the trail is a virtual minefield of lizards, and peppered here and there with rattlesnakes.

I pause to watch hummingbirds sip from bush mallow. This remote wilderness is teeming with hummingbirds, and alive with general birdsong, which cannot drown the constant buzzing of bees.

The trail is well-kept and well-marked except where a fork exists not far beyond the first sprawling meadow hikers encounter.

This is critical because those veering to the left will miss the pond.

Fortunately, I've chosen the correct path and after a long downhill journey beneath the blessed shade of oaks, the mysterious pond unfurls before me. It's surprisingly large and half-covered with red algae.

It's guarded to the right by large granite boulders atop a towering cliff, from which one can rest while pondering the vastness of the Pacific.

On the other side is another deep meadow which, undoubtedly, is a stamping ground for deer, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions.

Birds are everywhere in the meadow and the pond trills with the electric call of redwing blackbirds.

I climb the boulders then rest beside the pond. The area has a distinct western feel, despite being a stone's throw from Malibu. It was once inhabited by Chumash Indians and later settled by cattle ranchers, who supposedly dug the pond in the 1800s.

Surprisingly, I've encountered no other hikers and feel as though I've slipped into that bygone era, and half-expect outlaws on horseback to appear on the distant ridge.

But then a passing jet spoils the mood. I stand wearily and decide to mosey on back to the car, and moseying is about all I can manage on stiffened joints and aching knees.

A real butt-kicker? I'll say.

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-- Pete.Thomas@latimes.com

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NICHOLAS FLAT TRAIL

WHERE: Leo Carrillo State Park

DETAILS: Eight miles round-trip. Elevation gain, 1,800 feet. Duration: 4.5 hours

PRICE: $10 for parking

INFO: 35000 W. Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu 90265, (818) 880-0363

TIPS: You can access Nicholas Pond via half-mile hike from the end of Decker School Road, about two miles from PCH off Decker Canyon Road

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