Sunday, March 25, 2012

Nicholas Flat, Leo Carillo State Beach, Santa Monica Mts., California

Distance: 7 miles round trip (11.3 km)
Elevation: Sea Level to 2100 feet (0 - 640 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Season: Anytime (avoid peak summer heat)

A view of Leo Carillo State Beach campground from 2000 feet up

If you want to get a great cross-sectional view of the Santa Monica Mountains from sea-to-sky, then the Nicholas Flat Trail is a great opportunity to hike from the beautiful beaches lapped by cold Pacific waters through multiple ecosystems to the heights of the mountains above. The Nicholas Flat Trail begins at Leo Carillo State Beach located just a few miles west of Malibu on highway CA-1.

A view to the summit of Nicholas Mountain from the campground

If you are camping at Leo Carillo campground, the trail to Nicholas Flat leaves from the campsites. Otherwise, you can drive through the entrance station and park in the day-visitor's lot. The trail begins from the entrance station. Shortly thereafter, you will encounter an information kiosk. From there, there are three trails. The one to the left heads into the campground, the one to the right is called Willow Creek, while the middle trail is for Nicholas Flat.

An expansive view of the Pacific Coast with Catalina Island in the distance

The Nicholas Flat trail starts by slowly climbing up the ridge until reaching a saddle with the other side of the Willow Creek Trail. At the saddle, there is a short side trail to an oceanview vista to the right. After checking out the view, continue to follow the Nicholas Flat trail along the ridgeline.

Hiking up through dry coastal sage scrub vegetation

As the trail climbs along the ridgeline, the vegetation slowly transitions from aromatic coastal sage scrub into one of chaparral. In addition to the Salvia and Artemesia sagebrush, large shrubs of sumac and prickly pear cactus transition to tall Ceanothus, scrub live oaks, coffeeberry, and chamise.

The transition from coastal sage scrub (right) to chapparal

On the first summit, still well below the main summit, there is an obvious transition line in a drainage from the sage scrub to the chaparral, as well as, the impact of aspect and shade. Soon, the open sunny trail enters the tall chaparral woodland dominated by chamise. The trail is a bit of a bushwack through scrubs that stand 6-20 feet in height. Whether it is open or brushy will be based on when they have cleared the trail last. If you do go through brushy stretches, make sure you check your clothing for ticks.

Hiking through dense chapparal

Near the top of the ridge, there is a branch in the trail. If you turn right, it will almost immediately emerge onto the summit of the mountain with a 360 degree panorama. But, you will not be able to see Nicholas Flat yet. So, backtrack and go the other way. Shortly thereafter, at the next intersection, stay right and follow the trail as it opens back up into beautiful ocean views.

Looking across the Santa Monica Mountains

Next you will arrive at yet another intersection. Either will actually take you into Nicholas Flat, so you can make a loop out of this section. If you turn left, the trail will go out into an open ridgetop and the grassy meadows of Nicholas Flat become visible below. This meadow was used for cattle grazing in a previous era and it does appear as though it may have been plowed in its history as well.

The first view of Nicholas Flat

As you walk down into the meadow, you will see some really huge old live oaks. Nicholas Flat is actually two separate grassy patches. The second one is not immediately visible, but as you walk across the meadow, go through a brief forested patch of oaks, and the emerge onto the second meadow, you will see a small pond.

Approaching Nicholas Flat

Nicholas Flat pond was built for livestock in a previous era in a naturally wet spring. The trail will leave from the pond and will loop back onto the main trail.

Backbone Mountain is visible in the distance (to left)

From here, you retrace your steps back down the mountain over 2,000 feet to the parking area. After huffing and puffing up the mountain only looking up, the route down offers expansive ocean views all the way down.

Backbone Mountain State Wilderness

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