Grotto Hike Malibu Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Circle X Ranch Trail

Simply named The Grotto, this narrow bolder-filled canyon with small talus caves covering a creek in the mountains makes a fun destination for a short hike. From the Circle X Ranch Visitor Center in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area on the west side of Malibu, it is 3-mile round trip to the Grotto with 475 feet of elevation loss.

Circle X Ranch
The trail beneath Circle X Ranch and Exchange Peak

From the main parking area for Circle X Ranch, walk down the access road to a small group campsite and pick up the single track trail to the Grotto, which descends into a verdant canyon. Along the way, the trail passes in and out of shade as it follows a small creek down the mountain. Wildflowers are plentiful in the spring.

The trail comes to a sudden end as the creek, the West Fork of the Arroyo Sequit, passes through and beneath large rocks. Continue downstream, passing over the rocks. The water can be seen between the boulders some ten feet below. A couple openings offer passages down between the rocks to explore the hidden parts of the Grotto. Continuing over the rocks, to the point where the creek exits the narrow part of the canyon. The hike ends here. A short waterfall at the base of the grotto has water tumbling off a rock like a showerhead, dropping twelve feet into an enclosed pool. Here a ring of shallow water around a tall boulder creates a tube-like semi-circular cave.

Grotto Hike Malibu
The Grotto

The grotto is a great spot for young and old to explore. The back of the grotto is dark and a bit mysterious. Gollum could easily reside here.

Grotto Trail Map
A map of the trail to the Grotto

After enjoying the grotto, hike back up the same trail. This is one of those backwards hikes where you do the uphill hiking on the way out, so you will now be gaining 475 feet of elevation to return to the trailhead. Dogs are permitted along the trail, but not allowed over the last 1/8 mile through the grotto itself. No fee or permit is required, so get out and enjoy!

Woolsey Fire Update: Trails around Circle X Ranch have reopened following the November 2018 Woolsey Fire. Check the NPS Circle X Ranch webpage for more information.

To get to the trailhead: Take PCH to the far west end of Malibu. Turn north up Yerba Buena Road (alongside Neptune’s Net Restaurant) and drive up Yerba Buena Road for 5.5 miles until you arrive at the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station (on the right). Park here and follow the signs to the trailhead.

Click here to view the Circle X Ranch Trail Map courtesy of NPS

Trailhead address: 12896 Yerba Buena Road, Malibu, CA 90265
Trailhead coordinates: 34.10995, -118.9373 (34° 06′ 35.8″N 118° 56′ 14.3″W)

Elevation Profile
Click or hover over any spot on this elevation profile to see the distance from the start and elevation above sea level at that location, which will be highlighted on the map.
Trail Map

View Santa Monica Mountains in a larger map
Or view a regional map of surrounding Los Angeles trails and campgrounds.


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These photos were taken in April of 2009. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
Sandstone Peak Hike Sandstone Peak
This 6.25-mile loop summits the tallest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Malibu Hike Tri Peaks
This 1.2-mile addition to the Sandstone Peak loop adds extra views to the hike (and some great views).
Arroyo Sequit Arroyo Sequit
This 2.05-mile loop winds around the upper reaches of a canyon carved by the East Fork of Arroyo Sequit and has grand views of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Malibu Springs Trail Nicholas Flat via Malibu Springs Trail
This scenic 7-mile round trip hike ascends 1,425 feet to meadows and a pond on Nicholas Flat in Leo Carrillo State Park.
Nicholas Flat Trail Nicholas Flat Trail - Willow Creek Trail Loop
This 2.05-mile loop in Leo Carrillo State Park wraps around a coastal ridge and tops out at an ocean vista with broad views.
Nicholas Flat Trail Nicholas Flat via Nicholas Flat Trail
This scenic 7 to 7.6-mile hike ventures from the coast in Leo Carrillo State Park up into the mountains to a grassy flat with a small pond.
Point Mugu State Park hike La Jolla Canyon Loop
This 11.75-mile hike explores Point Mugu State Park on the west end of the Santa Monica Mountains, offering extraordinary ocean views.
Point Mugu State Park hike La Jolla Canyon Falls
This 1.5-mile hike visits a short seasonal waterfall in Point Mugu State Park (that is also a stop on the larger loop).
Malibu Hike More trails in the Santa Monica Mountains
Explore beyond Circle X Ranch to other destinations in the range.
Similar Trail
Solstice Canyon hike Solstice Canyon
This easy and level 2.6-mile out and back hike visits the ruins of a burned down ranch and a small waterfall.
Malibu Hike Santa Ynez Falls
This 2.5-mile follows a shaded creek to a gorge containing a short waterfall.
Malibu Hike Escondido Falls
This 3.8-mile out and back hike visits a 200-foot waterfall that is split into two tiers. The upper tier is 150 feet tall and stunning after a rainstorm.

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22 Comments on The Grotto in the Santa Monica Mountains

  1. […] More information: here; trip report here […]

  2. Dalin wrote:

    Props for listing this hike. We took our 3 year olds, which was a bit of a stretch, but they loved the grotto (just not the climb back up). Fun day and sore feet tonight!

  3. Roxy wrote:

    Lets hike….

  4. Harry Pantelas wrote:

    Can you start the hike at Circle X take the Grotto trail and continue to hike to PCH.

  5. flyingscot75 wrote:

    Beautiful trail. Can’t understand why people leave cigarette butts, cans and plastic bottles along the side of the path.

  6. mary wrote:

    Is the Grotto hike well marked?

  7. […] For more on this hike and other great hikes check out […]

  8. john maddalo wrote:

    To get to the circle X ranch do we drive and or go thru mountain roads? Are there many curves on this road and or drive to the ranch?


  9. Molly wrote:

    This was a great hike! When I went there on a Tuesday morning fairly early (8-9AM) there was not one single soul around. It was amazing. The hike was mild but had enough on the way back to get a heart rate going. Beautiful views and especially lovely being the only one there! Would definitely go back.

  10. […] things often come to mind when someone hears “The Grotto”: the Little Mermaid’s hiding place for all her found human treasures, or the Playboy mansion. […]

  11. gianni belson wrote:

    i would take Kanan and Encinal canyon because Decker is very windy. If you take Encinal, you wont get carsick

  12. Sarah wrote:

    Can you go in the water at the Grotto? Is it safe?

  13. sally mason wrote:

    Is this a moderate hike or strenuous?

  14. […] Red Tape/Notes: No fee or permit required; for more information on the trail, hikespeak […]

  15. Marcia wrote:

    Is the Grotton considered an easy hike? I have no hiking experience.

  16. Miriam wrote:

    This is not a 3-mile round trip hike like the description says. According to the site signs, It’s 2.3 to 2.6 miles out to the beginning of the Grotto trail. The Grotto trail is about 0.8 mile with a ton of boulders and some easy climbing.
    Please update the information. You are misguiding people. This trail takes about 1.5 to 2 hours for experienced hikers and can take closer to 4 for beginners.

  17. C. Smith wrote:

    2022/04/12 Hiked the trail today. Beautiful wildflowers: Sticky yellow monkey flowers, mustard, calif. sun flowers, deer weed, and more. About 0.3 miles from the end, there is a 8 to 10 foot drop over boulders and a small waterfall; No obvious good routes around. My 14 and 9 year-olds were able to get down with some jumps. No way for a dog to get past this point.