If you’ve ever been to the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach and looked to the north on a clear day, Malibu is the land jutting westward, often partially shrouded in mist.
The coastal enclave is well known for its wealthy, famous residents, but what you can see from the shore is the best it has to offer: 27 miles of coast and the gentle rise of the Santa Monica Mountains. But you don’t need to have a friend with a beach house to enjoy a day in the surprisingly low-key city that offers a getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Malibu is an easy jaunt to add to a Los Angeles or Ventura trip, and it’s also a completely doable day trip from Bakersfield.
Spring is a perfect time to go. If wildflowers are going to put on a show, now is the time to see it.
Neither the heat, nor the city crowds seeking to escape it, have arrived. And usually the wildfires haven’t either.
Malibu’s coastal hikes are always stunners. The golden ratio of hiking is just right: Most hikes are not too hard, not too long but they deliver incredible views.
A coastal hike will ascend through the shrubby chaparral, smelling heavenly of sage. Slowly the ocean comes into view. On a clear day, the Channel Islands will be visible. At the summit, it feels like you’re in a commercial for California.
Solstice Canyon Loop is the perfect example of this. It has a small waterfall, a creek, the ruins of homes that did not survive the fire-prone landscape and a view of the Pacific against the backdrop of its namesake canyon. It’s 3.1 miles long with 535 feet of elevation gain, which is the Goldilocks zone for a nice morning or afternoon hike. The Sostomo and Deer Valley Loop Trail pick up near the crest of the Solstice Loop for a hike that can be doubled.
The Corral Canyon Loop Trail is for the day-tripper trying to cram it all in quickly. This trail will get you up 525 feet within 2.5 miles to a lovely panoramic view.
Sandstone Peak is worth it if you’re feeling ambitious and it’s not too warm that day. This is a 6.1-mile trail that ascends 1,656 feet with little shade, so it’s best to start early. But when reaching 3,111 feet, you can see the Channel Islands, Palos Verdes and maybe if you’re lucky, the San Gabriels.
Other recommendations: Zuma Ridge Trail is a slow, steady climb up a wide fire road delivering nonstop views for 5.3 miles. The Grotto is a lush 3-mile downhill hike, which might be good for spotting wildflowers but is always good for bouldering. Escondido Falls is a moderate, shaded riparian hike to a waterfall that is 3.6 miles. Inland hikes of the Santa Monica Mountains will take you into old Hollywood locations and among beautiful wildflowers. You will find a Western set on the 2.8-mile Paramount Ranch hike and the old “M*A*S*H” location along the 8-mile Malibu Creek.
A few words of caution to hikers on preparation. Bring a map. That can mean a fully charged phone with a map pulled up from AllTrails. Many of Malibu’s trails intersect, and it’s easy to make a wrong turn.
Bring plenty of water on the trail. Your hike might take longer than you expect because you made a wrong turn, or it might be warmer than you expect. There are a lot of exposed ridges where the sun can beat down on you. Alternatively, a sweatshirt or windbreaker is a good idea, too, because the wind gets brisk near the summit.
This is the wilderness. On my last hike, I found myself trailing a coyote. I didn’t feel threatened but all the same, I thought it best to take a breather and let the creature get just a little farther ahead of me on the trail. I’ve never seen a rattlesnake but I watch my step for them. Mountain lions tend to avoid humans, but I would keep dogs, particularly small, cute ones, on a tight leash.
Malibu beaches truly have no right to look as good as they do being right next to a city of 4 million people. This is why the wealthiest people in Los Angeles have bought up every square inch of beachfront property that they could. Fortunately, there are plenty of public beaches — and your dog is invited, too.
For the perfect sunset beach photo, head to El Matador Beach, probably the most picturesque of all the Malibu beaches.
Zuma Beach is the most popular because it has something for everyone. It’s a wide beach that stretches nearly two miles. It has a lot of nice amenities: showers, food stands, volleyball nets and tons of parking. Lifeguards are on duty. It’s a hot spot for surfers. Beware of the rip tides.
Just down the road is Point Dume State Beach. Rising above the beach is a promontory that juts out in Malibu’s midsection. It’s a good spot for full spectrum views of the Santa Monica Bay and dolphins on a lucky day. There’s a short trail down to the beach on one side and tidepools on the other. Divers enjoy coming here and so do sea lions. Parking can be tricky.
Leo Carrillo State Park is a quieter beach that’s great for exploring nature, whether that’s beachcombing, tidepooling, exploring caves or just enjoying a nice stroll. It’s 1.5 miles long so there’s plenty of room for that. There are campgrounds here, too. My favorite activity is sitting on the beach and doing absolutely nothing at all.
Parking space is at a premium almost everywhere you will go in Malibu, and that includes beaches. Make peace with the fact that you may encounter lots that are either full or a little more expensive than you expect.
The one trick to get around paying anything is to park along Pacific Coast Highway. But be careful if you need to cross the street, because it is actually a highway. And then when you get back in your car, don’t forget to slow down and watch for crazy fools trying to cross a highway.
My expectation when dining is that a great view will mean expensive, often so-so food. Or maybe this is just what I tell myself because I am not going to shell out $145 for the Nobu Signature Menu anytime soon. I did once splurge at Geoffrey’s Malibu for a special occasion and enjoyed a winter sunset over the course of a meal. I couldn’t tell you what I ate but I remembered it being pretty good, very expensive and pairing nicely with the views and a glass of wine.
Duke’s and Moonshadows are two more popular options that offer great views and will leave your wallet a little lighter. If you are struck by a burning desire for green juice, head to Malibu Country Mart immediately.
But again, I’m not in Malibu for food. I’m usually wearing schlubby clothes for a hike or for the beach, and I want something casual.
Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market & Patio Cafe is a great option. Corral Canyon Loop Trail is just up the hill and Solstice Canyon Loop is a little up the road. It offers fresh seafood, a patio and a beach down below, Dan Blocker Beach — if you prefer to enjoy your food al fresco. Dogs aren’t allowed on the patio, but they are allowed on the beach.
Neptune’s Net has always been my favorite spot to get fried seafood with some fries.This is a place where bikers enjoying the Pacific Coast Highway will stop for food and a beer. No one will give you a second look for whatever you’re wearing. Fair warning: there are only porta potties. Fido isn’t welcome here but you can take him to the beach down the hill, Leo Carrillo State Beach. A beach lunch is a good option if it gets crowded, too.