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There is a good chance that you have never heard of the Santa Monica Mountains. However, there is a good chance that you have seen them masquerading as Korea, Wales, Colorado, the South Pacific, "Olde" England, or even another planet. This is Hollywood's back yard and countless productions have been filmed here. The movie history is fun, but let's meet the Santa Monica Mountains as what they really are, a small mountain range on the Pacific coast.
The Santa Monica Mountains are located in southern Ventura County and adjacent mid Los Angeles County in California. With the highest point having an elevation of 3,111 feet, the Santa Monica Mountains would hardly seem to qualify as mountains by western standards. However, since there is at least one peak above 3,000 feet, they can officially be called mountains. Area-wise, it is a small range, about 40 miles long and 6 miles wide, but with at least eight distinct plant communities. These plant communities are chaparral, coastal sage scrub, valley grassland, southern oak woodland, riparian woodland, freshwater marsh, coastal salt marsh, and coastal strand. The range contains a wealth of plants.
This western town movie set is still used for filming.
The Santa Monica Mountains experience the mediterranean climate. This means that they have mild, wet winters, and warm to hot and dry summers. The wetness of the winter can vary extremely from year to year. One thing you can always count on is a rainless summer. The plants have survived this climate regime since the end of the last Ice Age and they survive it admirably and sometimes amazingly. Many of them do in the summer some of the same things that plants in cold climates do to survive the winter. Annuals have a fairly short life cycle and grow, bloom and die before the rainy season is scarcely over. Non-woody perennials have a similar strategy, and although the roots survive, the above ground parts are usually dry by mid summer. Some woody plants lose leaves in dry weather rather than in the winter. This is called being drought deciduous. Other plants have strategies more like desert plants. A few succulent plants can be found here. Most of the chaparral shrubs have small, waxy or hairy leaves, which help minimize water loss. There are also some of the more traditional trees and they must live close to streams, on the north-facing slopes, or have very extensive roots.
Almost as certain as the dry summer is fire in the fall. If you do not watch movies or television dramas, then you still may have seen the Santa Monica Mountains on the news stories regarding fires in the "Hollywood Hills" or the "Malibu Hills". Fire is a big factor in the ecology of the Santa Monica Mountains. In some ways, infrequent fire is even essential to the health of the local vegetation. Fire helps clean out diseases and in a climate where decay progresses very slowly, it returns nutrients to the soil. Infrequent fires are rarely ecologically devastating. A seed bank has been building up in the soil for years and there are some species that will only sprout after a fire. Some species are only seen within a few years of a fire. Fires usually pass quickly and the soil below the surface does not get excessively hot. This spares the bulbs and perennials, which are usually dormant above ground at fire season. Many shrubs have the ability to resprout from the base or roots after a fire. The moisture in the succulents helps to preserve them.
The mountains come right down to the ocean.
The mountains are not high enough to create distinct climate zones, but that does not mean that they are vegetatively uniform. North-facing slopes, south-facing slopes, deep alluvial soils, rocky outcrops, moist canyons, exposed ridges, and ocean influence all result in the presence of many different plant communities. The south face of much of the range is right on the ocean and ocean is a major influence on the local climate. The ocean here is cold, barely reaching 70F in the summer. Broadly speaking, this keeps the south side of the mountains cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, though one does not need to venture far from the shore before the effect is greatly weakened.
The Santa Monica Mountains are an easy place to visit, provided you have your own transportation. Much of the area is public land in the form of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and several large state parks. Some parks have entrance fees and some are free. In general, at the places where you have to pay an entrance fee, you will find flush toilets, water, and picnic tables. At the places that are free, you might find pit toilets or nothing at all. There are a few campgrounds, but this is mainly a place for day hikes. You may be sharing some trails with mountain bikers or horsemen. The mountain bikers police themselves well and I have found them to be polite and friendly. Remember that hikers yield to horses. No unauthorized motorized vehicles are allowed on any of the trails or fireroads. You can find trails of all levels of difficulty, except perhaps the very easiest. It is a mountain range, so there nothing that is extensively flat.
The Goat Buttes are remnants of ancient volcanoes.
The weather is agreeable for hiking virtually all year. Daytime temperatures in the winter are usually above 60F and I rarely ever need a jacket. Nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing, but since this happens only on clear nights, snow is extremely rare. I find summer to be the "worst" time for hiking. Unless you are within about 200 yard of the ocean, it will routinely get above 90F and there no place with continuous shade. However, your summer plans will not get rained out.
Bring water, wear a hat, and use sunscreen. If you feel you will get hungry, bring your own food. There is no food service in the parks. A few mountain lions live in or travel through the range but they are rarely seen. Rattlesnakes constitute the biggest animal threat. Insects are not usually bothersome but sometimes mosquitoes and biting flies can be a problem and ticks are bad in some years. Poison oak is everywhere, even in drier sites. State parks may close on days with high fire danger. Though it may seem pretty obvious which route you think you should take, it is best to have a map. It is amazing how different things look in real life, and people get lost every year.
The Santa Monica Mountains are among my favorite hiking places. The trails are abundant, it is uncrowded, it is available year round, there is variety in the scenery, and there is variety in the flora. I have been going there for over twenty years and I still see new things. I highly recommend the range for day hikes in the Los Angeles area.
About Kelli Kallenborn
I have lived in California for 20 years and really enjoy the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems.