About Escondido Falls
Escondido Falls could very well be the tallest waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains that actually has some staying power.
It consists of a lower drop of about 40-50ft as well as a much taller upper drop of at least 150ft or more.
If you include the hidden middle tiers between the two main drops, then this waterfall could very well be over 200ft tall!
Like with most coastal waterfalls in Southern and Central California, the underlying cliffs supported mossy growth.
This tended to give such waterfalls “character” as Julie likes to say while giving them a sort of shaggy appearance.
The Escondido Falls Experience
The word “escondido” is Spanish for “hidden,” and it seemed to be quite an appropriate name for this waterfall.
That was because Escondido Canyon sat behind some super big “not-in-my-lifetime” homes with gorgeous ocean views that typify the prime real estate of the Malibu area.
Indeed, such developments concealed the wilderness behind these estates, which also concealed the underlying Nature (i.e. floods, fires, earthquakes, etc.) that seek to undermine such structures.
Moreover, the upper waterfall itself was elusive to the uninitiated (as it was hard to even see given the foliage blocking its views during my early visits back in 2009), and it required a bit of a risky adventure to reach.
The Lower Escondido Falls was very easy to reach as it only required a hike of roughly 3.5 miles round trip that was mostly flat and easy-to-follow.
Thus, it tended to receive the vast majority of its visitors, which had rapidly grown in recent years (especially leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond).
Over the years, we’ve seen this waterfall go from a relatively obscure local hike into a place that had blown up, especially on the weekends.
That means parking can be an issue without an early start.
Also, being a rainfall-dependent waterfall, it tends to flow only on years where we’ve had an appreciable amount of rain in the Winter months.
Given the combination of a pretty dry climate with an unpredictable Climate Change-induced feast or famine wet versus dry year pattern, only on certain years could we expect the falls to flow nicely in the Spring.
At other times of the year, or on poor rainfall years, we generally don’t expect this waterfall to perform well.
After parking the car (see directions below), we had to walk up the Winding Way Road.
This road was really a residential street passing by a handful of multi-million-dollar homes with ocean views.
We had to walk this stretch because no street parking was allowed throughout this road.
For roughly the first 3/4-mile of the hike, Winding Way Road climbed to an apex before descending into Escondido Canyon.
Depending on the amount of rainfall and the timing, the hillsides flanking Escondido Canyon may bloom with large mats of yellow and purple wildflowers.
According to an MRCA (Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority) staff member we spoke to here, he mentioned that most of the yellow flowers were actually the invasive black mustard.
However, the native flowers we’ve seen here include lupines, sunflowers, and even the odd California Poppy.
As the Winding Way Road descended into the canyon, we then left the road and took the signed trail as it entered the lands managed by the MRCA Conservancy.
The trail used to leave the road past the last house along Winding Way Road, but they’ve since re-routed it to the current spot (perhaps to respect the privacy of that last homeowner).
In any case, depending on the conditions, this trail can be muddy and slippery given the trajectory of the slope combined with the lack of asphalt after having left the road.
It can also be dry and eroded with the odd mini-gully cutting right through the middle of the path.
Nevertheless, the entire area can also be blanketed with wildflowers both on the hillsides and even flanking the immediate trail.
This was the case on a recent visit in 2019, which was a wet year yielding one of the best wildflower blooms we can ever remember.
Escondido Falls Trail Description – hiking the Escondido Canyon Trail to the lower waterfall
Once the initial descent into the canyon bottomed out, we then crossed a creek, which I suspected was part of the same creek responsible for the waterfalls.
This was the first of a handful of creek crossings, especially if the creek has an appreciable amount of water (a good sign that the Escondido Falls would be flowing).
Beyond the creek crossings, the trail was mostly flat with very minor undulations as it generally climbed a couple hundred feet over the next mile.
As the trail followed the creek upstream, we tended to see a fair amount of trees providing some degree of shade.
We also encountered a few clearings which presented the best places to spot wildflowers as well as the odd home perched atop the ridges overlooking Escondido Canyon.
That said, on our visits following the 2018 Woolsey Fire, we noticed a lot of the trees that once provided us shade had burned so the trail may be less shadier depending on how much recovery had taken place since that fire.
Eventually after about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, we started to catch glimpses of the Upper Escondido Falls high above the canyon.
In our first couple of visits, there was enough vegetation to conceal most of this upper tier.
However, after the fire, it seemed like this upper drop was clearly visible, which might have also piqued the interest of more visitors who otherwise wouldn’t have noticed it.
Eventually after around 1.75 miles or so, we finally arrived at the base of the Lower Escondido Falls and its 40-50ft mossy drop.
This waterfall provided a nice backdrop for photos as well as letting the kids play in the water.
The only concern I had with the water quality of the creek had to do with how much of its contents consisted of suburban runoff from the homes perched above Escondido Canyon (where even the creek crossings earlier on had murky water).
Anyways, this is where most people would turn back and return to the trailhead, which would make the overall hiking distance on the order of about 3.7 miles round trip.
Escondido Falls Trail Description – scrambling to the upper waterfall
In order to access the base of the Upper Escondido Falls, we had to go on a steep climb for about a quarter-mile.
We have to caution you that if you want to continue, it’s not for everyone as it contains dropoff hazards as well as rockfall hazards (especially from other people kicking rocks down).
I’d recommend not attempting to go to the Upper Falls in tennis shoes or running shoes due to insufficient grip on the steep and slippery slopes.
The scrambling path followed a steep gully on the east side of the creek (to the right of the waterfall).
The trail became progressively steeper the higher up we went, and it required the use of all of our limbs to climb up rocks while trying not to lose our footing (which was really easy to do).
There were about three or four sections during the climb up to the Upper Escondido Falls that Julie and I thought were potentially hairy.
In one particularly eroded section, we had seen a rope set up to make it less likely to slip and fall into a dropoff right above the brink of the Lower Escondido Falls.
That rope may not be there, however, nor could it be relied upon as it was not a sanctioned aid (so use it at your own risk).
Once we were past these obstacles, the “path” went up to a ridge with a nice view of the canyon below us towards the ocean as well as a contextual partial view towards the Upper Escondido Falls in the other direction.
This ridge used to be a bend in the old (less-steep) path that skirted alongside a middle cascade with some large rocks and large spaces between “footholds”.
We definitely had to exercise caution here given how easy it was to slide back down and take a potentially nasty fall.
Once we traversed this nearly vertical rock-wall obstacle, Julie and I were able to follow the path along the stream until we arrived at the base of the Upper Escondido Falls.
Now ever since the Woolsey Fire, this path and the slopoe’s topology had changed so the “newer” worn paths made a more of a beeline to the aforementioned ridge with the views.
Then, from there, the path pretty much skirted a narrow ledge alongside the creek to the base of the upper falls.
Given the adventure it took to get here, we definitely lingered for as long as possible before facing the same obstacles on the way back down, which was just as challenging (if not more) than going up due to the slick footing and dropoff exposure.
In any case, with the Upper Escondido Falls included in the overall excursion, the round trip hiking distance was more on the order of 4.2 miles.
Changing Conditions on the Upper Escondido Falls Scramble
After the Woolsey Fire took place in late 2018, when I re-visited this upper waterfall in 2019, I didn’t recognize the “path” that we were used to doing in all our prior visits (as described above).
In fact, the fire managed to burn off most of the vegetation, which meant that the very greenery that actually stabilized the soil of this steep hillside was no longer there!
As a result, the scrambling became even more treacherous, especially if you’re not wearing proper footwear.
I saw numerous people doing this unprepared while irresponsibly kicking down rocks towards unsuspecting hikers down below in the process.
Not only was the ascent even more trickier (i.e. more slippery and more eroded) than it had been in the past, but the descent also seemed even more dangerous than before.
Looking back on that experience, I personally wouldn’t recommend doing this scramble until the hillside has had a chance to re-vegetate and re-stabilize the soil.
Well, when I came back in March 2023, it appeared that this hillside was recovering, and that the scrambling paths started to become more obvious again (especially in light of new vegetation that had sprouted up these past few years).
While you’re always going to have conflicting or bad advise from the Socials (i.e. social media) by people who have also done this scramble, realize that if you do get into trouble, you’re relying on search and rescue volunteers to bail you out.
So respect the environment around you and be honest with yourself about your abilities and your preparation.
Is Going To The Upper Escondido Falls Trespassing?
Finally, there had been some question about whether pursuing the Upper Escondido Falls is considered trespassing on private land.
Well, apparently, that area of land was privately owned (albeit discreetly), and in the eyes of the law, it could be considered trespassing.
The intersting thing about this was that in all the years I’ve done this hike, I had never seen any signage or maps indicating the private property boundaries.
Thus, if a law was broken, it would be tough for any person to reasonably think they were willfully trespassing given the lack of information about this.
When I made a visit to this waterfall again in March 2023, I saw some sheriffs and search-and-rescue volunteers standing by at the trailhead and asked them this very question.
One of them answered my inquiry by noting that just this year, the private landowner had sold the plot of land in question to the MRCA Conservancy.
So technically, the conservancy gets to call the shots on whether they would prohibit people from making the scramble (apparently fencing doesn’t work because I noticed that it was ripped down).
That said, my understanding of the situation as of my latest visit was that you go on the unmaintained scrambling path at your own risk (even if the cost of rescue is currently absorbed by private donations as well as local taxpayer funds).
I’m sure this situation will continue to be fluid, and when in doubt, you should contact the authorities for official guidance.
Escondido Falls resides in the Escondido Canyon Park near Malibu in Los Angeles County, California. It is administered by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MCRA). For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
There are many ways to drive to the Escondido Falls Trailhead.
However, we’ll focus on the I-405 and I-10 junction as the starting point of these driving directions since we’ve always crossed this junction every time we’ve visited this waterfall.
So from the I-10/I-405 junction, we headed west on the I-10 freeway through the city of Santa Monica.
We followed this freeway for a little over 3 miles to its end, where the road bent north near the Santa Monica Pier vicinity and became Pacific Coast Highway or PCH.
Then, we continued on the scenic PCH, which hugged the coastline for most of its drive, and we followed it for the next 18 miles.
Roughly 4 miles west of Pepperdine University in Malibu, PCH then intersected with the Winding Way Road.
Given the high speeds on PCH, this road was easy to miss so if you happen to reach the Kanan Dume Road (the next traffic light to the west or north), then you went too far.
Nonetheless, the important thing about this road was that the official trailhead parking for Escondido Falls was on the northwest corner of this intersection.
It looked like recently, they started charging for parking in this lot, which was $8 as of April 2019 or $12 as of March 2023.
If the small lot is full, we could find street parking along PCH as long as we didn’t park in the no parking areas around the call box nor around any of the corners adjacent to Winding Way Road.
Street parking was free as of our visits (my latest being March 2023 as of this writing).
Speaking of no parking zones, all of the Winding Way Road does not allow parking and only residents are supposed to drive beyond the parking lot area.
There are plenty of signs and wary residents keeping a watchful eye on violators who choose to leave their cars where they’re not supposed to be on Winding Way Road.
If you find that you have to park on the eastbound side of PCH, be very careful about crossing PCH on foot because people do road rage and overspeed on this road.
Anyways, the drive described on this route took us around 30-45 minutes (not counting the drive times required to even reach the I-405/I-10 junction in the first place).
For more geographical context, Santa Monica Pier was about 16 miles (30-60 minutes depending on traffic) west of downtown Los Angeles, 52 miles (90-120 minutes drive) northwest of Irvine, and 47 miles (over an hour) east of Oxnard.
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