About The Grotto Falls
The Grotto Falls pertains to a series of hidden waterfalls nestled within a jumble of volcanic boulders and chockstones confined to a narrowing of the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit drainage.
The hike is on the popular and well-maintained Circle X Ranch Grotto Trail so I’ve often referred to the waterfalls as the Circle X Grotto Falls.
Although these waterfalls tended to be short-lived or very seasonal (and its performance depends on whether we’ve had a dry Winter or not), it seemed like the bouldering aspect and aptly-named Grotto were this place’s claim-to-fame.
The first two times we’ve visited this place (in early 2021), we timed our hikes on the days immediately after an all-day rain storm during a Winter season that saw little or no appreciable totals for the year.
With this timing, we’d assure ourselves of at least seeing some water, but at the same time, the place wouldn’t be so flooded that the Grotto itself wouldn’t be safe to access either.
Well, on that first experience, we didn’t see much water though the Grottos certainly were accessible, and perhaps they were practically mandatory to salvage something out of an otherwise disappointing visit.
When we came back two years later about a week or two following some intense atmospheric river storms, we experienced not only the intimate Grotto, but we also witnessed attractive intermediate waterfalls along the way!
Some of these waterfalls were backed by the beautiful sandstone peaks that kind of reminded me of the type of scenery you’d typically find in Sedona!
Granted, some people did show up immediately after the clearing of the storms, and there was too much water in the creek to attempt going further into the Grottos themselves or downstream to the bottom.
I’d argue that under those circumstances, the risk versus reward simply wouldn’t be there.
Indeed, timing is a big part of the overall experience, because it could be too dangerous if there was too much waterfall and too disappointing if there was too little water!
That said, I guess that’s kind of what makes such excursions adventures because there’s that uncertainty of outcome where you’re never really sure of what you’re getting until you go there and see for yourself.
The Circle X Ranch Area
The Circle X Ranch Grotto Trailhead is accessed from the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station (see directions below).
Although we didn’t do this on our first visit, on each of our subsequent visits, we wisened up and drove past the gate adjacent to the ranger station towards the Circle X Group Campground parking area at the very bottom.
Along the way down, we did see that there was a parking area adjacent to a larger building that was the former Boy Scout Camp here.
The distance between the ranger station and the actual Grotto Trailhead was about a quarter-mile with 100ft of elevation loss in each direction.
That said, there was an interesting hill behind the Circle X Ranger Station where I managed to get good views of the standstone peaks looming over the area as well as the drainage of the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit.
That creek drained further downhill away from the ranger station, and it eventually led us in the general direction of the Grotto Trail itself (as that creek fed the waterfalls within there).
In addition to a picnic table, the hill also harbored a Plate Boundary Observatory Station, which has a GPS receiver reporting its position so researchers can track changes (and hence movement) in the earth’s crust.
By the way, this was once the location of the Camp Circle X Boy Scout Camp, which I suspected was the large building by one of the additional parking spaces beneath the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station.
Hiking to The Grotto Falls
Our Ann Marie Brown book said it was 550ft total elevation loss over 3.5 miles, which seemed to be the case if we started the hike from the Circle X Ranger Station at the very top.
In any case, this was an upside-down hike where it was downhill (with minor undulations) on the way to the waterfalls (and the Grotto itself) and uphill on the way back.
At least the relative discomfort of the return hike was alleviated by the scenery (as views of both Boney Mountain and Sandstone Peak were prevalent) as well as the elevation change being spread out over the 1.5 miles or so.
I also noticed that there were seasonal waterfalls that I found were more noticeable on the return hike than on the way to the Grotto.
One of the waterfalls was apparently called Botsford Falls, and that one was just downhill from the Canyon View Trail and Grotto Trail junction.
Further downstream from what I’m calling Botsford Falls was a seemingly taller waterfall accompanied by a thinner waterfall (if it’s flowing) in the adjacent drainage.
We could only get distant views of that second waterfall as the steep and overgrown ravine didn’t appear to have sanctioned access to get a closer look.
All of these intermediate waterfalls (both on and not on the West Fork Arroyo Sequit) would typically trickle or not have any water (which was the case on our first two visits).
However, when there is enough water for these waterfalls to put on a show, the entire Grotto Trail experience changes into a much more fulfilling and very scenic excursion!
After descending beyond the views of the intermediate waterfalls, the Grotto Trail passed through an area that seemed to be extensively affected by the Woolsey Fire in 2018.
It was during this stretch that there seemed to be some degree of shade from the thin vegetation, but for all intents and purposes, it was pretty exposed to the sun.
I’d imagine that prior to the fire event, there would have been even more shade to spell some relief from the otherwise unrelenting sun.
The Grotto Trail eventually descended to a point where we had to traverse the creek, which would be typically trivial if the waterflow was low.
Beyond that crossing, the trail descended a bit more before the maintained part of the Grotto Trail essentially disappeared at another creek crossing.
At that point, the trail then followed alongside the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit crossing the creek one more time before the drainage started to narrow and tumble into a series of huge bouldersand flatten out.
This was where the Grotto Falls adventure would descend further downstream around the top of some hidden waterfalls among the large boulders wedged here.
At this point, the hike now degenerated more into a scramble, and this was where the most difficult part began, which we’ll describe more in-depth in the next section.
Overall, the benign section of trail hiking took us on the order of an hour though I’m sure it could be done at a faster pace (more like 45-50 minutes for those in more of a hurry).
Scrambling & Bouldering Around The Grotto
Roughly 250ft downstream from where we essentially started to hike within the stream bed of the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit was where the route finding and risky boulder scrambling began in earnest.
We generally kept to the right where some faint trails-of-use along with boulders that were jagged enough to be suitable handholds and footholds allowed us to descend further.
The first “flat” area allowed us a rather unsatisfying top-down view of the mostly-concealed Grotto save for some puddles and sounds of a hidden waterfall underneath.
There were also chockstones or wedged boulders providing for interesting scenery from above, but I generally didn’t find it safe to attempt to descend into the darkness around there.
Instead, we went to the edge of the “flat” area, where there was a sloping boulder slab leading us to a somewhat dicey sit-and-scoot descent.
At the bottom of that sketchy section, we then found ourselves within an appealing Grotto, which I suspected to be the namesake one that gave this place its name.
Indeed, this hidden section was seemingly like a somewhat spacious cave, but it was actually caused by a huge boulder where its tip seemed to be barely hanging onto its current position.
While this Grotto has been known for decades, I do wonder how much longer it will be before that tip eventually gives out and collapses this “cave”.
Anyways, at the head of the Grotto was a small waterfall spilling from an opening that also let in some hints of daylight breaking up this spot’s dark confines.
After having our fill of this spot, we then had to use all of our limbs to carefully climb back out of the Grotto and then resume the boulder scrambling further downstream along the right side of the wide gully.
In one stretch, there was a narrow, steep, and potentially dicey gully that we had to scale (while those returning had to carefully descend).
There’s typically a bit of a traffic jam here as one side would typically have to wait for the people already within the gully to carefully navigate this stretch.
Anyways, after scaling this gully, we then went around another ledge (doing more sit-and-scoot maneuvers) before making the final steep and muddy descent through some overgrowth and broken trees towards the streambed below.
From there, we briefly walked a few paces upstream before reaching what appeared to be the bottom of the Grotto Falls.
Characterizing this spot was a giant boulder in a pool concealing another little “cave” or grotto.
In low flow, this secondary grotto would conceal another waterfall tumbling down some wedged boulders, which I’ve managed to witness only by changing out of my boots and wading into the ankle-to-knee-deep water.
By the way, in higher flow, we’ve witnessed a waterfall dropping to the left side of the front of the large boulder as we faced it.
Overall, the scrambling that encompassed the elusive hidden part of the Grotto as well as the very bottom of the Grotto Falls probably took us around 20 to 30 minutes in each direction.
However, given the persistent dropoff hazards here, I can totally see why it wouldn’t be a good idea to do this scrambling in high water or if the boulders themselves were wet!
On the flip side, I can also envision how this could be a fun little place to explore and test out one’s ability to boulder scramble.
That said, as a parent, I would definitely keep a watchful eye on my child doing the scrambles here as I’d want to make sure she made the right moves to minimize the likelihood of injury or death.
The Circle X Ranch Grotto Falls resides in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area at the Circle X Ranch near Malibu in Los Angeles County, California (though it’s seems to be geographically more into Ventura County). It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
The Grotto Falls is accessed from the trailhead at the Circle X Range Ranger Station, Campground, and Day Use Area.
According to my GPS log, Circle X Ranch itself is located about 5.3 miles from PCH on Yerba Buena Road.
More generally, the Yerba Buena Rd turnoff was about 28 miles from where the 10 Freeway ends and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) begins as it follows the coastline through Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, and Malibu.
This turnoff does not have a traffic light so we had to pay close attention to the road leaving PCH just west of the Neptune’s Net Restaurant.
Given the amount of traffic as well as traffic lights on this stretch of road, this part of the drive generally consumes about an hour.
Once we get to the Circle X Ranch Station, there’s limited day use parking immediately in front.
However, if the gate is open or the uppermost lot is full, you can drive the unpaved road to the left of the ranger station.
This unpaved road leads down to additional parking by the former Camp Circle X (Boy Scout facility) building.
That said, the road also continues to the left of the fork (the right fork went to the Boy Scout Camp) down another switchback before terminating at the end of the road at the Circle X Ranch Campground.
Down here, there’s additional parking as I’d imagine overnight camping use was prohibited due to Woolsey Fire damage as well as the COVID-19 pandemic (at least that was the case during our visits).
The Grotto Trailhead starts right at the Circle X Ranch Campground, which itself is about a quarter-mile from the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station (so there’s a half-mile total hiking distance depending on which lot you parked at).
Even though the Circle X Ranch was technically part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, we didn’t have to pay to park in any of the lots here during our visits in early 2021.
For context, Malibu is about 19 miles (under 30 minutes drive) south of Thousand Oaks, 29 miles (over 30 minutes drive) southeast of Oxnard, about 33 miles (roughly an hour depending on traffic) west of downtown Los Angeles, about 67 miles (over an hour drive) southeast of Santa Barbara, and 69 miles (about 90 minutes drive) northwest of Irvine.
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