About The Grotto Falls
The Circle X Ranch 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.
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.
We actually timed our first visit to this place on the day 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.
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).
On the day that we visited, it was possible to drive past the gate adjacent to the ranger station and descend towards additional parking by a building that was the former Boy Scout Camp here.
In fact, we also could have driven all the way down to the Circle X Campground, where there were even more parking spots (as well as the official trailhead itself).
Had we known better, we could have parked down here and saved ourselves a quarter-mile (and 100ft of elevation loss) of additional hiking in each direction (or a half-mile round trip).
That said, there was an interesting hill behind the Circle X Ranger Station where I managed to get good views of Boney Mountain as well as the drainage of the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit.
That creek drained further downhill away from the ranger station, and it was the general direction of the Grotto Trail itself.
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.
In case you’re wondering about the heritage of the Circle X Ranch, this was once the location of Camp Circle X, which was a Boy Scout Camp.
I suspect that the large building by one of the additional parking lots beneath the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station was the main building where most of the Boy Scout activities were conducted.
Hiking to The Grotto Falls
For most of this 3.5-mile round-trip trail, it was on a well-maintained path that lost about 525ft (from the Circle X Ranch Ranger Station to the top of the boulders) according to my GPS log.
Our Ann Marie Brown book said it was 550ft total elevation loss, which kind of corroborated these stats.
On a subsequent visit, we did the slightly shorter hike starting from the official trailhead, where my GPS logs (from both Gaia GPS and the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro) suggested about 3 miles round-trip with 400ft elevation loss.
Therefore, this was an upside-down hike where it was downhill (with minor undulations) on the way to the waterfalls (and the boulders giving rise to the Grotto) 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 (it was dry during our visit), 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 one that actually had a streak on it, when we noticed it on our second visit (and somehow overlooked it on our first visit).
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.
Finally, there were other waterfalls that we noticed (though they appeared to be unnamed), which were on side gullies that weren’t within the West Fork Arroyo Sequit.
These were also seen a little further down the Grotto Trail from Botsford Falls, but we had to look beyond the main ravine and towards the hanging gullies in the distance.
On our first visit, it appeared that one such waterfall had streaks which suggested that it was flowing, but it might put on more of a show during wetter times.
When we came back a week later, that waterfall wasn’t flowing anymore.
Even though the Grotto Trail passed through an area that appeared to be extensively affected by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, it still felt like there was a fair amount of shade (at least during our visits in the Winter time).
That said, I’m sure there would have been even more shade had the vegetation persisted.
Aside from a few seemingly out-of-place water pipes, the Circle X Ranch Grotto Trail was an opportunity to really soak in the scenery of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Eventually, the trail coincided into the bed of the West Fork of Arroyo Sequit, where the drainage started to narrow and flatten out.
That was where the trail went into the somewhat rocky “stream” itself before ultimately reaching the top of the boulder scramble marking the more difficult and adventurous part of this hike.
Overall, this benign section of trail hiking took us on the order of an hour, where we hiked as a family.
A week later, I did this hike solo and managed to do it in about 45-50 minutes, which included a 15-minute out-and-back detour just to see what the Canyon View Trail was like.
Therefore, I’m sure that more hurried individuals could do this section in as little as 30 minutes.
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, but I generally didn’t find it safe to attempt to descend into the darkness around there.
Instead, we continued down more boulders on the right side before reaching a dicey section where we then had to climb a rather steep and slippery (especially since it was muddy after the rain) section.
While waiting for other people to go down this section, there was an opening to the left, where I could see the pool and hear another hidden waterfall dropping into that pool below.
After carefully scaling the slippery ascent on the right side when it was our turn to make the traverse, we then went around another ledge before making the final steep and muddy descent among the overgrowth before finally reaching the streambed below.
From there, we briefly walked a few paces upstream before reaching what appeared to be the bottom of the Grotto section, where there was a giant boulder in a pool concealing the main Grotto Falls.
That boulder seemed have created its own little “cave” or grotto, and it was behind that boulder that I was finally able to see the waterfall itself though I had to change out of my boots and wade into the ankle-to-knee-deep water to explore.
The scrambling took us around 20 minutes, and given the persistent dropoff hazards here, I can totally see why it wouldn’t be a good idea to do this in high water or if the terrain was boulders themselves are wet!
Nevertheless, even if there wasn’t much water, I can totally envision how this could be a fun little place to explore and test out one’s ability to boulder.
But as a parent, I would definitely keep a watchful eye on my child doing this scramble to ensure she made the right moves to minimize the likelihood of injury or death.
The Elusive Hidden Part Of The Grotto
During our first visit to the Circle X Ranch Grotto Falls, we had completely missed the larger Grotto section that was directly beneath the chockstones.
So I actually made a second visit a week later to ensure that I completed the overall Circle X Ranch Grotto experience.
The key to finding this place was that from the “flat” section (which was actually atop a huge boulder that gave rise to the Grotto below), I had to look for a scrambling path on the left further downstream from the chockstones.
This was towards the downstream end of the “flat” boulder slab, but if I found myself scrambling down to the dicey part where I then had to ascend a gully towards the right, then I had missed the hidden entrance to the Grotto.
Indeed, once I found the the sloping ridge that then reached an even steeper slope between the large flat boulder and a separate one that left a gap, I then carefully descended that slope that deposited me right into the Grotto itself!
This section of the Grotto 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 section.
Anyways, at the head of the Grotto was another well-hidden waterfall that I’d imagine would put on a better show under higher flow.
However, given the confined nature of this spot, if there’s too much water in the creek or if there’s wet weather, I wouldn’t consider going in here.
Not only can the water rise quickly and make it too dangerous to even consider going into the Grotto, but going back up from the Grotto requires decent grip on the slope (something that is not guaranteed if it’s wet).
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 the COVID-19 pandemic during our visit.
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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