Upper Zuma Falls

Santa Monica Mountains / Malibu, California, USA

About Upper Zuma Falls


Hiking Distance: 4.75 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 2-3 hours

Date first visited: 2023-03-24
Date last visited: 2023-03-24

Waterfall Latitude: 34.08856
Waterfall Longitude: -118.83394

Waterfall Safety and Common Sense

Upper Zuma Falls (also Upper Zuma Canyon Falls) is perhaps the largest of the waterfalls to be found along the popular Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.

It’s actually impressively tall at what I estimate to be about 120ft or so in cumulative height (at least according to the data I see in Gaia’s Topo).

Upper_Zuma_Falls_106_03242023 - Upper Zuma Falls
Upper Zuma Falls

However, as you can see in the photo above (and elsewhere on this page), there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye due to the waterfall’s twisting trajectory.

It all really depends on where you see the waterfall from the trail, but it definitely looks smaller when I went up close to it.

Nevertheless, despite this waterfall having attributes that should place it on our Top 10 Southern California Waterfalls list, the key thing working against it is its longevity.

In fact, knowing how unreliable its flow was made it unattractive for us to fight traffic and go this far into the Santa Monica Mountains to pursue it.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_078_03242023 - Distant look at the Upper Zuma Falls from the Backbone Trail revealing a sloping tier above its main drop
Distant look at the Upper Zuma Falls from the Backbone Trail revealing a sloping tier above its main drop

And that was despite the popularity of the Backbone Trail as well as us having already visited the nearby Newton Canyon Falls.

That said, this all changed when we experienced a series of atmospheric river storms in early 2023 that hit the state of California with some historic precipitation amounts in a short period of time.

Such a sustained climate event meant many waterfalls that were no longer reliable (as they may have been more reliably seen in the past) all of the sudden regained their former states.

In fact, during my pursuit of the Upper Zuma Falls, several intermediate waterfalls surprised me along the way (each of which were bigger than the Newton Canyon Falls).

Upper_Zuma_Falls_054_03242023 - One of the intermediate waterfalls seen on the way to the Upper Zuma Falls
One of the intermediate waterfalls seen on the way to the Upper Zuma Falls

Of course, we can’t really expect atmospheric river storms to be a sustainable pattern, and I’d imagine it’s a matter of time before we go back to a drought pattern again.

This is why I’d argue you would need to time a visit to the Upper Zuma Falls (and the several intermediate waterfalls along the way) for a high rainfall Winter/early Spring at a minimum.

Hiking to Upper Zuma Falls

In order to experience the Upper Zuma Falls, we merely needed to hike along the popular Backbone Trail before taking an unsigned spur detour going right to the base of the waterfall.

The detour was also fairly straightforward to follow though it involved a stream crossing requiring a mild rock hop to stay dry (if the waterfall’s flowing, of course).

Upper_Zuma_Falls_145_03242023 - People around the Upper Zuma Falls providing a sense of its scale as well as showing you that people have taken risks to do the slippery scramble around the waterfall
People around the Upper Zuma Falls providing a sense of its scale as well as showing you that people have taken risks to do the slippery scramble around the waterfall

The only scrambling necessary is to improve the views around the waterfall or to get higher up the slippery rocks to reach the upper tier of its main two drops.

By the way, if you do decide to scramble around the falls, be aware that the rocks (especially the darker ones) are very slippery even when they’re dry.

Anyways, according to my logs, the overall hiking distance was on the order of about 4.75 miles, and I spent a little over 3 hours to take it all in on a solo excursion (so it might take longer if I was joined by say my wife and daughter).

Trail Description – The Backbone Trail and Intermediate Waterfalls

From the Backbone Trailhead (see directions below), I followed the Backbone Trail itself, which went past some trailhead signage and a pit toilet facility.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_020_03242023 - Looking down at an attractive double-barreled waterfall in Zuma Canyon from the Backbone Trail
Looking down at an attractive double-barreled waterfall in Zuma Canyon from the Backbone Trail

The trail then descended away from Kanan Dume Road towards a switchback with nice views to the right across Newton Canyon towards the larger Zuma Canyon.

After the switchback, the trail descended towards the head of Newton Canyon beneath the Kanan Dume Road before bottoming out and starting to climb again.

There is an unsigned trail (now there’s a sign saying something to the effect of “off trail prohibited”) that leads to the base of Newton Canyon Falls, which I describe in detail in a separate write-up.

Continuing on the Backbone Trail, it briefly ascends before descending towards a bridge over Zuma Creek roughly a mile from the trailhead.

Newton_Canyon_Falls_017_iPhone_03182023 - This bridge over Zuma Creek wa at around a mile from the Backbone Trailhead
This bridge over Zuma Creek wa at around a mile from the Backbone Trailhead

Along the way, you may notice a separate connector trail (with the Kanan Dume Road) coming in from the right at around 0.7-mile as well as a distant trailside view of an attractive double-barreled waterfall within Zuma Canyon at 3/4-mile from the trailhead.

Although this waterfall looked tempting to seek out a way down to get to its base, I refrained from doing that knowing that the Upper Zuma Falls was way bigger than this for far less trouble.

Beyond the bridge over Zuma Creek, the trail then ascended past a grove of ghostly black-barked trees victimized by the Woolsey Fire.

While these trees looked to be dead, I still noticed new leaves sprouting up at their tops suggesting that they are still alive.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_027_03242023 - These ghostly black-barked trees were burnt from the 2018 Woolsey Fire, but you can see that there's new growth at the treetops suggesting that these trees are still alive and doing their thing
These ghostly black-barked trees were burnt from the 2018 Woolsey Fire, but you can see that there’s new growth at the treetops suggesting that these trees are still alive and doing their thing

Next, the trail continued to skirt along gentle slopes while going through seasonal brooks featuring ephemeral waterfalls and cascades (which are normally dry).

At around 0.4-mile from the bridge, I started to notice other impressive waterfalls in the distance, which I first thought could be the Upper Zuma Falls, but they turned out to be nothing more than intermediate waterfalls.

So another 0.2-mile further (or 0.6-mile from the bridge), I noticed an unsigned narrow spur trail leading me to a knob providing a view of that intermediate waterfall I saw earlier as well as another hidden “twin” waterfall of similar size.

This detour only went about 400ft away from the Backbone Trail before stopping (going closer to these waterfalls would require a prickly bushwhack).

Upper_Zuma_Falls_065_03242023 - At the end of one of the trail deviations, I got this nice view of a pair of 'twin' waterfalls that were taller than the Newton Canyon Falls
At the end of one of the trail deviations, I got this nice view of a pair of ‘twin’ waterfalls that were taller than the Newton Canyon Falls

Anyways, in addition to the two intermediate twin waterfalls, I also noticed part of an even bigger waterfall in the distance, which turned out to be the Upper Zuma Falls.

Continuing on with the main trail for another 1/2-mile (or 1.1 miles from the bridge), I then encountered another unsigned trail spur.

Along the way, I got some nice views of the Upper Zuma Falls, revealing that it had a twisting sloping descent before its main drops faced me.

It was easy to pause and take in the distant views of the falls, but they all whetted my appetite to get close and interact with it.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_088_03242023 - Context of the unshaded Backbone Trail with the surrounding sandstone peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Upper Zuma Falls looming up ahead
Context of the unshaded Backbone Trail with the surrounding sandstone peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Upper Zuma Falls looming up ahead

In order to get right up to the waterfall, I had to leave the Backbone Trail and follow the unsigned trail spur.

Trail Description – The Final Detour and Scrambling

The unsigned spur trail descended briefly down a narrower but well-worn path towards a fork right in front of a crossing of the creek causing the Upper Zuma Falls.

I had my pick of crossing the creek immediately before me or to follow alongside a creek towards another creek crossing (both of which could easily be done with rock hopping if the creek has enough water for the falls to put on a show).

Once past the creek crossings (which can be trivial if there’s no water), the paths eventually re-converged and then kept going right up to the base of the Upper Zuma Falls.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_017_iPhone_03242023 - The unsigned deviation from the Backbone Trail leading closer to the Upper Zuma Falls
The unsigned deviation from the Backbone Trail leading closer to the Upper Zuma Falls

This spur trail was about 0.2-mile from the Backbone Trail deviation.

Now there’s enough vegetation around the falls to make getting a clean look at it tricky (i.e. scrambling is required).

Most of the people I met along with myself opted to do some scrambling to get up to the base of the main two drops for perhaps the best view from this close to the falls.

However, it was also possible to cross the creek (very carefully) and do some more scrambling to further get up to the middle of the main drops of Upper Zuma Falls.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_131_03242023 - People scrambling on deceptively slippery rocks to get up towars the middle of the Upper Zuma Falls
People scrambling on deceptively slippery rocks to get up towars the middle of the Upper Zuma Falls

That said, this scramble was very slippery mostly because a lot of the dark rocks were already slippery even when they’re dry!

Thus, there’s some degree of risk and sketchiness to not only scramble up to the middle of the falls, but going back down without taking a bad spill can be even trickier (and I was wearing legit hiking boots)!

After having my fill of this waterfall, I pretty much went back the way I came making the overall hiking distance on the order of 4.75 miles round trip.

However, I did have the option to extend the hike towards the Encinal Canyon Road before turning back, which would make the overall hiking distance 6.1 miles round-trip.

Authorities

Upper Zuma Falls resides in the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area near Malibu in Los Angeles County, California. It is administered by the MRCA as well as the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit the MRCA website or NPS website.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_005_03242023 - The start of the Backbone Trail is scenic as it overlooks both Newton Canyon and Zuma Canyon in the distance
Upper_Zuma_Falls_007_03242023 - After the switchback, the Backbone Trail descends in the direction of Kanan Dume Road alongside Newton Canyon
Upper_Zuma_Falls_010_03242023 - After the Backbone Trail bottomed out at the head of Newton Canyon, it went past an unsigned spur and then followed beneath parts of the Kanan Dume Road
Upper_Zuma_Falls_012_03242023 - Looking in the distance towards the ocean from the Backbone Trail towards the confluence of Newton and Zuma Canyons
Upper_Zuma_Falls_021_03242023 - Context of an attractive double-barreled waterfall along with the Backbone Trail
Upper_Zuma_Falls_024_03242023 - With the unusually high water conditions during my late March 2023 visit, I also saw other ephemeral waterfalls feeding into Zuma Creek like this one
Upper_Zuma_Falls_028_03242023 - Closeup look at one of the wildflowers blooming along the Backbone Trail during my late March 2023 visit
Upper_Zuma_Falls_029_03242023 - Looking up at one of the birds taking advantage of the blackened tree tops alongside the Backbone Trail
Upper_Zuma_Falls_033_03242023 - Context of one of the ephemeral waterfalls (hard to see in this photo) backed by sandstone peaks in the distance
Upper_Zuma_Falls_047_03242023 - More prickly burnt trees seen along the Backbone Trail on the way to Upper Zuma Falls in late March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_049_03242023 - I started to notice this attractive waterfall that was bigger than Newton Canyon Falls during my March 2023 visit, but when I looked on my map, I knew this wasn't the Upper Zuma Falls
Upper_Zuma_Falls_051_03242023 - One of the minor creek crossings along the Backbone Trail during my late March 2023 visit
Upper_Zuma_Falls_056_03242023 - Another cleaner but distant look at the first of the bigger intermediate waterfalls seen from the Backbone Trail in late March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_060_03242023 - Context of the first of the big intermediate waterfalls with sandstone peaks and the Backbone Trail as seen in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_061_03242023 - Another look at the context of the Backbone Trail and surrounding sandstone peaks
Upper_Zuma_Falls_064_03242023 - The second big intermediate waterfall seen from a short detour off the Backbone Trail in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_067_03242023 - Looking in the distance towards the very top of the Upper Zuma Falls in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_070_03242023 - Context of the second big intermediate waterfall backed by knobby sandstone peaks in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_083_03242023 - Another contextual look at the Backbone Trail with the Upper Zuma Falls in the distance as seen in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_084_03242023 - Another distant look at the Upper Zuma Falls from the Backbone Trail as seen in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_090_03242023 - Continuing to see the Upper Zuma Falls in the distance throughout this stretch of the Backbone Trail in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_092_03242023 - Getting closer to the Upper Zuma Falls as it's flowing well in late March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_098_03242023 - Context of Upper Zuma Falls and the detour trail leading to its base
Upper_Zuma_Falls_100_03242023 - Now on the detour trail getting closer to the impressive Upper Zuma Falls as seen in late March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_101_03242023 - Context of the detour trail leading up to the base of the Upper Zuma Falls
Upper_Zuma_Falls_102_03242023 - Getting closer to the Upper Zuma Falls where now the twisting cascading tier above can't be seen
Upper_Zuma_Falls_113_03242023 - At the end of the detour trail with a nice look at the pair of main drops comprising the Upper Zuma Falls as seen in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_121_03242023 - One guy who did the slippery boulder scramble to get this look of the Upper Zuma Falls in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_122_03242023 - Looking downstream over the lower of the main drops of Upper Zuma Falls after scrambling up to this point
Upper_Zuma_Falls_123_03242023 - Looking right up at the upper of the main drops of the Upper Zuma Falls in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_126_03242023 - A couple of other people scrambling around the slippery rocks around the Upper Zuma Falls in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_127_03242023 - Broader look at the Upper Zuma Falls' upper main drop in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_129_03242023 - Partial look at the Upper Zuma Falls while scrambling for different perspectives in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_137_03242023 - Looking back at the context of Upper Zuma Falls as I started to head back to the Backbone Trail
Upper_Zuma_Falls_143_03242023 - Starting the scramble back from the Upper Zuma Falls
Upper_Zuma_Falls_145_03242023 - Looking back over a creek crossing towards the Upper Zuma Falls as I made my way back to the Backbone Trail in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_160_03242023 - One of my last looks back at the Upper Zuma Falls from the Backbone Trail in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_175_03242023 - Going back through the ghostly grove of blackened trees as I descended closer to the bridge over Zuma Creek on the return hike along the Backbone Trail in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_186_03242023 - Continuing to follow the Backbone Trail back to the trailhead with nice views towards the ocean and the mouth of Zuma Canyon
Upper_Zuma_Falls_191_03242023 - Making it back to the Backbone Trailhead to end my visit in March 2023
Upper_Zuma_Falls_026_iPhone_03242023 - Of course the major drawback to visiting waterfalls in the Santa Monica Mountains is having to deal with the infamous LA traffic!  It's one of the reasons why there has to be a really good reason for me to pursue waterfalls like Upper Zuma Falls


There were a couple of ways to access the nearest parking lot for the Upper Zuma Falls (or Upper Zuma Canyon Falls), which starts at the parking area for the Backbone Trailhead.

Accessing Upper Zuma Falls from the coast

If you’re approaching the Backbone Trailhead from the south, then you’d be coming up from the Highway 1, which began as the 10 Freeway westbound ended near the Santa Monica pier.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_002_03242023 - Looking back at the limited parking spaces for the Backbone Trailhead at the Backbone Trailhead
Looking back at the limited parking spaces for the Backbone Trailhead at the Backbone Trailhead

We’d then followed Hwy 1 for roughly 17 miles, where we turned right onto Kanan Dume Road and followed it for a little over 4 miles.

After going past a tunnel, the parking lot and trailhead was close to the tunnel exit on the left side of the road.

Overall, this 24-mile drive would take about an hour.

Accessing Upper Zuma Falls from the 101

If you’re approaching from the north, then you’d be coming from the US101 near Oxnard or Camarillo or other parts of the Valley.

Upper_Zuma_Falls_003_03242023 - The Backbone Trail goes from the parking area and right past the pit toilet facility
The Backbone Trail goes from the parking area and right past the pit toilet facility

For a more Los Angeles-centric approach, we could also have also taken the 101 from its junction with the 405 freeway, which was just north past Westwood (of UCLA fame) and the Sepulveda Pass.

Anyways, we took the Kanan Road exit off the 101 Freeway, and we followed this road roughly 8 or 9 miles south past two tunnels and eventually reaching the trailhead parking for the Backbone Trail on our right just before the third tunnel.

This 38-mile drive (from the 10/405 junction via the 101 Freeway) would also take about an hour.

Although parking was limited for the parking lot of the Backbone Trail, we saw many people take advantage of a lot of roadside shoulder parking along Kanan Dume Road itself.

Newton_Canyon_Falls_001_03182023 - Although parking is very limited at the lot for the Backbone Trailhead, apparently, lots of people used the roadside shoulders on the opposite side of Kanan Dume Road to park their car
Although parking is very limited at the lot for the Backbone Trailhead, apparently, lots of people used the roadside shoulders on the opposite side of Kanan Dume Road to park their car

Nevertheless, for geographical context, Santa Monica was 16 miles (about an hour drive due to traffic) west of downtown Los Angeles or 7 miles (roughly 30 minutes drive with traffic) southwest of Westwood Village.

Find A Place To Stay

360 degree sweep from end of spur trail revealing 2 intermediate waterfalls as well as hint of Upper Zuma Falls


Downstream to upstream sweep from the plunge pool at the base of Upper Zuma Falls' main drops


Looking right up at the main drop of Upper Zuma Falls while also doing some panning around its surroundings


Multi-segmented view of Upper Zuma Falls from partway up or down the slippery scramble to the middle part


Back and forth sweep showing the trailside view of Upper Zuma Falls from a distance


Another more distant view of the Upper Zuma Falls as seen from the Backbone Trail

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Tagged with: backbone trail, zuma canyon, upper zuma canyon, upper zuma ridge, kanan dume road, pacific coast highway, los angeles county, santa monica mountains, newton canyon, zuma creek, woolsey fire



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
Read More About Johnny | A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls.