About Upper Zuma Falls
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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