Thursday, December 31, 2015

Still Life in Solstice Canyon

Solstice Canyon from the Sostomo Trail
Like most ranges, the Santa Monica Mountains harbor a fair number of secrets. Hidden pools. Lush grottos. Native midden sites hiding in plain view. Striking geologic formations. Rare and unique flora. Elusive and endangered fauna. And places where one can connect with the past and see and feel the fading remnants of those hardy and adventurous souls who came before us. These are the places we instinctively seek. These are the gems that make exploration of the physical land and the historical past so compelling and magical.

One of the worst kept secrets of the Santa Monicas is lovely Solstice Canyon whose mouth opens wide onto frenetic PCH at Corral Canyon Road in Malibu. Proximate, scenic, and readily accessible to 18 million locals, the canyon is popular with Angelenos and Malibuians (Malibuites?) alike who justifiably throng its cool and shaded canyon bottoms on weekends.

The canyon is significant and magnetic because it holds one of the few permanent water sources in the entire Santa Monica range which extends from Point Mugu east to the Hollywood Hills. Despite Southern California's dry Mediterranean climate and four plus years of severe drought, water still trickles out of the rocky canyon walls to form intermittent pools along the creek bed. As a result, the shaded canyon is cool, vibrant, and relatively lush, an attractive respite from the chaparral choked hillsides that otherwise dominates the landscape.

Lower Solstice Canyon with Peek-a-Boo View of Santa Catalina
Rising Sun Trail High Above Solstice Canyon
View Down Solstice Canyon
Solstice Creek Waterfall and Grotto
Still Life in Solstice Canyon
Solstice Creek Reflections
Cool and Color of Solstice Canyon
But the natural beauty of Solstice is not all it has to offer. Like us, our predecessors were also enamored of the place. Some so much so that they moved in with the intent to stay in the canyon permanently. Fortunately for the adventuring public, those efforts to privatize the canyon ultimately gave way to the destructive forces of mother nature, but evidence of those colonizing efforts can still be seen in the form of a number of ruins.

Most prominent among those ruins is Tropical Terrace, the former residence of Fred and Florence Roberts. Beginning in the 1930s, Fred Roberts, a successful Southern California grocer, began acquiring land in and around the canyon, ultimately amassing holdings approximating 1,000 acres. Then, in 1952, Roberts commissioned African-American architect Paul R. Williams to design a home for him in the canyon bottom near the creek. The home, which was previewed in Architectural Digest, and was built from stone, brick, and wood, blended natural features of the canyon into its design, including a number elements intended to protect the structure against wildfires. These elements, which included a series of pools and an elaborate pump system, were not maintained after Fred Roberts death and the home met its ultimate demise in the dramatic 1982 Dayton Canyon Fire. Today, what little remains of Tropical Terrace can be visited by making a 2 miles stroll up the road bed in the canyon bottom, or by following the more challenging Rising Sun Trail which contours the hillside high above the canyon before ultimately dropping back down to the creek in a series of short switch-backs.

Roberts House Placard
The Tropical Terrace
Roberts House Ruins 
Most folks make it to Tropical Terrace and then go no further. That's unfortunate because there is more to see in the upper stretches of the canyon where the path, now designated the Sostomo Trail, crosses and re-crosses pretty Solstice Canyon Creek as it climbs above the canyon floor. Along the way, the tread passes the ruins of at least two additional cabins, one which sits high on the hillside with panoramic views of the Pacific, and a second which sits deep in the forest along the now mostly dry creek. This second cabin made of stone is still fully intact and is in remarkably good condition. Ultimately, the Sostomo Trail intersects with the Deer Valley Loop Trail which meanders through chaparral and coastal sage scrub to the western ridge of Solstice Canyon where one is treated to panoramic ocean views.

Upper Solstice Canyon
Intermittent Pools Dot Upper Solstice Canyon
View Down Canyon from the Sostomo Trail
Headwall of Solstice Canyon
Looking Out the Window
Stone Cabin Ruins Along the Sostomo Trail
View from the Junction of the Sostomo and Deer Valley Loop Trail
If you're not burnt out on burnt out ruins, you can visit the remains of one more cabin as you make your way down the main canyon and back to the trail head. The Keller House, which is reputed to be the oldest existing stone building in Malibu, was originally built with wood by Henry Keller who thought Solstice Canyon had the best hunting and fishing in the Santa Monica Mountains. After wildfire destroyed the cabin in 1903, Keller committed to rebuild the structure in "stone and tin" as a hedge against future calamity. This strategy proved successful for a time as the rebuilt structure endured a number of additional wildfires. Ultimately, however, wood porches were added to the cabin which finally burned to the ground in the 2007 Corral Fire. Most of the stone walls, the foundation, and the chimney still survive, however, and can be seen in the lower canyon behind fencing which is intended to keep tagger and vandals at bay with marginal success.

Geology is Cool
Keller House Placard
Eye See You
Keller House Ruins
In Through the Out Door
There are a number of different hiking options available for visiting Solstice Canyon, some easy, some moderate, none really long or difficult. My route took me up the Rising Sun Trail to Tropical Terrace, up the Sostomo Trail to the Deer Valley Loop Trail, and then back to the trail head through the wide canyon bottom. For whatever it's worth, my device measured this route at about 6.85 miles with approximately 1,700 feet of gain.  


  1. Thanks for the detailed report and great pictures. This trip is on my to-do list. Maybe for the springtime.

  2. Thanks for the detailed report and great pictures. This trip is on my to-do list. Maybe for the springtime.

    1. It'll be a leisure walk in the park for you Cucamonga Man.