Cycling California’s Santa Monica Mountains National Park takes you to another world. You’re just north of Malibu, less than 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Yet turn inland, and you leave the hubbub behind. You enter climber’s heaven, a serene world of long, winding roads that take you up pitiless gradients, through forest, past gaping canyons and sublime views.
Along the rugged coastline, you’ll pass sandy beaches and rocky shores. Head up the canyons and find canyon walls covered in dense chaparral and fragrant sages, while oak trees stand proudly on grassy hillsides.
There’s a whole tangled network of roads that criss-cross this 40-mile wide mountain range. Only a few are favoured by cars, so choose wisely, and you’ll find yourself almost wholly unbothered by traffic. On some roads you’ll see more road bikes than cars: come in January, and you may spot Axel Merckx’s U23 team on their winter training camp.
But what makes Santa Monica Mountains cycling truly special is the fact you’re in the wild, lonely stretches of some of the world's top cycling territory yet you’re also close to amazing beaches, iconic piers and one of the world's coolest cities. If you love climbing and descending, this is a twisty road paradise that you won’t want to leave.
Want to ride the Santa Monica Mountains National Park?
Read on and plan your next cycling adventure.
UPDATE: 15 November 2018: wildfires are currently tearing through the Malibu area. It has been evacuated and is likely to be unsuitable for cycling for some time to come. Please check news reports and speak to locals (the bike shops listed below should be able to advise) before planning a visit.
Whether you’re on holiday in LA/Santa Monica or here for business with just a short window to snatch a ride, don’t miss the chance to get on your bike. In this section, we share ideas for some truly awesome rides.
When thinking about rides, it’s helpful to know that the Santa Monica hills run east to west. This means the rides line up like rungs on a ladder lying on its side. The bottom horizontal is the Pacific Coast Highway and the top (sort of) horizontal is Mulholland Driveway, with the canyons running between the two. This means you get sea-level access to nearly every climb from the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
However. Though convenient and iconic, the PCH is not fun to ride. It’s a busy road with at least two lanes in each direction and a 55mph speed limit. There’s a hard shoulder, but there are often vehicles parked in it. We recommend keeping off the PCH as much as possible. If you ride the PCH, be extra vigilant.
Loop of Eastern Santa Monica Mountains (inc Mulholland Hway East)
- Distance: 101km
- Elevation: 2,520m
- Epic rating:
Loop of Western Santa Monica Mountains (inc Mulholland Highway West)
- Distance: 81km
- Elevation: 1,920m
- Epic rating:
Mt Baldy Road, Glendora Ridge Road and Glendora Mountain Road loop
- Distance: 81km
- Elevation: 2,040m
- Epic rating:
Mount Baldy is listed above even though it’s not in the Santa Monica Mountains; from Malibu, you’re about 70 miles from Mount Baldy’s base. We’ve listed it here because it’s a favourite of the Tour of California and we think the descent down Glendora Ridge Road and Glendora Mountain Road is in our top three descents of all time. If you’re based in LA/Malibu, we think it’s definitely worth the trip!
Other ideas for road biking in Los Angeles region
Santa Monica/LA beach bike path
If you’re in the area with kids, make sure you ride the fabulous 22 mile paved bike path that runs along the oceanfront between Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles and south to Torrance County Beach in Torrance. It’s known as the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (and also The Strand). It takes in the iconic beachfront towns of Venice and Santa Monica and meanders through beaches, beside the sea. If you haven’t got bikes with you for the family, there are lots of places to rent suitable bikes around Santa Monica Pier.
The Palos Verdes Donut
And finally, we have a lingering regret that we didn’t get the chance to ride “The Donut”. It’s about 40 miles to the east of LA’s Santa Monica Mountains, on the exclusive Palos Verdes. It’s a roughly 28-mile undulating loop with reputedly fantastic scenery including ocean, islands and lighthouses. It’s a classic loop in the area, and the terrain looks easier going than the Santa Monica Mountains.
You may also want to consider joining one of the local club runs. We found everyone we were in touch with very approachable:
- - SeriousCycling Agoura Hills: a bike shop in Agoura Hills (see bike hire below) with regular weekly rides.
- - Velo Club La Grange: a cycling club with regular rides that are open to members and non-members and tend to head out from Santa Monica.
As well as exercising extreme care on the Pacific Coast Highway, we’d also recommend avoiding Topanga Canyon Road and Malibu Canyon Road. They are the busiest canyon roads and the least fun to ride. Our routes (above) avoid these canyon roads (other than for a short stretch on Topanga - we think it’s worth it for what follows but read our eastern Santa Monica Mountains guide and decide!).
This section includes details of hotels and villas we have either stayed in or which we think look great. Full disclosure: if you click on a link and make a booking, we may earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure policy for further information.
While the Santa Monica Mountains run for about 40 miles between Hollywood and Point Mugu in Ventura County, we think Malibu is the best place to stay. Here, at the western end of the range, the traffic is lighter than in Hollywood, and you have the perfect combination of reasonably good road surfaces, great weather and superb routes.
We stayed in a beautiful two bedroom apartment within a house spectacularly located close to the top of Corral Canyon Road. On one side are the mountains, on the other divine views over the coast towards Los Angeles and out to Catalina Island. Don’t miss sunrise - or indeed sunset!
What we loved
Wonderful host. Jerri was a warm and thoughtful host who sought to make our trip as comfortable as possible. She responded quickly to messages and had lots of ideas for the best places to visit and eat. On top of that, she was happy to do our washing. She even gave us a glass of wine and cooked us dinner when we arrived exhausted, and jet-lagged on our first night.
Supremely well stocked. The apartment is full of small touches designed to make your stay as fun as possible. Jerri leant us beach equipment and put out a whole host of garden games for the children, including a paddling pool. Inside there was everything from eye make-up remover and mouthwash to porridge oats, bagels and cream cheese. The fridge was well-stocked with drinks, and the coffee machine came with a range of Starbucks coffee and teas.
Tranquil location. We loved being hidden away up the side of a canyon. You have the benefit of feeling far from the bustle of Malibu, with sea views and a great garden area for the children, yet it’s only 10 minutes drive down the twisty, narrow canyon road and you’re back in the thick of it.
Things to be aware of
Location. Be prepared for a hefty climb to get back to the house after a ride (or have someone you can call for a lift!).There are sea views from the apartment, but to get the best views, you walk over the small road and onto a vacant plot of land opposite the house a few metres away.
Guests and cars. Babysitters that are not part of your registered party are not permitted. Only one car per booking.
Kitchenette. Cooking facilities are limited: there’s a small fridge/freezer, hob/stove top, microwave and sink. There are a breakfast bar and stools, but the main dining table is outside.
Stay here if you love the peace of the mountains but want easy access to Malibu and Santa Monica. Jerri was a charming hostess and did her best to make our stay as comfortable and memorable as possible.
Other Malibu rentals to consider
Malibu has relatively few hotels to choose from so checking Airbnb or vrbo.com is a good bet.
Even then, there’s no getting around the fact that Malibu is an expensive place to stay. As a result, we spent a considerable amount of time researching accommodation before our visit. Here are the other topic picks from our short list:
- - A wooden cottage in an olive grove with magical views to sea.
- - Minutes from Zuma beach but with the feeling of a romantic, hidden hideaway.
- - Outdoor fireplace, hot tub and two outside showers.
- - Lots of restaurants within a short drive.
Malibu beachfront rental
If you want a seafront apartment in Malibu, we’d suggest going for somewhere on exclusive Malibu Road. It’s a quiet, residential one-way street that runs parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We think it would be much nicer to be here than in one of the houses you see backing straight onto the PCH. Here’s our pick of the houses on Malibu Road:
- - Light and airy decor with wooden floors and ceilings and exposed brickwork. Sliding doors lead you out to a balcony overlooking the sea.
- - Close to Malibu’s attractions and you can walk on the beach all the way to Malibu Pier.
- - Private parking next to the apartment.
- - Easy access to your own private beach.
- - Contemporary decor in shades of white with a sliding door out to a balcony over the sea.
- - Ping pong, dart board, toilet and outdoor shower available on the communal lower deck.
- - Mountain bikes available to borrow.
- - Close to Malibu’s shops and restaurants.
- - 2-car parking.
This information is offered as an indicative guide only: we periodically update it, but prices, services and bike brands may change. Please let us know if you find anything that is incorrect.
The Santa Monica Mountains are something of a hidden gem, currently ridden more by in-the-know locals than international tourists. If you want road bike rental in the Santa Monica area, you need to plan ahead as there’s no central hub of bike hire shops.
We visited Serious Cycling in Agoura Hills and were impressed by their professional set up and high-end bikes. We haven’t visited the rest of the shops below, but have been in email contact.
ROAD BIKE RENTAL SANTA MONICA AREA
29041 Thousand Oaks Blvd.Agoura Hills, CA 91301
A bike shop in Agoura Hills, about 23km north of Malibu, offers:
Pinarello Dogma F8 w/ Shimano Dura-Ace 11sp Mechanical (50cm, 53cm, 56cm)
Pinarello Dogma 65.1 Think2 w/ Shimano Ultegra 11sp Mechanical (50cm, 53cm, 56cm)
Pinarello Paris w/ Shimano Ultegra 10sp Di2 (53cm, 56cm)
SCOTT Foil 30 w/ SRAM Rival 10sp (54cm. 56cm, 58cm)
$100 (Pinarello Paris or Scott Foil)
$125 (Pinarello Dogma) $150 (Pinarello F8)
$300 (Pinarello Paris or Scott Foil)
$400 (Pinarello Dogma) $475 (Pinarello F8)
2501 Broadway, Santa Monica
I. Martin Bicycles, 8330 Beverly Blvd
Helen’s Cycles has various shops, but for road bike rental, it’s the Santa Monica bike shop that’s most relevant (Beverley Grove also):
Cannondale Synapse with carbon frame, ultegra and disc brakes
Trek Domane SLR with carbon frame, ultegra and disc brakes
Pinarello Dogma F10 (available at Santa Monica shop only)
A saddle pack equipped with everything you need to repair a flat tire. Pedals, helmets and locks are available upon request at no charge. Bring your own pedals and shoes if you like.
Cannondale daily rate: $75 with $1,500 deposit
Trek daily rate: $100, with $3,000 deposit
Pinarello daily date: $175 with $9,649 deposit
Synaptic Cycles call themselves a concierge road bicycle rental service. Their prices include delivery in the Santa Monica area.
Bikes from Calfee Design, Volagi, and Focus with carbon frames and carbon forks, Ultegra/Dura Ace components, compact 50/34T cranks, and 11/25 or 11/28 cassettes.
They carry Shimano road and mtb pedals, and a number of different saddles. They’re happy to fit your own saddle and pedals.
Includes: spare tubes, a patch kit, CO2 cartridges, and a mini-pump.
4 day minimum rental: $275
Each additional day is $25/day.
Prices include delivery and pick-up within normal service areas (30 mile radius from San Clemente and 30 mile radius from Santa Monica).
12775 W. Millennium, Playa Vista (across from Whole Foods)
Located between the airport and Santa Monica.
Bianchi and KHS road bikes with Shimano 105 components
Free delivery and pick-up within 30 mile radius of Santa Monica
Locks and helmets.
Daily rate is $50, $75 for 24 hours.
- Book your bike in advance, particularly in peak season.
- Remember to bring your own pedals, shoes and helmet. This packing list may help!
- Check which way around your brakes are set before you ride away (i.e. whether the front brakes are on the right hand (as is usual in the UK) or on the left).
Undecided on whether to hire a bike or bring your own? Read this.
When to go
There is no average weather year in the Santa Monica Mountains; neither the amount nor the timing of rainfall is predictable. One year it can rain as little as six inches, another 50 inches.
However, unlike the mountains of the Alps or the Pyrenees which are only rideable for a few months of the year, here the mild winters and long dry summers mean you can ride all year around. On scorching summer days, you’ll need to get out first thing in the morning, but the rest of the year the climate is well-suited to cyclists’ needs.
While temperatures remain respectable along the coast, January to March can see some rain.
Temperatures start to increase as Spring takes hold. Morning fog can be an issue in the summer months, but it tends to burn off by lunchtime. Though the mostly Mediterranean climate means you’ll see locals hitting the beach year around, beach season gets into full swing in July. Temperatures can soar in the summer and stay warm through to October.
Temperatures drop, and you may get caught in one of the scattered winter rainstorms.
Tips and articles
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The Complete Guide to Climbing (by bike) in California by John Summerson: this book describes California’s most difficult hills and mountains. It includes many of the roads in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s light on maps, but it gives statistics and details of each climb together with some photos.
Lonely Planet’s Los Angeles, San Diego and Southern California: does a good job of giving you the overview and background of the region and ideas for things to do.
Fodor’s California guide is excellent too. We like the fact it’s in full colour, practical and opinionated.
Alternatively, if you’re just going to be in LA and Malibu, Fodor’s Los Angeles guide might be a good choice.
Finally, if you're wondering about continuing your journey up Highway No. 1 and want an in-depth and personal perspective on it, this article has loads of great advice.
There are plenty of maps of the Santa Monica Mountains aimed at hikers and mountain bikers, but we haven’t found one that’s particularly good for cyclists. Let us know if you have!
Located next to Hollywood, with sunshine, a temperate climate and variety of landscapes, the Santa Monica Mountains are perfect for shooting movies. From the earliest days of Hollywood, major studios, including Paramount Pictures, owned ranches here. You may spot:
Good to know
Despite being so close to LA, the Santa Monica Mountains are home to an incredible 450 animal species.
Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Mountains lie on the Pacific Plate, while the rest of the country is on the North American plate. The reason the mountains run east-west is due to a bend in part of the San Andreas Fault (which is the border between the Pacific Plate and North American Plate). The Santa Monica Mountains are one of the few mountain systems in the western hemisphere to do this.
All land in the Santa Monica Mountains has burned at least once in the last 100 years. It’s part of the natural cycle in these mountains. Wildfires happen throughout the year, and it’s why you’ll spot fire stations dotted throughout the hills.
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Want more? Don’t miss our guides to the best Santa Monica Mountains cycling routes and other articles on Southern California bike rides, below.
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