The car trip to Trippet Ranch - the trailhead for numerous hikes throughout Topanga State Park - is a worthwhile journey in itself. From Santa Monica, take the Pacific Coast Highway north, past the newly refurbished and reopened Getty Villa, to Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Driving through Topanga Canyon is dramatic: Much of it is undeveloped, and at points the road is bordered by steep cliffs and sharp drops into the canyon below. After passing through the small town center of Topanga - which retains a hippie-commune feel despite skyrocketing real estate prices - look for Entrada Road on the right, which leads to Trippet Ranch, described as once being a "gentleman's ranch" built as a getaway for city slickers.
Beginning at the ranch, a favorite six-mile round-trip hike is to follow the well-marked route down into Santa Ynez Canyon to an 18-foot waterfall that's always peaceful and occasionally dramatic, if there's been a lot of rain. The hike begins on the Eagle Springs fire road, passing wide-open meadows, which, in spring, are filled with colorful wildflowers. Soon, you leave the fire road and begin a descent - steep enough at times to make you dread the return trip - along a narrow trail over rock formations that give the landscape a lunar feel.
For the first part of the hike, the view is dominated by Eagle Rock, a rugged, layered rock outcropping that towers over the horizon to the north. There's a distinct spot on the way down - just before the final descent to the valley floor - where there's a sudden change in the tenor and level of the surrounding noise; it goes from quiet, except for the inevitable plane passing overhead, to the roar of running water. Once you enter the shaded, cool canyon bottom, the croaking of frogs punctuates the steady hum of flowing water.
The walk through the sycamore, oak, and bay laurel trees is flat and cool. Although there is a sign pointing out how to reach the waterfall, it can be a little tricky to find, as evidenced by some well-worn trails to nowhere up a steep ravine opposite the brook. Be sure to follow the stream back up the canyon and over some boulders in order to reach the waterfall. On a hot day, the cool, damp air swirling around the grotto under the falls will make it difficult to leave.