Nicholas Flat harbors a small oasis of live oaks and an old cattle pond backed by picturesque sandstone outcrops. During the winter and late spring, the grassy meadows above the pond may host an eye-popping wildflower show. Because so many plant communities converge in this one area — coastal sage scrub, grassland, chaparral, and oak woodland — Nicholas Flat is a good bet for bird- and wildlife-watching too.
Nicholas Flat resides in Leo Carrillo State Beach, which includes a considerable chunk of coastal hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains as well as an outstanding stretch of wild coastline. For the easiest hike into Nicholas Flat, you may begin at a back entrance to the state-beach property, on Decker School Road. To reach that trailhead, drive 2.5 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway on Decker Road (Highway 23) and turn west on Decker School Road. Simply go to the end of the dead-end road, where you will find the Nicholas Flat trailhead.
From the trailhead, a pleasant oak-lined path leads south to an intersection just above the pond. Bear right to visit the oak-dotted west shore or the grassy area north of the pond. Amid the oaks you can look for a bedrock metate (grinding slick), where the native Americans of the Chumash tribe milled acorns. In wetter times, the pond brims with water, while in drought years it can turn bone-dry by late summer, with gaping cracks up to two feet deep in the abobe mud at the bottom.
To explore more, you can work your way around the lake to the top of the sandstone outcrops on the south side (watch out for poison oak as you do so). From there you get a fine view through the gorge of San Nicholas Canyon to the blue ocean below.
A somewhat better view can be had by hiking up to a 1680-foot knob on the ridge to the west (an extra gain and loss of 300 feet, entirely on trail). An excursion farther afield can take you past an 1838-foot high point along the Malibu Springs Trail, and then back to Decker School Road.
Nicholas Flat can also be approached from the Leo Carrillo Campground, a half-day’s leisurely hike for the round trip.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Up Malibu way, in Leo Carrillo State Beach, Nicholas Flat is a nature lover’s dream.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 168 miles
Hiking length: 1.5 miles round trip