We all wish our city kids had a natural passion for the outdoors, but let’s be honest, they usually require a little motivation to tackle any serious hiking trails. And few incentives have the same draw as a dark and mysterious cave to explore. The following trails—ranging from easy to fairly challenging—may even be exciting enough to transform your couch spud into a thrill-seeking young archaeologist. Cue the Indiana Jones theme music!

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El Matador State Beach (All ages)
Many have named El Matador one of SoCal’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, and they’re not telling tales. The dramatic rock formations, caves and arches give this state beach in Malibu an otherworldly vibe, making it a popular destination for photo shoots as well as for rock scramblers. The key is to go at low tide, when most of the rocks are exposed. In fact, checking the tide schedule is of the utmost importance because the positioning of the rock walls and formations puts beachgoers at risk of getting stranded otherwise; just check out the signs posted at the tops of the stairs leading to the private homes atop the bluffs, which instruct visitors to call 911 if they get stuck (as opposed to pestering the residents).

But as long as you go within the two-hour window around the lowest tide of the day, you’re in for incredible exploratory shenanigans. Kids will have a blast waiting for the tide to wash out before darting through rock arches to move from one section of the beach the other. Meanwhile, budding rock climbers will find plenty of hand-and-footholds in the towering sandstone rock formations, making it a cinch to climb all the way to the top (hopefully, without giving Mom and Dad a heart attack in the process).

32350 El Matador Beach Rd.
Malibu
Online: parks.ca.gov/?page_id=633

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Terranea Cove Sea Cave (Recommended for ages 5 & up)

You don’t have to shell out the cash to stay overnight at Terranea in order to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings of this seaside resort. The miles of stunning walking trails overlooking the ocean and the resort’s little beach are all open to the public, and free parking is available to day visitors (although it can fill up early on the weekends, in which case you can usually find street parking on the road leading into the resort, Terranea Way), making this a gorgeous hiking destination both family and wallet friendly. While all of the trails surrounding the resort are spectacular thanks to never-ending views of the Pacific, the most interesting route for kids is to the tidepools and sea cave at Terranea Cove.

To reach the cove from the visitor parking lot, follow the narrow road to the left of the resort’s main building, which leads toward the main pool. Hang a left at the split in the road, passing by the adult-only pool. The road ends at the dirt beach trail, which leads down a few sets of stairs to Terranea’s rocky beach. Continue to the far end of the beach and climb over the rocky outcropping (little ones will need a helping hand here) to reach the cave. You’ll need to keep an eye on the tide (check the tide charts here) in order to go in and explore the cave, and be prepared to get wet. After exploring the cave, you can spend some time visiting the tidepools, and then maybe grab a bite at Nelson’s, the resort’s kid friendly restaurant that offers some of the finest views in all of Los Angeles (not to mention fire pits and microbrews!).

6610 Palos Verdes Drive South
Rancho Palos Verdes
Online: californiabeaches.com/beach/terranea-cove-beach

Terranea

Grotto Trail (Recommended for ages 7 & up)
If your kids love nothing more than scrambling over and under enormous rocks, their Mecca awaits at the end of the Grotto Trail in Malibu. This 3.5-mile out-and-back hike starts at Circle X Ranch, located way up a winding road in the Santa Monica Mountains at the far end of Malibu. Circle X is a former Boy Scout camp and is still available by reservation for camping groups, but it makes a super day trip as well. Maps and public restrooms are available at the ranger station next to the parking lot. From there, hikers travel on a mostly shaded dirt trail past the campground and down through the canyon, eventually ending at the creek, which passes under giant rocks, creating the grotto for which the trail is named. At this point, the trail ends and giant piles of rocks await your eager scramblers. Parents will want to keep a close eye, however, especially on kids who have a tendency to crash on ahead, as there are a few serious drop-offs from some of the larger boulders. With some slow, steady and nimble scrambling, hikers can actually climb down under the rocks into the cave below. (Note: this may require splashing through some shallow water, so it’s a good idea to bring an extra pair of shoes.) Detailed directions for finding and following the grotto trail can be found here.

12896 Yerba Buena Rd.
Malibu
Online: nps.gov/samo/planyourvisit/circlexranch.htm

NickGrotto

Cave of Munits (Recommended for ages 8 & up)

Eerie and a little tough to get into, the Cave of Munits represents the perfect opportunity for older kids to play Indiana Jones. This chimney cave in West Hills is accessed via an unprepossessing residential neighborhood, giving no indication of the total awesomeness to come—a natural rock cathedral that held sacred importance for the Chumash people who used to inhabit the region.

The hike begins in El Escorpion Park, following an easy dirt trail for a little under a mile to reach the cave’s entrance (you’ll even cross the Los Angeles/Ventura County line, which is pretty cool). You can find detailed hiking directions here.

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As you follow the trail, the cave appears as a long vertical opening in the rocks ahead. Once there, climbers will need to use their hands and feet to reach the entrance, but will be aided by plenty of natural hand and footholds in the rock. The view on the inside is stunning; the cave rises several stories high, and ambitious climbers can climb up and over more rock formations to ascend through a hole near the top and enjoy magnificent views of the Valley below. However, this should only be attempted by older kids with experience climbing, and close adult supervision is highly recommended. If that sounds a little too daunting, the magnificent cave can also be duly appreciated from the lower level.

Even adept rock scramblers may need a little assistance on the descent, as the shifting dirt on the rocks can make things slippery, so this is a good hike to tackle with extra adult support. Once everyone makes it safely, kids will go home with a sense of mysterious discovery and a story to tell.

24501 West Vanowen St.
West Hills

—Erin Harris

Do you have any hidden caves you like to play pirate at?  We’d love to hear about your family spelunking adventures in LA!

All photos by Erin Harris