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The 67-mile designated National Recreation Trail spans the Santa Monica Mountains, an east-west trending mountain range that bifurcates Los Angeles and tumbles down to the Pacific Ocean.


Backbone Trail celebrates grand opening


Map of California

By Melanie Beck National Park Service  


photo of of hikers in dry field under oak trees

The trail in the Newton Canyon area near Snakebite Ridge Overlook

With just two days to go before the Backbone Trail grand opening event, National Park Service staff at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area were anxious. Finishing up the last acquisitions for the trail and getting the final section built in time for the June 4th celebration had kept park staff fighting against time all year.

What a delight it would be to be able to announce the National Recreation Trail designation! Then, Superintendent David Szymanski got the good word: An email popped up from Helen Scully, National Recreation Trails Coordinator at National Park Service, announcing: “Congrats on your new NRT! The Backbone Trail was signed off today.”

In that moment, a long-held vision to have the Backbone Trail as a National Recreation Trail became reality. Staff exhaled a sigh of relief and then whooped for joy. The 50-year effort could be summed up as “The simple act of walking on a trail is anything but simple to create.”

Map of trail along California coast

The Backbone Trail: click map to enlarge


With some 180 parcels to acquire on the direct alignment, many more for viewshed, and miles of trail to build, nothing short of a harmonic convergence among citizens, park agencies, and legislators created what we have today.

The 67-mile trail spans the Santa Monica Mountains, an east-west trending transverse mountain range that bifurcates Los Angeles and tumbles down to the Pacific Ocean. You only have to go a short distance from the coast, though, before the Mediterranean-type climate can get hot.

But, your reward for hiking in the heat is to have the chance to see and feel the fog spilling over the coastal ridgelines and soothing the thirsty chaparral. The scenery is outstanding: rocky ridges, canyon woodlands, views of the Channel Islands sometimes, and to the east, cityscapes of nearby Los Angeles.

photo of hikers on trail through scurb

Typical section of trail through coastal chaparral ecosystem

The Backbone Trail truly embodies the spirit of the National Recreation Trails program, being within an hour’s drive of some 17 million Americans, yet offering a near-wilderness experience that visitors beg park agencies to protect. The trail is best enjoyed in segments over several days or weekends until backcountry camps or other overnight accommodations are in place for a continuous outing.

Let’s go for a hike. We’ll hike east to west. We’re at Will Rogers State Historic Park and head up Rogers Road. The famous cowboy humorist and actor had the road built across his ranch in 1927. As we climb, here’s some history. A ridge line route through the Santa Monica Mountains wasn’t first envisioned by trail enthusiasts. In spite of early renderings by the Olmstead brothers for making a park out of the Santa Monica Mountains, state highway planners and development interests in 1964 thought a ridge-top freeway across Malibu would not only open the area to development, but might also provide possible recreation areas.

What this and other threatening projects did, though, was galvanize a cadre of park and trail enthusiasts. Out of this protection movement we got three new state parks, the name change to “Backbone Trail,” and in 1978, a national recreation area. The Santa Monica Mountains protection and recreation movement had taken hold and the “Go-Go Years” began for land acquisition and trail-building.

We’re now on Dead Horse Trail, the first trail constructed specifically for the Backbone Trail. It’s time to introduce a once-in-a-generation person, as some have said. Ron Webster, now 82, built an astonishing 31 miles of trail over a period of 13 years. This is how Ron approaches trail building: First, a trail is a glimpse into the wilderness. Second, a trail should lie lightly on the land. His trails are narrow and designed to offer intimacy with nature. Along this 14-mile stretch in the Backbone journey, we smell bay laurel forests, see fossils, climb down rocky chasms, and cross boulder fields.

For many miles, he had the help of youth conservation corps. A journalist hiked the Backbone earlier this year and reflected that a lot of the Backbone Trail was built by youth of color. While those youth gained useful skills and had the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of wildlands in their lives, users of those trails remained mostly white until recent changing demographics began bringing more people of color to the trails, as well.

photo of hikers on trail through scurb with city in background

The trail provides reminders of its proximity to a major urban area


We’re high up on Mesa Peak Motorway now, part of a network of fire roads built in the 1920s and ’30s to fight wildland fires in the Santa Monica Mountains. Behold the ocean and the landscape studded with rocks jutting out of the chaparral. Within the 360-degree views you’ll see encroaching subdivisions. The Backbone Trail story would not be complete without noting “what could have been.” Perhaps no other unit in the National Park System sees so routinely the collision of the philosophical extremes of the individual’s pursuit of happiness versus the greater community good.

Rest assured: there would be no Backbone Trail if it weren’t for the general public, neighbors, nonprofit advo- cates, agencies, and supportive elected officials who spent enormous amounts of time battling development and negotiating open space and public access. Hike on, trail comrades!

Well, not just hike on, but on Mesa Peak Motorway west all the way to Circle X Ranch, you can bike on, with the next 22 miles open to mountain biking. The Backbone Trail is fully open for hiking and horseback riding, but only some stretch- es are multi-use. Likewise, dog-walking is allowed only on certain stretches. Plan your visit.

Have you ever noticed the last 10% of a project takes longer than the first 90%? The 14 “Go-Go Years” (1978-1993) yielded nearly 6,000 acres of park land, 31 miles of Backbone Trail, and 51 total miles open to the public. The remaining 518 acres and 16 miles of trail took nearly 23 more years. It was likely the chance to celebrate Backbone Trail completion during the 2016 National Park Service Centennial that inspired the remaining landowners to embrace the trail and sell their land.

photo of vast smooth rock outcrops

View from the trail in the Mesa Peak Motorway area

One of the remaining parcels was jointly owned by actor and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and fitness guru Joe Weider’s wife, Betty Weider. They actually donated their 40-acre property, the only landowners to do so along the whole route. During this long slow era we did have a full-time NPS trail crew, and the era of the SWECO and supply-toting Gator reigned supreme.

These trails aren’t Ron Webster footpaths, but they are built to keep trail grades down to reduce erosion and discourage speeding or too much downhill pounding on the knees. We just walked up a 2.6-mile stretch that is so flat that you can hardly believe you just gained 625 feet elevation. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll be there in the spring to see the spectacle of the big pod ceanothus in bloom covering the hills.

We are now in the western Santa Monica Mountains atop Sandstone Peak, the highest peak at 3,111 feet. Let’s begin our final descent down across Boney Mountain State Wilderness in Point Mugu State Park, 15 miles to go. Our individual and collective problems and the human built world, while real to us on a daily basis, feel now as ephemeral as many streams in the mountains and ultimately subservient to the forces of nature.

It’s our final day, and we’re descending Ray Miller Trail and we can almost touch all five Channel Islands. We’re at the trailhead finish line. Let’s cross Pacific Coast Highway and put our tired feet into the cold water.

On June 4, 2016, some 350 people celebrated completion of the 67-mile Backbone Trail and its designation as a National Recreation Trail. Fifty years of this long endurance ride illustrate the willingness of so many to persevere in this vision to have a cross-mountain trail for all to enjoy now and for future generations to come.


For more information:

NRT Database record for The Backbone Trail:

For more information on visiting the trail see: www.nps. gov/samo/planyourvisit/backbonetrail.htm



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