My mom came from Florida to visit her grandkids and take in the wonders of what the West Coast had to offer her East Coast blood. I was not a big fan of the beach or theme parks that she could partake of at home – so the first thing I wanted to do was bring her on a hike.
As we pulled into the gates of the Will Rogers Ranch my mother eyed the lush green polo lawns and smiled a timid smile at the hills. I handed her some water, encouraged her of the fun it would be, and reminded her that we don’t have to go fast. As we began our steep climb up to cross the elevated bridge to connect to the Backbone Trail my mother paused to take in the expansive views surrounding us.
And she smiled. It is so lovely, she sighed. It is so lovely.
About The Backbone Trail
The Backbone Trail is a 68 mile, single track trail that spans the wonderfully enchanting Santa Monica Mountains. The east end of the trail starts at the Will Rogers Trailhead in Santa Monica. There you climb up to the rolling ridge as you cross Topanga, Malibu Creek State Park, Circle X Ranch, and Point Mugu State Park. All to end on the west side of the coastal mountain range at the Ray Miller Trailhead. The trail began its construction about 30 years ago in the early 1980s with the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation at the helm.
It was not until 2016 – when the king of bodybuilding action star himself, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed up with fitness pioneer Betty Weider – that the Backbone Trail was completed. They championed land acquisitions to enable what is called right-of-way trail. This gave hikers the ability to have the right-of-way on the east side of Yerba Buena Road, finally completing the entire span of the Backbone Trail. On Saturday, June 4, 2016 at Will Rogers State Park a celebration was held to officially open this decades-long dream of the Backbone Trail.
For me personally, I would jump at the opportunity to hike the Backbone Trail from start to finish. This may not be everyone’s wish and with such vast diversity in topography and views there are many opportunities for day hikes, rock climbing, and weekend warrior adventures. Here are some of my must do portions and hikes on the Backbone Trail:
- Sandstone Peak: This peak is the highest point on the entire Backbone Trail standing at 3,055 feet in elevation. To access, start at the Backbone Trail Trailhead at the Yerba Buena Parking Lot. The trail is about 2 miles and 1,300 feet in elevation gain to the top. Make it a longer hike by looping around on the Mishe Mowke Trail. The mileage will be shy of 6 miles in total with a lovely trek over Inspiration Point added on.
- Backbone Trail through Zumba Canyon: This difficult 9-mile hike is a gorgeous trek through oak and cottonwood trees, hummingbird sage, and purple flowering blue witch. This portion is known for the lush greenery plus ocean views throughout the canyon. The trailhead is at Newton Canyon near Agoura Hills.
- Backbone Trail from Will Rogers State Park: Arguably the most gorgeous section of the Backbone Trail. This starting access point will give you views of the ocean, the city, and the rolling hills. Point to point the section is almost 17 miles. But enjoy as much as you want. You certainly will not be disappointed.
If you are going to explore the Backbone Trail you have to also partake of the popular climbing found at Echo Cliffs. Every Southern California climber loves coming here for the over 200 routes that range in difficulty and include multi-pitches. Plus the Boulder area is always super packed with dirt bags – the nickname for outdoor climbing enthusiasts. Many of the routes found at Echo Cliffs are long and require a 60-meter rope to lower off or toprope. While the temperatures are most enjoyable during the fall, winter, and spring, climbing is still possible in the summer. Another reason why Southern California is truly a climbers playground.
The Echo Cliffs are found on the same Mishe Mowke Trail that I mentioned as a loop for Sandstone Peak. It is about a 30 minute hike up from the Backbone Trail Trailhead at the Yerba Buena Parking Lot. Classic routes are the 2 pitch sport climb Righteous Babe, at a difficulty rating of 5.8, the very ‘pumpy’ and hard 5.11 sport route Java, and Intellitoys, a mild 5.9 that climbs a steep yet gorgeous red and orange wall face.
Because of the popularity of this spot it is unfortunately prone to graffiti and trash. Local groups such as Trail Mothers have worked hard alongside the U.S. Forest Service Rangers to organize clean ups and Leave No Trace education for local climbers. When visiting make sure you leave it better than you found it to keep this area protected for future generations of dirt bags!
After learning about the local hiking day spots and the potential climbing along the Backbone Trail you may be itching to actually hike it from start to finish. An important thing to note before taking on this adventure is that dispersed camping – or in layman’s terms, pitch-a-tent-where-you-want camping – is not allowed. There are established campgrounds all along the trail. Here is what you need to know about each campsite from the National Park Service website:
- Musch Trail Camp at Topanga State Park camp has room for 8 tents, tables, running water, and a flush toilet. It is not reservable, and is on a first come, first served basis. Small fee ($7/person/night). No campfires/smoking permitted.
- Danielson Ranch at Point Mugu State Park is a group campground only. Contact California State Parks for reservations at 818-880-0363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- La Jolla Valley Hike-In is 0.5-miles off of the BBT, located in Point Mugu State Park. There are only 3 tent spaces, no water, and no fires. It is $10 per night, and you autopay at the La Jolla/Ray Miller parking area.
- Malibu Creek State Park campground is 1.5-miles from where the BBT crosses Malibu Canyon. Regular campground with fire ring, water, and bathrooms nearby. Reserve a camp site up to 6 months in advance at www.reservecalifornia.com.
- Circle X Ranch has drinking water, pit toilets, and tent spaces. Reserve online at www.recreation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777. Fee of $35 per night + possible $9 reservation fee. It is 2.1-miles away using the Canyon View Trail.
On the way back down from the trail the conversation was filled with my mom’s random exclamations between breaths on how this self-proclaimed flatlander climbed such a high trail. I remember the contagious sense of pride we all felt that day as the views engulfed our joy. That is probably the most wonderful aspect of the Backbone Trail. It is a welcoming, gorgeous trek for first time hikers to avid outdoor explorers. I hope you get a mile or two of it’s magic.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus