I thru hiked the Backbone Trail over 4 days during my Winter break (December 2015) from work right after Christmas. The trailhead is only about 45 miles from home and the weather is very mild along the coast in Southern California so I thought it be a nice, quick hike I could do in the winter. The Backbone trail is a 67 miles trail that follows the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains. They’re more like hills though.
I scoured the web for trip reports from other hikers that had thru hiked the trail. I found some that had section hiked it but only found one report of thru hiking it (Klondike Joe and Matt). I wasn’t too worried about the lack of information though. It’s hard to get too lost on the trail and you’re always close to civilization with cell service in most areas.
I left my house at 5 am and stashed some water in a storm drain in the middle of a long, dry stretch then headed to the southern terminus at Will Rogers State Park. After letting the rangers know that I’d be back for my Toyota Tacoma 3 days later I called an Uber to pick me up. They wished me luck as my ride pulled up.
During the 45 minutes ride up to the trailhead, I felt the usual nervousness at the beginning of every hike. It doesn’t matter the length of the trail I always feel the same. I couldn’t wait to start hiking because once I hit the dirt it all goes away. The trail begins at the Ray Miller trailhead with a climb and gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. The usual crowds of day hikers were out but as I got to the top I was pretty much alone except for the occasional mountain biker. I actually almost got run over a couple of times and was starting to get agitated because I had to dodge a couple. I’m still not sure how I really feel about it though. I mean, they are allowed on that section of the trail but damn it, I’m trying to get my hike on!!!
The first water source is at Danielson Ranch, which is 8 miles from the trailhead. There was nobody around. It looks a little rundown but it’s still being used. I used one of the porta-potties, filled up my water bottles from a hose and sat at a picnic table to eat lunch. It was uneventful but I it was nice to get some calories and rest because I hadn’t hiked much the past few months since returning to work.
The next 6 miles as I approach Sandstone Peak were by far my favorite section. Sandstone Peak at 3,111’ is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains to give you an idea of the type of elevation you’ll experience. You have to keep in mind that this trail is not a remote backcountry trail. It felt more like a series of long day hikes. There are many sections where homes are within earshot. I could easily crawl to someone’s home for help if I had been mauled by a mountain lion or got mangled falling but a more likely scenario would’ve been getting attacked by the deadliest animal on Earth… humans. Back to why it was my favorite section. It’s the least traveled. I didn’t see another hiker until I started my descent on the other side of Sandstone Peak.
As I descended Sandstone Peak, it was about 6 pm so it’s already dark. I saw some day hikers approaching me with headlamps so I say hi. No response. Hmmm… maybe they didn’t hear me. A few minutes later, I saw another small group of hikers approaching. I say hi again. No response. This happens with two more groups. It’s getting weird. It’s pitch black out! Why were all these anti-social, freaky people hiking up to the peak right now? Remember the most dangerous animal on the planet? My mind was quickly running through a bunch of different scenarios and I decided they were cult members going to perform a ritual sacrifice at the top. For some reason I thought I read reports of that happening up there so I started speed walking down the trail. I would’ve run but I was afraid of face-planting. I knew from the map that when I reached the nearby road I needed to road walk about 1.5 miles to Circle X campground. When I reached the road, I was just shy of 17 miles and had been hiking in the dark for 2 hours. Since I had only hiked 20 miles in the past 4 months I was exhausted! I decided to bail on the campground and continue on the trail. About a ½ mile later I decided to cut my losses and just set up my shelter in the middle of the trail because it was the only suitable place. I couldn’t have made it much farther. Ugh, I should’ve trained at least a little. I was having problems setting up my shelter because the wind was whipping around in this little channel. I finally get it pitched, climb into my bag, eat a Kind bar and pass out. I woke up around 3 am with half my shelter collapsed on me. I roll over and go back to sleep. “Oh well, zzzzzz!”
I woke up again at 5am to get an early start because I had a big day ahead of me. It was cold, dark and windy. Not really what I like but my job has gotten me used to being uncomfortable so I reluctantly climbed out of my bag. After some hot oatmeal and coffee I headed out. It was still dark but it had warmed up to the upper 30’s by now. The air temperature wasn’t too bad but combined with the wind I was shivering until about 30 minutes into hiking. Once I got into a rhythm I was really enjoying myself. The sun was starting to come up and I could see the ocean again. I was cruising through the miles and as it got closer to noon the layers started coming off. I stopped for a quick lunch around 12 miles into the day. It was getting hot and this section was completely exposed. I had about 200 ml of water and about 6 miles until I reached my water cache. I considered asking a passing mountain biker for some water but being the introvert that I am, I decided against it. I wasn’t afraid of dying or anything but it sure was going to suck hiking in these temps without any water.
I approached one of the many road crossings and saw a low-level detention center near the Encinal trailhead. It looked like a summer camp surrounded by barbed wire topped fences. I did a quick walk by looking for a water spigot. No luck. At least the trail was relatively flat. About a 1/2 mile farther I see a bridge and as I got closer I heard water. Hallelujah!!! I bushwhacked down a steep bank and drank until I was full. If I had been a little patient, I could’ve avoided bushwhacking and conveniently filled up right next to the trail a ¼ mile farther. Many miles later I crossed the trailhead for the Jim Morrison Cave (Corral Canyon) but the sun had already dipped below the horizon so I’d have to check it out some other time. I stopped and talked to two older gentlemen here. They were both in their 80’s and had been day hiking together since they retired almost 20 years ago. As they asked me what I was doing I silently hoped I’d be doing what they’re doing at that age. It was dark now and as we parted ways they told me to be careful because there was an active mountain lion in this section of the canyon that they’ve heard a few times. I’m not really fearful of mountain lions because they’re pretty reclusive but that’s just not what I wanted to hear as I hiked into the darkness alone.
As I left, I began a short climb. It was getting really hard to navigate in the dark because there were a lot of use trails headed in all directions. I saw a couple of headlamps in the distance and became a little concerned because we’re less than a mile from the trailhead parking. Were they some hooligans that wanted to mess with me or maybe some more cult members? I might have been stumbling into the middle of some ritual and I was just what they were looking for. Remember? These were just some of the strange thoughts going through my head. So what do I do? “Hi, how’s it going?” It ended up being a family photographing the night sky. We exchanged some quick pleasantries. I still had about four more hours of hiking left. I don’t mind night hiking but it’s not my favorite because you can’t see your surroundings. Half the fun is enjoying the scenery.
Around mile 22 I was hiking on a fire road and making great time. I felt strong. None of my joints or muscles hurt. It was like I just finished watching Rocky and was listening to “Eye of the Tiger.” Walking tall with my chest puffed out. Then, ugh, my headlamp began dying. I swapped the battery. Still not working. I knew in a couple of miles I had a more technical descent so now I was feeling a little deflated until I had a great idea. I pulled out my iPhone and turned on the light while hooking it up to my Anker battery pack. I slipped it under my sternum strap for hands free hiking. It wasn’t perfect but it worked. This took a few minutes so I started to notice it was getting cold. I better get moving.
About 9pm the trail dumped me on to a road at the Tapia trailhead. Malibu State Creek campground is about 1 mile up the road. I was tired and shivering and didn’t feel like doing the 1 mile road walk. There were no cars passing by to hitch a ride so I pulled out my phone and hoped I’d have cell service. I did so I called an Uber. They really came in handy. As we rolled into the campground, I imagined how nice a hot shower would feel. I set up my shelter, went into the bathroom and started running the water. As I stood shivering, I waited, I waited, and I waited some more. Nothing but lukewarm water came out. Deflated for the second (more like nth) time that day, I retreated back to my 30 degree Enlightened Equipment sleeping quilt without eating dinner and went to sleep wearing everything I brought because it’s COLD!
Since I only had about 12 miles to hike I decided I was going to sleep in. I woke up around 9 am and saw frost inside my shelter. There were thousands of beautiful snowflakes of frozen condensation. I took my time getting ready then sheepishly asked a young couple packing up if they could drop me off back at the trail. It was 11am by the time I was on the trail again. This section was filled with oaks shading the trail. It proved to be easy hiking. After a few miles I stopped to eat a snack in the Topanga area when suddenly I heard a dog growling. Not barking, but growling! I turned around to see a pit bull charging towards me and I jumped up on the fallen tree I had been leaning against and I may or may not have shrieked. All of a sudden the dog turned and ran the other way. Phew, it must have been my manly shriek. With my adrenalin still pumping I packed up and continued hiking.
Dogs off leash on the trails drives me crazy. Everyone that lets their dog off leash thinks their dog is the exception. It’s the second time in two years that I’ve had a dog off leash charge at me while hiking. Both times I didn’t even see the dog until it was already barking and charging at me so I’m not sure what I may have done to provoke it. I love dogs but when I see a dog roaming freely I get a little nervous probably because I’ve been chased by a LOT of dogs. Enough ranting.
The next road crossing was at the Deadhorse trailhead. After checking my map, I realized I was off in calculating my mileage and had about 3 miles left to Musch camp instead of .5 mile. It was still light out but the sun had already dipped below the hills. I guessed I was in for some more night hiking but at least it would only be for about an hour. As I reached the trail junction near Trippet Ranch it was completely dark and I saw two headlamps bobbing towards me so I shouted, “hello.” They responded in kind so I waited as they approached. It turned out to be two boys, Brandon and Dave, who were on Winter Break during their senior year of high school. As we hiked the last mile to Musch Trail camp they told me how they drove across the country from Jacksonville, FL. They had been stopping along the way to visit friends, family and to have some adventures. I was completely impressed with their spirit.
Musch Trail camp had a great view of rolling hills and some amenities like picnic tables, bathrooms and water. After setting up, we all cooked our dinners and talked. These guys pulled out cans of soup, beans, candy bars and bags of chips. Dave didn’t even have a backpack. He hiked with a duffle bag slung over one shoulder and a sleeping bag under the other. That’s what I admired about these kids. They didn’t need all the typical gear, they just did things like drive across the country. I wasn’t surprised when I found out that Brandon was going to West Point the following year and Dave was going to UCF on a football scholarship.
The weather continued to be gorgeous but it had warmed up a little which was a nice change. After breakfast, I said good-bye to the boys and set out with the goal to make it back to my truck by noon. I was definitely in a good mood and it was nice to have the trail to myself. There were views of rolling hills and the occasional oak covered section to stay cool. As I approached Eagle Rock I started to see some day hikers so I knew I was really close to finishing. I was eager to get some real coffee and food so I picked up my pace.
As I rounded a corner, I stopped when I saw an amazing makeshift Buddhist shrine right next to the trail. Someone had definitely taken time to build it with care. I took a few minutes to look at all of the details before it was time to go. Before long, I could see the ocean again and the area below where I thought my truck was parked. The last few miles were a blur as I practically ran past the stables, polo field, maintenance sheds, ranger station of Will Rogers State Park.
- Northern Terminus: Ray Miller Trailhead
- Southern Terminus: Will Rogers State Park
- Approximately 67 miles
- Very limited water sources. Only 1 natural water source I found about ½ mile south of the Encinal trailhead.
- Plan to cache water at certain road crossings. I suggest I Kanan and Yerba Buena.
- Overall, a very easy trail with minimal elevation gain.
- Best seasons: Spring and late Fall. Possibly Winter if it’s a dry year.
- Mountain bikers allowed on some sections.
General info and map
Trip Report (First Thru Hiker?)
General info and resource