For more than 50 years, Southern Californians have dreamed of following an uninterrupted trail among the sycamore canyons and sandstone peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Over the decades, the Backbone Trail, stretching 67 miles between Point Mugu State Park and Will Rogers State Historic Park, has slowly taken shape, stitched together by public funding and private donations that have led to acquisitions of land.
Finally, the hard work and altruism will culminate with completion of the trail. The National Park Service recently closed escrow on a 40-acre donation by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and fitness pioneer Betty Weider, and within 10 days the agency expects escrow to close on two remaining parcels along a fire road known as the Etz Meloy Motorway.
“The Backbone Trail offers the primo, sustained outdoor experience in Southern California,” said Joe Edmiston, who has been looking forward to this day since he started hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains in the 1970s.
Edmiston, 67, is the longtime executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. He believes the trail is as iconic as the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada and the Appalachian Trail in the East.
The three new properties are among 180 individual tracts that have been purchased since the 1960s by four agencies: the National Park Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.
Ron Webster, 82, has helped build at least a third of the trail and has watched its popularity grow over the decades. He finds it remarkable that the trail can be pristine with more than a million people living so close.
“You don’t feel totally isolated out there,” Webster said. “Mountain lions and rattlers are watching you, but you’ll meet a lot of people and still have a reasonably wild wilderness experience.”
The National Park Service will commemorate completion of the trail at a ceremony at Will Rogers state park on National Trails Day, June 4.
The Santa Monica Mountains have long been a sequestered paradise. Homesteaders found refuge in its canyons. Movie stars sought privacy on its peaks. Speculators laid claim to its most remote tracts, and what had once been public land disappeared over the decades into the deeds of private parties.
But with the establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s of three state parks -- Point Mugu, Malibu Creek and Topanga -- the equation started to shift, and the beauty of this transverse range, rising between ocean and valley, inspired the dream of a larger, less guarded wilderness, unmarked by no trespassing signs, security gates and walled compounds.
Nothing has represented that dream better than the Backbone Trail. Unlike the unbroken wilderness of Yellowstone or Yosemite, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a patchwork of private and public lands that has made charting this singular path a challenge.
As conceived in the 1960s, the trail would pass through old forests and chaparral highlands, offering views of the Channel Islands to the south and as far north as the Tehachapi range.
“The effort has spanned generations,” Edmiston said. “The Backbone Trail, like all the Santa Monica Mountains, is a Hollywood story, attracting celebrities and luminaries.”
But as much as celebrities have sought a place in these mountains, some have been willing to sell their properties for the benefit of the park lands. In 2014, director James Cameron sold his 703-acre property in Puerco Canyon for $12 million, a purchase that opened up a route from Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu to the Backbone Trail.
“This can be cast as the triumphant story of those who show the commitment to get a trail built across the mountains,” Edmiston said. “But it is also the story of those whose hopes and dreams and investments got dashed.
“It is the intersection of those two forces that have caused the Backbone Trail to take such a long time to complete.”
Edmiston hopes for the development of campsites along the trail and for its extension one day into Griffith Park.
Standing on an overlook off Encinal Canyon Road in Trancas Canyon, the superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, David Szymanski, looks down at a small valley covered in ceanothus. Scrub jays, towhees and mourning doves call from the brush.
Below, from ridgeline to ridgeline, is the 40-acre tract that belonged to Schwarzenegger and Weider. Because the property could be developed, it represented a prime target of acquisition for the park service.
“Development destroys views, and an unobstructed viewshed is important to us,” Szymanski said. “With these acquisitions, we’re holding on to this land forever.”
In the distance, well outside the property, is the bankrupt Malibu Country Club, its golf course turning brown over what once was the original stream bed for Trancas Creek.
The park service had planned to purchase the Schwarzenegger and Weider property for $450,000 with a grant from the county. Acquiring it as a donation leaves the agency with money for acquiring nearby properties to protect views from the trail.
Weider remembers seeing the tract for the first time in 1969.
“The developer took me in on a jeep,” she recalls. “He was going to subdivide it.”
Weider wanted to build a small ranch house there as a get-away outside of the city. Schwarzenegger, she recalls, purchased his share of the property in the late 1970s.
Now in her 80s, Weider is glad they didn’t build.
“It’s going to a better use,” she said. “More people will be able to use it, and it will give more pleasure to more people.”
The last piece of the trail is the Etz Meloy Motorway. Cut in the 1920s and named for early homesteaders, the fire road connects Mulholland Highway and Yerba Buena Road, crossing a number of privately owned tracts.
After the purchase of one 10-acre parcel in 2008 for $275,000, the park service secured partial access to Yerba Buena Road, and even though the motorway remained closed to the public, the park service could not enforce the restriction. Hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers began to trespass with impunity.
That brought them close to a private residence, whose owner came home one night three years ago to find more than 100 hikers outside his driveway. Gates blocking the thoroughfare went up soon afterwards.
At that point, the park service renewed long-tendered offers to purchase the remaining properties. The time was right, but it was also running out, Szymanski said. He wanted to take advantage of the agency’s centennial year, which he believed would add leverage to the negotiations.
“If we couldn’t pull this off this year, we knew we couldn’t have pulled it off later,” he said.
For $17,500, the park service purchased the right for trail users to cross a 500-foot parcel of private land, and for $150,000, it acquired a 10-acre tract that would allow the trail to bypass the private gates.
In addition, the park service is seeking designation of the trail as a National Recreation Trail, one of 1,500 in the country acknowledged for their value in promoting health, conservation and recreation. The title will make the trail more of a national destination and help the park service secure additional funding for maintenance and other acquisitions.
Trail builder Webster believes the trail deserves a wider reputation.
“The Backbone Trail is important because it puts the Santa Monica Mountains on the map,” Webster said. “We may not have the biggest waterfalls or the biggest trees, but we do have the biggest ocean.”
One well-known advocate of the trail, Milt McAuley, vowed not to die before it was completed.
“If you didn’t build a trail and invite people in, someone would come along and subdivide the land,” McAuley told The Times in 2001. “To preserve parklands, you need access to it.”
McAuley died in 2008. His obituary described him as the patriarch of hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, and his words are preserved in trail guides that he self-published for hikers.
“Come along with me,” he wrote. “We'll see spectacular waterfalls, travel challenging trails and savor the beauty of hundreds of acres of California lilacs. We will make our way across ridges, down into canyons and meet head-to-head the still wild land unchanged since the days Indians walked their trails.
"You will discover what it is like to live with the wilderness in our back yard."