A Bit More Backbone on the Trail

If the Backbone Trail were a movie, it would be an epic: decades in the making, dramatic outdoor locations, millions of dollars more to produce than anyone dreamed possible, an armada of government agencies and a cast of thousands.

And the epic is still not completed.

“Sure, we’re a bit frustrated after 20 years of work, but the Backbone Trail has never been closer to completion,” declared Ruth Taylor Kilday, executive director of the nonprofit Mountains Conservancy Foundation.

Kilday, often affectionately nicknamed “the Mother of the Backbone Trail” for her tireless efforts on its behalf, is spearheading the Backbone Trail Campaign, a fund-raising effort that aims to purchase private property along the route of the trail.


Long a dream of Southland hikers, the 65-mile trail that travels the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu State Park is interrupted by two significant missing links totaling 12 miles. Six of these missing miles are on national parkland in Zuma and Trancas canyons. Rugged terrain, along with numerous bureaucratic obstacles, have slowed trail construction in this area.

The other six miles are located between Trancas Canyon and the National Park Service’s Circle X Ranch. Property must be purchased and easements secured before a trail can be built here.

One of my favorite stretches of the Backbone Trail is its beginning segment from Will Rogers State Historic Park to Topanga State Park. The ascent to Topanga offers great views and an excellent introduction to the ridge-top route.

You could, of course, take the easy way out by starting this hike from Topanga and hiking down to Will Rogers. Purists, however, will start the trail at its official beginning at the Will Rogers trail head; hiking uphill is more in keeping with the history of the embattled Backbone.

Directions to trail head: From Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, 4 1/2 miles inland from Pacific Coast Highway, turn north on the access road leading to Will Rogers State Historic Park. Leave your car (state park day-use fee) near the polo field or near Rogers’ house.

To reach Topanga State Park: From Topanga Canyon Boulevard, turn east on Entrada Road (that’s to the right if you’re coming from Pacific Coast Highway). Follow Entrada Road by turning left at every opportunity until you arrive at Topanga State Park.

The hike: Join the path near the tennis courts west of park headquarters and begin ascending into the mountains. Rogers Trail ascends a ridge overlooking nearby Rivas Canyon and leads to a junction. The fire road ascends to a place just below Inspiration Point, where you’ll spot an information kiosk. Here you’ll begin your Backbone Trail adventure.

(But first, take the turnoff for Inspiration Point. Not really a point at all, it’s actually more of a flat-topped knoll; nevertheless, clear-day views are inspiring: the Santa Monica Bay, the metropolis, the San Gabriel Mountains and even Catalina Island.)

Climbing Chicken Ridge, the trail offers great views of downtown, Century City, the sweep of Santa Monica Bay. After a mile’s climb along the ridge, the trail crests, then descends another quarter-mile to a three-way junction. The two leftward trails are high and low continuations of the Backbone; the trail to the right descends into Rustic Canyon.

A two-mile march from Inspiration Point brings you to a solitary oak and a level area that suggest a rest stop. On clear days enjoy the spectacular view from every direction.

Your footpath gives way to Rogers Road, which leads north, then west 3 1/3 miles to a junction with Temescal Fire Road, where you’ll turn right and walk half a mile to the Hub Junction. Here you may choose between either the north or south leg of the Eagle Spring Loop Trail; the paths join again in about 1.3 miles at Eagle Junction. The Backbone Trail then takes you a final 1 1/2 miles to the parking area at Topanga State Park.


Backbone Trail

WHERE: Will Rogers State Historic Park, Topanga State Park, Santa Monica Mountains.

DISTANCE: 10 1/2 miles one way with 1,800-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Brushy spine of the Santa Monica Mountains.

HIGHLIGHTS: Excellent ocean, metro and mountain views from range’s premier trail.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderately strenuous.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area; tel. (818) 597-1036