Milt McAuley, Santa Monica Mountains hiking guru, dies at 89
Milt McAuley, the patriarch of hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains whose guidebooks and guided hikes greatly popularized the trails that cut through Los Angeles backcountry, has died. He was 89.
McAuley, who continued hiking until three years ago, died Wednesday of natural causes at his longtime home in Canoga Park, said his daughter Pat Romolo.
“Milt introduced a whole generation of people to the Santa Monica Mountains,” Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, told The Times on Thursday.
“He was a real pioneer. There was a time when his books were the only thing you could get that let you know how to enjoy the mountains. His books are the most thoroughly researched. He hiked those trails every week,” Edmiston said.
McAuley’s first book -- “Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains” -- came to be considered a local hikers’ bible after it debuted in 1980. He wrote it on a dare.
“There was no adequate hiking guide at the time,” McAuley said in 1986 in The Times. “I made the statement that you would think an average person could do a better job than this. Someone said, ‘Prove it.’ So I did.”
Borrowing against a life insurance policy, McAuley formed Canyon Publishing Co. with his wife, Maxine, and printed the book himself after a publisher rejected it. He initially distributed the guides by stopping at every bookstore and backpacking store he could find on Ventura Boulevard.
The guide, which maps out dozens of mountain hikes, has sold more than 100,000 copies, his daughter said.
Six more guidebooks on the Santa Monica Mountains followed, including one on wildflowers that is considered the definitive resource to the region’s plant life. Its 500 photographs of wildflowers are grouped by color to make it easy for an amateur to identify a find; McAuley drew most of the line drawings of flowers.
Woody Smeck, superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, said the guidebooks succeeded because McAuley “communicated in a common language.”
“I always think of him as the Carl Sagan of the outdoors. He was able to put the difficult science in plain English that everyone could respond to. He had a way of making the outdoors accessible, enjoyable and provocative,” Smeck said.
Milton Kenneth McAuley was born April 23, 1919, in the rural Northern California town of Dunsmuir and grew up in Klamath Falls, Ore.
His father was an engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and one year the family lived in a tent as they followed a work train through the rugged Oregon wilderness.
“If you’re introduced to the mountains early, they’re hard to get out of your system,” he told The Times in 1991.
As a Boy Scout, he started leading backpacking and hiking trips at 16. He studied forestry at what is now Oregon State University and planned to become a ranger until World War II intervened.
He joined what was then the Army Air Forces and spent 20 years as a pilot stationed mainly in Japan and Labrador on Canada’s Atlantic coast. While in the Air Force, he eventually completed his bachelor’s degree in 1956 at the University of Illinois.
After retiring from the military, he moved to Canoga Park with his family in 1962 and became an aerospace engineer. He later made and sold turquoise jewelry.
As a hiker, McAuley gravitated toward the San Gabriel Mountains until the gasoline crisis in the 1970s caused him to look for trails closer to home.
“I quickly discovered that the Santa Monica Mountains were little used, and I felt they deserved more attention,” he told The Times in 1986.
Some hikers criticized him for spotlighting an area they felt should be protected, but McAuley always insisted the larger world needed to know.
“If you didn’t build a trail and invite people in, someone would come along and subdivide the land,” he said in 2001 in The Times. “To preserve parkland, you need access to it. Otherwise, nobody will vote the funds to acquire it.”
He was one of 10 hikers who plotted the Backbone Trail,, a more than 60-mile stretch that winds along the spine of the range between Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades and Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.
Through a hiking class he taught for 20 years for Learning Tree University and hikes he led for the Sierra Club, McAuley introduced thousands of people to the mountains, said Linda Palmer, vice president of the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council.
“Before any Backbone Trail was built, he led hikes along where it should go and took people . . . crawling on their hands and knees,” Palmer said. “His bushwhacking hikes were famous and his enthusiasm for the outdoors was infectious.”
He also looked the part of mountain man, with his sturdy build, ambling gait and bushy eyebrows that invited comparisons to Walter Cronkite.
From 1989 to 2004, McAuley served on the board of the trails council. He started the group’s trail maintenance program and led the Backbone Trek, a seven-day hike along the trail, as recently as 2002, when he was 83.
For the upbeat McAuley, “every day was a good day for hiking, no matter what kind of weather,” his daughter said. “He always said that ‘hardships build character’ and every step hiked took your troubles further away.”
In addition to his daughter Pat, McAuley is survived by his wife of 66 years, Maxine; another daughter, Barbara Frisk; a son, William McAuley; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, Box 345, Agoura Hills, 91376.
Services are being planned.
Nelson is a Times staff writer.
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