A 67-Mile Hiking Trail Just Opened Through LA's Urban Mountains

The Backbone Trail just west of Malibu. (Images: National Park Service)
The Backbone Trail just west of Malibu. (Images: National Park Service)

Los Angeles is a special place, geologically speaking: It’s one of a handful of large metropolitan areas that’s bifurcated by mountains. Not just a few big hills—an actual mountain range named the Santa Monica Mountains runs east to west across much of the city—and this week, a 67-mile trail connecting the peaks of many of those mountains will open to the public in its entirety.

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The Backbone Trail, as it’s called, has been over 40 years in the making. It wasn’t as much an infrastructural challenge to sculpt the trail out of oceanfront canyons and chaparral ridges, but rather a political one. About 180 parcels of land—worth more than $100 million—in several different cities were turned over to the public to complete the route. This includes a hefty 40-acre donation from former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Betty Weider, the co-founder of Shape Magazine.

The trail is now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a 150,000 acre unit of the National Park Service which is the largest urban national park in the country.

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The 65-mile trail goes from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of LA to Pt Mugu in Ventura County
The 65-mile trail goes from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of LA to Pt Mugu in Ventura County

The completed trail is kind of like a miniature version of the Pacific Crest Trail, but set in a much more urbanized corridor. The Backbone Trail is technically traveling through wilderness, but it’s never more than a few miles from the 101 Freeway. Thanks to businesses on canyon roads that run north-south, there are restaurants, grocery stores, and even wineries very close to the trail to serve hungry and thirsty hikers along the way. Plus, since the trail is largely within the confines of civilization, there are also plenty of transportation connections. The eastern trailhead is easily accessible by LA’s 2 bus, and it’s easy enough along most of the route to hike down to Ventura Boulevard and catch a bus or train back home.

The towers of LA’s Westside are seen in the distance with the Pacific Ocean to the right
The towers of LA’s Westside are seen in the distance with the Pacific Ocean to the right

The super-urban setting of the Backbone Trail does create some issues when it comes to overnight stays. Due to the small strips of public land the trail travels along, camping options are limited, and the National Park Service (NPS) recommends completing the trail in sections over time. (This is the way that many hikers attempt other long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.) But the plan is to eventually build campsites which could be reserved ahead of time to allow hikers to trek the trail in one trip—called a “thru-hike.” “We want to create a small number of backcountry campsites for use with permits. Right now, we as the National Park Service only operate one camping spot in those mountains,” NPS communications fellow Zach Behrens told LAist. “It’s our goal to start making thru-hiking a reality for more people.”

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The BBT’s terrain is incredibly varied as it travels through several microclimates
The BBT’s terrain is incredibly varied as it travels through several microclimates

These types of urban greenways are becoming more and more popular as cities realize the importance of carving out space for people to move through them in ways that aren’t in cars. Consider the BeltLine, a 33-mile loop around urban Atlanta which reclaims right-of-ways from a former railway for walkers and bikers. When LA expanded its newest light-rail line, planners added a six-mile trail alongside it. There are also ways to “build” trails using apps and smartphones to direct people to public space assets. LA’s working on an ambitious interactive urban trail system within the city that uses existing pedestrian infrastructure like the city’s hundreds of public staircases. A 180-mile trail through LA called the Inman 300 hits 300 of those staircases, and is being billed as the “world’s first urban thru-hike.”

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A quiet moment offering view of the Channel Islands in the distance
A quiet moment offering view of the Channel Islands in the distance

The next milestone for the Backbone Trail is to connect it to over 500 more miles of nearby trails into a large continuous network, which would give millions of Angelenos easy access to hiking and camping options that are already practically in their backyards—but not that easy to get to at the moment. Another vision is to extend the Backbone Trail eastward, into an even more urbanized section of the city. This would require maneuvering around Bel-Air mansions and over two freeways to connect the trail with Griffith Park, the large urban park that’s also the terminus of the Santa Monica range. At that point, the Backbone Trail would also quite poetically intersect with the Los Angeles River trail that’s aiming for completion of its 51-mile greenway by 2020. LA will soon have hundreds of miles dedicated to what are essentially freeways for feet.

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Alissa is the former urbanism editor at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

masserectman
The Book of Mormon Freeman

This trail could definitely connect with the Westrigde Trails and Sullivan Fire Road, which are only a little bit eastward of Will Rogers.

The issue will be the 405, as it essentially cuts through the SM Mountains and acts as a boundary between Brentwood and Bel Air. There are two potential routes I see. Either you follow the mountains north like the Mandeville Canyon Road and then head eastward once you hit Mulholland Drive or you cut through Mandeville Road and N. Kenter Ave and either cut over the 405 through Sunset or cut under the 405 right by Mt. Saint Mary’s through Sepulvada, which would have you near the Getty View Trail.

Either of those are doable, although I’m thinking the planners are going to utilize the first method as it doesn’t rely on cutting through civilization, even if the users miss the Getty View Trail.

The bigger issue is Bel Air and Beverly Hills. There’s no clean way to go through them as Roscomare and N. Beverly Glen connect Mulholland to Sunset and there’s civilization throughout and, given the people who own homes in Bel Air, the last thing they want are some dirty hikers near their property.

So they could essentially follow Mulholland Drive to Wonderview, which takes them right by Lake Hollywood and the Wonderview Trailhead, which connects to the Cahuenga Trail as well as Griffith Park. The biggest disadvantage is that you would essentially be walking in civilization for the most part, there would be no real areas to camp at and they would need to create a pedestrian walkway through Mulholland Drive for the hikers.

Unless some rich people decide to give up their homes or are more than happy having hikers nearby, that’s the path I see going forward if they want this trail to connect to Griffith Park.