Outdoor enthusiasts cheered this weekend when the National Park Service celebrated the completion of a long trail through Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Mountains—a trail 50 years in the making.
The Backbone Trail, which stretches 67 miles, from Point Mugu State Park in Malibu to Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades, has evolved slowly over the years as various sources of public funding and private donations have enabled planners to acquire the requisite land. Sections of the trail have been open for years, but they could not be connected before now.
The final pieces fell into place over the past few weeks when the Park Service closed escrow on a 40-acre donation by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the fitness pioneer Betty Weider, as well as two tiny parcels along a Ventura County fire road known as the Etz Meloy Motorway, allowing the various parts of the trail to be linked.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, these final properties were among 180 individual tracts that have been purchased since the 1960s—land with a total value exceeding $100 million. Joe Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was quoted as saying that the trail is as iconic as the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada and the Appalachian Trail along the East Coast. “The Backbone Trail offers the primo, sustained outdoor experience in Southern California,” he said.
At a ceremony last Saturday—which was, not coincidentally, National Trails Day—park service representatives designated the trail a National Recreation Trail, one of 1,500 in the country. The distinction, which acknowledges the trail’s value in promoting health, conservation, and recreation, will help make it a national destination.
The trail traverses one of Southern California’s largest remaining tracts of undeveloped land, a well-preserved mix of chaparral-covered hillsides, oak woodlands, and rocky outcroppings. On any given day, hikers might spot rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and other critters. From the trail’s highest points, one can see the Channel Islands to the south and the Tehachapi Range to the north.
But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Backbone Trail is its proximity to one of the largest cities in the United States. Even at the trail’s most remote spots, hikers are never more than a few miles from residential areas.
Because water and overnight camping options along the trail are minimal at this point (basically the only resources are at Malibu Creek State Park), the National Park Service recommends hiking the trail in sections. But in the future it does plan to create a small number of backcountry tent sites that would be available by permit only.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.