Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Backbone Trail Sunset
Sandstone Peak View Jan 2014
View from Sandstone Peak, highest spot in the Santa Monicas and on the Backbone Trail.

I’ve been gathering together info on the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s 67 miles and could be done in four days, with one 16 miler and one 25 miler. Backpacker Magazine has an awesome rundown, but was published some time ago.

Milage & Elevation

This information is based off of Andy M.‘s Backbone Trail Hike data on EveryTrail. I downloaded a .gpx file of it and loaded it in Adze, which is a GPS data editor for Mac. (You can grab the edited Backbone Trail data I used here, from my Dropbox.) If you have suggestions for other Mac GPS or trail programs, please let me know!

  1. Total: 67 miles. 18,497 feet climbed, 18,232 feet descended.
  2. Ray Miller trailhead to Circle X Ranch: 16 miles. 5158 feet climbed, 3089 feet descended.
  3. Circle X Ranch to Malibu Creek: 25 miles. 6541 feet climbed, 8127 feet descended.
  4. Malibu Creek to Musch Campground: 14 miles. 4900 feet climbed, 4013 feet descended.
  5. Musch Campground to Will Rogers State Historic Park: 12 miles. 1899 feet climbed, 3003 feet descended.

The NPS provides a west-to-east GPS guide, which shows different—but roughly the same—data. The distance is the same (67 miles), but cumulative ascent is 13,290 feet—more than 5000 feet lower than the data above.

Camps

The National Park Service has a brief guide to camping on the Backbone Trail; a lack of official sites makes thru-hiking the trail in one sitting a challenge. All of the campgrounds should have water and restrooms. I recommend calling each of the sites to double check on cost, conditions, and reservations.

  1. Night 1: Circle X Ranch ($2, 805-370-2300 x1702, 34.109681 / -118.935712). The NPS has a brochure about the site.
  2. Night 2: Malibu Creek State Park ($45 for 1 to 8 person tent-only site, reservation-only, 818-880-0367, 34.1033 / -118.7331)
  3. Night 3: Musch Trail Camp ($7, 8-sites, first-come, 310-455-2465, 34.10305 / -118.58443). This camp is near/part of Topanga State Park.

Weather and Seasons

Fall and winter are the most reliable seasons for good temperatures. Spring can also work, but sometimes it gets warm. Summer is reliably warmer and 25 miles with significant elevation variance in 80, 90+ F temps is not fun. Keep an eye on forecasts.

The NPS links to seven different forecast areas, so be sure to check the forecast site closest to the sections of trail you will be traveling each day.

  1. Day 1: Western area and inland west.
  2. Day 2: Inland west, inland central south, and inland central north.
  3. Day 3: Inland central north and inland eastern.
  4. Day 4: Inland eastern.

Other People and Resources!

There’s this dude who did it in one go and another dude who ran a lot of it.

The Ventura County Star ran a special on the Backbone Trail sometime in the past few years.

The NPS has a blog on their 2013 trip. Jeff Hester of SoCal Hiker put up a post on his blog planning a trip sometime in late 2013 or 2014. Casey Schreiner of Modern Hiker posted in 2011 about some final land acquisitions that almost complete the trail.

Maps and Map Pictures

The NPS has a Backbone Trail maps page with a brochure overview of the Backbone Trail system. They recommend the purchase of the following more detailed Tom Harrison maps:

  • Pt. Mugu State Park (Amazon)
  • Zuma-Trancas Canyon (Amazon)
  • Malibu Creek State Park (Amazon)
  • Topanga State Park (Amazon)

You can order them at the Tom Harrison Maps order page, which I did and they arrived completely fine. Or on Amazon using the links above; they are cheaper and can be shipped Amazon Prime, but I do not know if they are the most current editions.

The following pictures are from the Adze program mentioned above.

All of the Backbone Trail

Backbone Screenshot - all of it

Backbone Trail Day 1

Backbone Screenshot - Day 1

Backbone Trail Day 2

Backbone Screenshot - Day 2

Backbone Trail Day 3

Backbone Screenshot - Day 3

Backbone Trail Day 4

Backbone Screenshot - Day 4

Section Hiking

Instead of one sitting, it may be easier to do the entire trail in sections. In this case, any of the above resources can help, but Robert Stone’s guide to Day Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains is a great resource. At the end of the book he breaks down the trail into manageable sections.

Future Updates

I hope this is a useful starting resource for you! It is for me, at least. I will post updates on my trek to doing the trail, along with the actual trail trek. Let me know if it helps you, if you are planning to do the trail, or if you indeed do the trail—either in parts or sections.

Let’s run into each other sometime!

Danielson Ranch Multi Use Area Gate
A gate at the Danielson Ranch Multi Use Area. See ya out there!