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.


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!

Ventura and Los Angeles Counties Hiking

I hike. Quite a bit, at least when I think I have the time. My main hiking grounds are the Santa Monica Mountains and a handful of surrounding parks (Wildwood, Point Mugu); a few trails around west Ventura County; and the Los Padres National Forest. Now faced with a decent amount of “free time,” having just finished undergrad and a rather time-demanding job, hiking is once again on my active radar.

If you want to explore the hills and mountains, trails and valleys, walkways and otherwise around these California locations, check out the following resources.


  • Nobody Hikes in L.A.A blog with dozens of hikes, regularly updated, with detailed information such as best time of day/year, elevation gain, fees/permits, and time for hike. The guy who writes this also has a book, linked to below.
  • Modern Hiker: Written by Casey Schreiner, this is another current blog with dozens of Southern California hikes. These are some of his favorites.
  • 1000 Hikes 1000 Days: This is a fun blog written by a guy who, well, plans to hike 1000 trails in 1000 days. He’s having a good go at it so far! There are hikes from the Pacific Northwest, the east coast, Vegas, and even New Zealand. Most are from west Ventura County and the Sespe, Canejo Valley, the Santa Monicas, Santa Barbara, LA, etc.
  • LocalHikes: LocalHikes is a hike database for the United States. People from around the country are invited to be hike reporters who can submit hikes to the site. You can search by city or area code, see listings in general regions (i.e. CA – Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County (241 hikes)), and get reliable hike information. Check out the Sandstone Peak hike, one of my favorites.
  • EveryTrail: Haven’t used this site much, but it is another hike database. They have a mobile app, which may be useful to some.
  • 100 Peaks: Solid southern California hiking and backpacking website by Derek Loranger.

Hiking books:

  • Day Hikes Around Ventura County by Robert Stone: Robert Stone is a prolific hiker and prolific hike book writer. Most of his review books feature California, Hawaii, and Montana. I highly recommend any book by him. This Ventura County hike book is one of my go-tos for hike outings.
  • Day Hikes Around Los Angeles by Robert Stone: Haven’t used this one, but I’m sure it’s a solid buy.
  • Nobody Hikes in LA by David Lockeretz: This is from the guy who writes the blog under the same name.
  • Hiking & Backpaking Santa Barbara and Ventura by Craig R. Carey: The author focuses much more on the Los Padres National Forest and has good, useful information. One of my well-traveled backpacking friends uses it often.

Finally, these are some other LA books that I haven’t used or purchased, but they all look awesome:

Be safe, leave no trace, and have fun out there!

Some of the seven sisters in SLO County