This 67-mile Hiking Trail Takes Travelers From L.A. to Malibu — and the Views Are Beautiful
Los Angeles, for all the things it's known for, isn't usually considered a great city for green spaces. The metropolis is well loved for its Mediterranean climate, but nature isn't what most people think of when they picture it — and for good reason. L.A. is a coastal basin that humans turned into a concrete bowl.
And yet, for all the cars and wildfires, L.A. is the only major city in the United States bisected by a massive mountain range. It's also a hot spot of biodiversity. Just a 20-minute drive north of Dodger Stadium is Angeles National Forest, which has 700,000 acres of woodlands and mountains, some of which top 10,000 feet. In winter, you can even go backcountry skiing.
After my wife and I moved to L.A. from the East Coast, I noticed how often the city smells of flowers. Each May, jacaranda trees along the streets bloom like purple fireworks. Expanded urbanization has resulted in Angelenos having coyotes in the street and bears in their swimming pools. According to researchers at UCLA, Los Angeles County is home to more than 4,000 distinct animal and plant species, including dozens of endangered creatures, from condors to desert bighorn sheep.
I also discovered the city has an excellent way to get closer to all this wildlife: the 67-mile Backbone Trail stretches across the Santa Monica Mountain Range, which separates Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. The Backbone Trail is what's known as a through-hike: essentially a multiday backpacking trip. Going west, you start near the Palisades, with views of downtown skyscrapers, and finish a few days later on a beach west of Malibu. In between, you're in nature and away from city life. Hikers carry everything they need to be out for the full route, as they do on paths like the Appalachian Trail and the John Muir in the Sierra Nevada.
Last April, the idea of a days-long hike sounded unbelievably appealing. For the past year, my daily adventures have had a lot more to do with Zooms gone awry, or wrestling matches with email late at night. But this wasn't just about lockdown. Greater Los Angeles provides me with about 19 million neighbors. Doing the Backbone Trail was an easy way to get away from them, if only for a few days.
My westward trek started on Sunset Boulevard, in the parking lot of Will Rogers State Historic Park. I hoisted my backpack and walked up a sandy trail, fighting the odd sense that I was leaving the city altogether. For the first hour the path climbed gradually; any views of the urban landscape were soon replaced by vistas of low-lying mountains, green with spring growth. A rabbit dashed across the trail, and a red-tailed hawk soared above my head. During about five hours of hiking, I saw half a dozen other walkers and a few mountain bikers, but otherwise I had the paths to myself.
The Backbone officially opened in 2016 after 40 years of dedicated trail building by individuals and groups: a long process of acquiring tracts of land for a route through one of southern California's biggest undeveloped areas. One aspect of hiking the route during the pandemic—besides the discarded disposable masks sprouting from the ground like flora—was a lack of campsites, which were still closed due to COVID restrictions. (Most have since reopened.) But any number of Airbnbs were on tap if I was willing to walk a few blocks off the trail. Suddenly, the trip began to feel like a tour in the Alps, where trekkers sleep in guesthouses around Mont Blanc.
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The first night, I stayed at an old ranch in Topanga, the canyon in West L.A. known as a bohemian enclave. These days, the bohemians drive Range Rovers, and I was able to stop at a gourmet food shop near the trailhead — why eat a dehydrated backpacking meal when someone's selling fresh baguettes? From there, I walked up a quiet oak-lined road to a grassy meadow and the Carriage in Topanga (from $113), a covered wagon that has been converted into a tiny hippie hotel suite complete with a cozy bed, rugs, an espresso machine, and velvet accents. It was like a free-spirit fantasy conjured up by a Hollywood studio.
Leaving Topanga's secluded neighborhoods the next morning, I passed a father and young daughter as they hiked to her elementary school. I walked under green and dense canopies of trees and up canyons of chaparral, the thorny scrub bush that coats California's backcountry. I was reminded of advice Casey Schreiner, the author of Day Hiking Los Angeles, had given me. "The two big plant communities are chaparral and sage scrub," he'd said. "The simple way to tell the difference is if you come out of it and you smell nice, it's sage scrub. If you're bleeding, it's chaparral."
The best way to do the Backbone Trail is to break it up into a series of day hikes starting at any of its 12 official access points. To through-hike it in four days meant segments of up to 20 miles. That evening, I reached my campsite just before sunset. The Malibu Creek Campground is lusciously green, ringed by hills. By the time I set up my tent, I was woozy with hunger. I cooked spaghetti on my stove and stared at the peaks, purple and orange in the sunset's afterglow, and my mind went blank. All day, my thoughts had been reduced to walking, navigating, unpacking, cooking. I couldn't recall the last time I'd felt so detached from urban life.
The next morning, which was cool and damp, I gained a rocky ridgeline at about 2,000 feet. Fog rolled across the trail — I felt like I was walking through clouds. The Alpine fantasy faded when I turned a corner and walked into a film set full of pop-up tents, camera equipment, and crates of supplies. A security guard explained they were shooting a new Netflix series. I noticed a catering spread of sodas and asked if I could grab one. "I didn't see anything," he said, smiling, and looked away.
That night, I stayed in another Airbnb, the 1972 Classic Airstream (from $133), a remodeled trailer parked on a hill in remote backcountry. The owner met me in a saloon she keeps for guests—the interior was replete with an old bar and horse tack, straight out of the Wild West. This being Los Angeles, it was only a few decades old, having been installed by a film crew.
I often thought about something else Schreiner had told me: that the outdoors in Los Angeles is for everyone, but not everyone has access to it. Some 40 percent of Angelenos don't live within a 10-minute walk of a city park.
My friend Victor joined me for the final day. In the morning, we climbed Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, then spent the day slowly winding our way down to the beach. We saw several vultures and a rattlesnake. Finally, in late afternoon, my feet aching, we reached the end of the trail. Across the road, waves were crashing on La Jolla Beach. I felt like I was being hurled back into L.A.—how odd to think, despite walking 67 miles, that I'd never left. I just smelled like sage scrub now.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Step By Step.