BACKBONE OF THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS.
Ravens, turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk, aircraft by the dozens.
One deer, a single, tiny snake, zero mountain lions, a speedily descending mountain biker whose sudden appearance on a narrow trail section forced his counterpart on foot to perform a swift, self-preserving hop into some bushes.
``Good morning,'' the cyclist said cordially as he rocketed past, oblivious to the walker's momentary terror. About 900 salamanders, no coyotes but countless small piles of coyote scat.
All are found among the jottings in a trail journal by a Santa Monica Mountains through-hiker (read: me) who traversed every inch of the Backbone Trail in four days this month. They are also observations that anyone can expect to make on any portion of the incomplete 70-mile course.
It's what makes this stretch of chaparral lassoed by metropolis such a hiking gem. Consider:
One can travel the 23-mile section of the route from Topanga Canyon Road to Kanan-Dume Road on a midweek day without meeting a single soul. Or on a Sunday share a view from the trail's zenith, 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, with a half-dozen fellow visitors.
``It's like being in a plane,'' one said, ``only standing still.''
Or foolhardily bushwhack the segment east of Circle X Ranch, where the Backbone Trail is today only a tentative line on a map, resulting in a six-mile gap. Seeking to savor what the future may hold, I lurched into thickets of dense brush where I was told some minimal paths exist.
While making every effort to avoid land posted as private, my presence was still too close for one fellow's tastes. Private property is staunchly defended in these here parts.
Understanding that I was now in the wild west, I took a humble, apologetic approach. The guy's confrontational stance gradually softened. He even directed me to a path on his property that led to a high-elevation, view-filled fire road.
``The park service will never get this land,'' he promised.
``And you'd better be quiet hiking near that house,'' he added, pointing to an extravagant mansion on a distant hill. ``He's got a shotgun.''
I thanked him for the tip.
During a detour to Tapia Park in search of a water spigot, I discovered that a movie-set caterer had transformed the parking lot into a temporary bistro. Noting my hat hair, slack jaw and overall trail-worn appearance, the proprietor kindly offered me a plate of food, which I ravenously accepted.
Memo: Power Bars are terrifically functional, but they can't hold a candle to fresh fruit, exotic stuffed pastas and a Middle Eastern vegetable medley.
On other occasions I stood and pondered several unmarked forks in the trail where guesswork is your only guide. I walked across several fine footbridges, skidded down badly eroded trail gullies, strolled along broad fire roads, barged through overgrown trail gauntlets while maintaining a wary eye for poison oak (managing to pick up only a small rash on one ankle).
I explored a nearly completed but yet-to-be-officially-opened trail section from Kanan-Dume Road west to Trancas Canyon with guidebook author and revered Santa Monica Mountains hiker Milt McAuley of Canoga Park. McAuley choreographed the National Trail Day effort in June with the aid of more than 100 volunteers.
``It's probably going to be one of my favorite sections of the trail,'' said the vigorous, 78-year-old McAuley, who earlier in the day had pointed out fossils embedded in the trail and introduced me to mugwort as nature's remedy for poison oak.
At other times I gazed at six Pacific islands at once, lingered in the shadows of peculiar rock formations, eyed a cluster of three-story-high satellite dishes and spotted enough unusual high-tech gadgetry to make me wonder if some extraterrestrials had already established a few base camps in the Santa Monicas. Even so, one fellow atop Sandstone Peak could not make a connection with his cellular phone.
I saw fire, avoided rain. I enjoyed sunny days that I hoped would come again. I stood motionless on trail portions where not one human intrusion could be seen or heard, and I just listened.
Soon I realized: Despite its imperfections, it's really, really nice to have something like the Backbone Trail located in Southern California's collective backyard. It's a notion apparently shared by many others.
``My connection to spirituality runs through the souls of my boots,'' said Bill Harris, who joins McAuley for a hike each week and has many times pushed a surveyor's mileage wheel along a trail to record data for a McAuley guidebook. ``Hiking, to me, is a moving meditation, and we're all fortunate to have a trail as interesting as the Backbone Trail so close to Los Angeles.''
``I always encourage people to explore any part of the trail,'' McAuley said. ``I tell them they'll go home with with an aching body but a rested soul.''
Other observations the prospective visitor may want to note:
Best spots: 1. 17-mile segment from the Backbone Trailhead on Yerba Buena Road to the Ray Miller Trailhead in Point Mugu State Park (great views of the Channel Islands and entertaining rock formations, including the upper ramparts of Boney Mountain - a wall of wonder that looks like a scattered junkyard of random asteroid debris; 2. the whacky and wondrous outcroppings north of Saddle Peak, near the three-way junction of Stunt, Schueren and Saddle Peak roads in Calabasas; 3. Mesa Peak Motorway, a seven-mile stretch between Malibu Canyon and Corral Canyon roads (terrific vantages and twisted sandstone decorate the crest).
Best solitude: 1. Midway between Saddle Peak and the community of Monte Nido; 2. the area directly below Tri Peaks in Circle X Ranch; 3. the four-mile Castro Crest stretch between Corral Canyon and Latigo Canyon roads. If you ever get a moment when some type of aircraft is not noisily churning overhead, these are spots where you can hear nothing but birds, bugs and your heartbeat.
Most frequently recurring emotion: Real-estate envy. The scenery is splendid, but sometimes you just can't take your eyes off those amazing abodes wedged among the chaparral and rocks. Monte Nido is especially dazzling.
Toughest place to follow the trail: Descending from Trippet Ranch to Entrada Road. Numerous unsigned forks leave hikers guessing as they walk. When west-bound hikers finally reach the lower Trippet Ranch parking lot on Entrada, they are given no indication of where to go next. A jumble of lines on detailed maps doesn't help.
Most essential tool: A good map, and at the moment that means cartographer Tom Harrison's three-part topographic series - east, central and west - of the Santa Monica Mountains. It is no small irritation, though, that these one-sided maps force you to spend nearly $24 to cover the entire range.
Also, the treated paper is waterproof but clearly not tearproof, and the west map inaccurately shows the BBT avoiding Danielson Ranch.
Best guidebook: McAuley's ``Guide to the Backbone Trail'' (Canyon Publishing; $7.95), hands down. Several modifications to the trail have occurred since its last edition in 1990, but it offers a wealth of useful information.
Best reason to go: Because it's there, silly. Who wouldn't mind trading a few body aches for a rested soul? ``You get a taste of real wilderness out here,'' said Don Bowen, a maintenance worker at Circle X Ranch, ``but you don't have to worry about bears stealing your food. Considering how close it is to L.A.; it's a great place to come if you want to feel like you're really not in Los Angeles. That's hard to beat.''
2 Photos, Box, Map
Photo: (1--color) The Backbone Trail below Saddle Peak offers many views of unusual sandstone formations that define the Santa Monica Mountains.
(2--color) One of many strange rock formations stands out along Mesa Peak Motorway between Malibu Canyon and Corral Canyon roads.
Terry Wood / Special to the Daily News
Box: (color) TRAIL FACTS
Map: (color) BACKBONE TRAIL AND THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Oct 30, 1997|
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