Thru-Hiking The Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail (BBT)

  • Updated: March 04, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

73 miles, 11,600' gain

The Santa Monica Backbone Trail (aka the BBT) is a long distance trail running the length of the Santa Monica Mountains. It has been around in various forms since the 80s but it first hit my awareness in 2016 when I saw a press release announcing that it was now complete. I promptly got excited, looked into it, and was discouraged by the warning that it was a long trail that wasn't intended to be thru hiked because of the lack of backcountry campsites. The recommendation of doing it as a series of dayhikes just didn't have the same appeal considering the drive to get there but they did mention plans to add campsites in the future. So I filed it away in my list of things to do someday.

Fast forward to spring of 2020. I've been trying to get ready for an attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail and looking for PCT-like hikes where I could get some distance in. That caused me to take a more serious look at the BBT and start asking questions of friends in the area.


The backcountry campsites still don't exist and fire damage over the last few years has made the developed off trail camping options even worse with the closure of Circle X Ranch. However after my experiences on the Desert Trail and Hot Spring Trail sections I was ready to be a bit more flexible.



I ended up doing the trail east to west over 5 days and I had a spectacular time. I've done my best to compile everything I used, saw, or looked at and hopefully this can help spur interest and the further development of the trail so that more people get to experience this remarkable trip.


Planning

I didn't find much online which isn't surprising considering that the trail isn't currently intended to be backpacked in its entity. I leaned heavily on friends who live in the area for information and I've done my best to take notes along the trail. 

Please be aware that this trail is made up of a lot of different segments crossing a lot of different trails and that in many cases there isn't any signage to identify a particular direction as the Backbone Trail. As a result I would I strongly suggest bringing along a GPS or phone with a GPX route like what I have in the Caltopo link at the top of this article. 

Direction

There is an organized supported hike that does the trail west to east over 8 days but for my case east to west made more sense. First off the eastern trailhead at Will Rogers Park was closer to the public transportation options I planned to use to start the hike. Also from there the hike in to the first campsite at Musch Camp would give me a reasonable 10 mile first day which I needed since coming from South OC would cost me a good chunk of the day. After that I could do my usual 15 -ish mile days and have campsite options for the first half at least.

Also note that you can leave a car at the western Ray Miller trailhead for $8 a day and they are fine with it being there overnight. I'm always a big fan of dropping a vehicle waiting at the far end of my hikes.

Campsites


Welcome to the #1 biggest barrier to doing this trail as a thru hike. As you can see above there's a large area west of Malibu Creek where there are no campgrounds and they don't legally let you camp in the backcountry as of 2020.

Here are the options I found. If I missed anything please let me know!

Musch Camp (Mile 10)

A developed paid campground right along the trail with water, trash service, and pit toilets. You can't reserve online so either bring $7 cash to pay at the post or you can hike a mile down to a nearby parking lot where they take credit cards. This campground is reportedly heavily used by boy scouts but I was the only person here other than dayhikers when I went mid week.

Malibu Creek State Park (Mile 26)

Beautiful park but at least when I was there on a Thursday night I was stuck between loud campers and RVs running generators. Also make sure you don't do what I did on the way out and miss the Tapia Trail as hiking down Las Virgenes Rd near dark was rather sketchy.

The reservation cost me $52.99 and they had water, flush toilets, trash service, and power plugs (at the bathroom).

Sycamore Campground (Off Trail Drive Required)

This was my solution to wanting a legal camping solution near Kanan Road around mile 40. I had a generous friend pick me up, drive me to the campground, and back the following morning.

The reservation cost me $52.99 and they had toilets, water, fire pits, and trash service.

Had I not used this I could have found a reasonable campsite in the next trail section it just wouldn't have been legal. I also considered taking an Uber to an AirBNB.

Circle X Ranch [Closed] (Mile 55)

Currently closed due to fire damage.

Backcountry Campsite (Mile 63)


I don't know what the story is with this spot but there's a nice delineated if slightly overgrown rectangle of sand perfect for sleeping right along the trail. It was a far superior to where we bivy'd  around mile 58 though again please keep in mind camping is not technically allowed outside of campgrounds.

Danielson Ranch Group Site (Mile 65)

Reservations required and there's only the group site which goes for $150 a night. Regardless there are water faucets and porta potties available here for hikers and mountain bikers (the flush toilets are locked and signed for paying guests only).

La Jolla Valley Walk In Campground (Off Trail ~Mile 68)

Off the BBT and located so close to the western trailhead you're probably better off just pushing through but may be useful for a west side start. It has a pit toilet (which at one point was apparently full to the top per Trip Advisor) but no water. It's also so close to the western end I'd be inclined to just finish it off / push onward.

Resupply & Water Availability

Starting from the east I carried 3 days of food and 3-4 liters of water a day. The water was so that I could make ramen for lunch and have a buffer since I wasn't 100% sure of how much water I would find along the way. As it turned out there were a lot of faucets along the way particularly on the eastern half and also thanks to the cooler weather I was never really in danger of running out.

I had water at camp for the first three days so I didn't have to carry more. I did try to mark faucets and such along the way that could be used if you divide up the days differently.

Kanan Road around Mile 39 is where that fell apart since from what I could tell there weren't any water sources or legal camping in the area.

My initial thought had been to get resupplied at Kanan Road and carry the water and food for the last two days. Due to the generosity of a friend I ended up being able to change this to just carrying two days of food and caching some water near Triunfo Pass which cut down the weight significantly. (If you do cache make sure you carry out all the empty bottles!)

I had a small water filter with me but the only usable sources were in areas where I had access to faucets so were I to do it again I wouldn't bother.

Cell Coverage & Power

This being the modern day many of us are carrying cell phones as cameras and map devices. I have AT&T and I found that I had reception for a good amount of the trail. It would drop when I went down into a canyon but when I'd check an hour later when I climbed out I'd have it again.

I carry an Anker 20k power battery which is usually plenty to get me through a five day like this. Had I needed it Malibu Creek State Park Campground had plugs available at the bathroom near my campsite. I didn't see any plugs at Sycamore Campground but I didn't venture out of our loop of the park.


Backbone Trail Day 1
A Train, A Bus, And A Friend Followed By Will Rogers TH To Musch Camp


I'm an old hand at packing for trips but this was the first time setting out since moving out of my apartment into a conversion van. Having my drastically pared down belongings split between the back of the van and a storage locker added a bit of extra complication but I managed to assemble almost everything. More on what I forgot later...

I'm located in South Orange County so my first challenge for this trip was getting up to the trailhead. After my pleasant experience taking the train to Santa Barbara for the Hot Spring Trail a few weeks back I'd decided to try that again. Originally I looked at taking the train to Union Station and then getting an Uber over to Will Rogers Park but a generous friend and trail angel extraordinaire Bill Vandenberg offered to pick me up if I could make my way to LAX.

So my first day started off early with my girlfriend dropping me at the Irvine Train Station before work. After a chilly wait in the lobby I caught the 7:48 am train to LA Union Station at which point I caught a $10 Fly Away Bus to LAX.


Aside from a scattering of sick people getting fearful side eyes from other passengers who had been reading about COVID-19 the rides went fairly smooth until I arrived at LAX. There at the first stop a woman approached the bus driver appearing to be quite confused. Apparently they had ridden from LAX to Union Station but hadn't gotten off the bus and were now back where they started. They proceeded to stand at the front of the bus loudly declaring that they were confused and refusing to sit down or get off the bus.

For a minute it appeared things might devolve into a physical altercation as the bus driver became increasingly frustrated and other passengers started yelling that they needed to get to their gates. She finally got off either under her own power or with encouragement and promptly ran out into traffic nearly getting run over before I lost track of her.

With that bit of excitement over Bill picked me up at the last terminal and spent the ride to Will Rogers Park sharing various landmarks and historical tidbits.


The eastern trailhead for the Backbone Trail is at Will Rogers State Park. There is a fee to access the park and it has bathrooms and running water which I took advantage of to top off the 3 liters of water I planning to carry for the day.



Bill accompanied me a short distance up to the official start of the BBT and then I was officially off!


The day was warm and sunny and the initial stretch of the trail was uphill and mostly exposed. I had brought my thru hiker sun umbrella since I didn't know how much coverage I'd get on the trail but I didn't end up using it since there were periodically sections of low hanging vegetation.


There were a few hikers here and there but most of the traffic consisted of mountain bikers.


Descending down the far side traffic tailed off a bit and I  caught sight of a bobcat watching me from the shade of a power pole.


On Bill's advice I made sure to take the portion of the trail that ran by Eagle Rock and took a short side trip to visit the top and take in the view.


I shared the summit with an older woman who was meditating off to the side and I did my best not to disturb her as I grabbed a few quick pictures.


After about 5 hours of leisurely -ish hiking I arrived at Musch Camp and picked a spot in the back corner. The campground itself was empty except for me but there were a fair number of day hikers who were running up and down the trail even right around sunset.

I'd realized at lunch that I'd forgotten my trusty titanium spork leaving me with nothing to eat my raman and pasta with. So for the latter part of the hike I'd been on the lookout for anything I could use as a makeshift spoon.


I ended up with three promising candidates and spent dinner seeing which was the most suitable.


Behold Stick Spoon. In addition to working marginally for scooping up food it had the feature that when you blew on said food to cool it down hot hair went through the hole in the middle burning your palm.

Dinner foibles aside I settled in and decided to not put on my tents rain fly since it was such a pleasant night.


Backbone Trail Day 2
Musch Camp to Malibu Creek State Park


Today I planned to hike from Musch Camp to Malibu Creek State Park and I basically had one big hill to make it over.


Since it had been so pleasant the night before I hadn't bothered to put on the rainfly. I only even set the tent up as I really didn't want to risk popping my air mattress by cowboy camping and having it slide off my groundsheet while I slept. Unfortunately that meant I woke up with everything soaked with dew.


Fortunately I wasn't in too much of a hurry and I spent until about 10 am drinking coffee and drying things out in the sun. And then in my excitement to finally get hiking I ended up forgetting to fill my water and promptly had to backtrack a short distance. (For the record there were multiple spigots along the trail today so I should have just continued)


Leaving camp the trail descended down towards civilization and I soon found myself at a trailhead parking area getting odd looks from people driving by.


This section through Topanga was a bit hard to follow as there were a number of short sections of trail crossing roads and many intersections were unsigned. I was constantly looking at my GPS trying to follow the track I'd found online but considering this was the only time I came across downed trees blocking the trail I suspect I might not have been on the most developed option.


Leaving Topanga there was a steady 4 mile climb. I worked up quite a sweat but the trail was in great shape and I could just put my head down and enjoy grind out the gain while listening to one of my audiobooks on my phone.


Once I reached the top I settled down for another quick lunch of raman and enjoyed the views.


Later on the trail passed through an area with really striking orange rocks which I completely failed to capture since at this point I was trying to move quickly while I still had daylight.


Trying to rush the descent was actually harder on me that the climb had been since I struggle with knee issues off and on. It was a relief when things flattened out as I approached Piuma Road. The trail actually joined the road for a brief section before turning back into a trail (which would have been easy to miss without a GPS) and then dumping me out near the intersection of Piuma Road and Las Virgenes.


Now what I should have done here was cross Las Virgenes into the Malibu Creek Tapia Day Use Area where you can pick up a trail which takes you to the campgrounds of Malibu Creek State Park.


The track I was using didn't include that trail and since I was near dark I set off up the road. Unfortunately this meant I spent a good amount of time with traffic zooming by perilously close despite my best efforts to stick to the far side of the shoulder and make myself visible with my headlamp.


On the plus side I did come across a fork in the road. Literally. I found a plastic fork which I threw into my kit to replace Stick Spoon.

I was also stuck trying to cross the road at the Hindu Temple for a good 10 minutes before I could make it across safely and finally enter into the park proper. And when I did enter it was through the gate on what was marked as Crags Road on Google Maps which technically takes you past the district office and signs saying no entry. Oops!


I was obviously quite happy to arrive at my campsite and looked forward to settling down for a hot meal.

Unfortunately my site was located a bit too close to a trailer running seemingly the worlds loudest generator and another site had a large group that insisted on playing loud thumping music until far too late. Also site 22 barely had a patch of dirt to pitch a tent on.

It wasn't the best night.


Backbone Trail Day 3
Malibu Creek State Park To Kanan Rd


The next morning I woke up to find the dew had once again covered everything but fortunately this time I'd put on the rainfly.

In the daylight and without the generator and thumping music background noise the campground facilities were quite nice. They had showers which I would have jumped at except they appeared to require tokens and I didn't see an exchange machine nearby. The powerplugs outside the bathroom were also a nice touch.


While I was making breakfast waiting for my tent to dry out I was approached by a park employee wearing gloves. He seemed surprised to see me and asked if that was my tent drying in the sun. Apparently another park employee had called in that there was an abandoned tent in my site and he had come to throw it in the dumpster. Keep in mind my camp layers are neon green and orange so I'm not quite sure how they missed me.

On the plus side I had a nice chat with the guy and in addition to learning some tidbits about the local wildlife I was able to confirm that there was a trail spur I could have taken instead of the road.


I set out around 9 am and went through a closed group site inside the campground to reach the start of the spur.


I highly recommend this over the road. The pleasant single track trail brought me over a small hill and back to day use area at road intersection I'd passed last night.


Inside the day use area I had my pick of multiple trails heading generally in the correct direction. I didn't see anything mentioning the Backbone Trail so I just followed whatever appeared to be heading the same direction as my track.


I ended up underneath a bridge unable to continue without getting my feet wet. I'd also come across a slightly odd gentlemen who had approached me asking if I knew anything about a waterfall and then proceeded to trail along behind me offering commentary as I tried to find a way across the stream. After a few false starts I found a spot where I could hop across on rocks and managed to leave my new friend behind. On the far side I found the main trail again and was happy to get on my way.


The trail joined a fire road and climbed steeply which had the advantage of showing off some spectacular views of the surrounding area.


I couldn't really see the ocean thanks to the cloud cover but the effect of the clouds spilling over the hills to the south looked rather neat.


With the main climb behind me the trail stuck to the ridge with some minor ups and downs. Along the way it passed through the area above with some rather neat looking rocks which I would have loved to explore if I'd had more time.


The trail crossed several roads and most of my company along the way was mountain bikers with the occasional hiker here and there.


Today was the point where legal camping options petered out. Since it was also a Friday my girlfriend Jen was now available to hike with me for the remaining two days


Fellow WTC volunteer and trail worker extraordinaire Rachel Glegg was nice enough to drive out and help us out a bit.

The initial plan had been for Jen and Rachel to meet at the Ray Miller Trailhead to the west where they'd leave Jen's car and then drive back to pick me up at Kanan Dume stopping along the way to drop a water cache. Since I had made better time than anticipated Rachel was able to grab me first.


We grabbed Jen without incident and paid for two nights of parking at the Ray Miller Trailhead so she could leave her car. Driving over to Trinfo Pass we found a thick group of bushes a short distance off the trail where we could safely hide a few water jugs and then set off for Sycamore Campground.


Again the campground wasn't quite the ideal situation with a lot of people up late and not staying particularly quiet. But after a few days on the trail I was just happy to have a solid meal and a bottle of wine before sacking out for the night.


Backbone Trail Day 4
Kanan to Sandstone With 8% Chance of Rain


Our campsite at Sycamore might have been a bit on the loud side but it did have some perks. Like the active beehive in the tree behind our tent.


Rachel had trailwork scheduled for that morning so she picked us up at 6:30 and deposited us back at Kanan Dunes Road so we could continue where I'd left off.



Jen was quite happy to be back on the trail since she hadn't been able to join me on the last few big adventures due to her whole gainful employment situation. She also had looked at the forecast, seen that the chance of rain was almost insignificant, and decided not to bring a rain jacket. So I guess you know where this is going...

The day did start out partly cloudy and cold enough that we really appreciated it everytime the sun hit us.


While taking a break at a trailhead along the way we saw a group of prisoners trail running with two guards. I commented that the orange jumpsuits matched my hiking attire and told the story of when I'd been down in Arizona doing Baboquivari and my neon orange camp clothing scared a few of the locals who assumed I was an escaped prisoner.



This also turned out to be a really nice time to do this trail with all the flowers blooming and fresh greenery.


We stopped for lunch a little after 12:30 pm and climbed a small hill off to the side of the trail where we found a cement bunker with a nice view. It was a still a bit cold but the views were just downright spectacular.


I did climb down into the bunker but there wasn't much to see except some crude graffiti and the remains of some fires.


Once again I seemed to have a knack for attracting rain clouds and despite the low chance of precipitation it started raining on us right after lunch. And then it really started coming down. This was when Jen revealed she hadn't packed a rain jacket and so I lent her my thru hiker sun umbrella which she spent most of the day hiddled under while I grumbled about the situation from inside my nice dry Black Diamond rain jacket.


This area of the trail was spectacularly green with small flowers blooming all over. The biggest challenge we hit was trying to find a place to go to the bathroom since we were in close proximity to Yerba Buena Road for a good while.

The rain kept us from taking any long breaks and so we reached our water cache around 3 pm.



We found our jugs where we'd left them the night before and were busily refilling our bottles when I noticed a woman standing in front of a car in the parking lot gyrating oddly while looking our direction. She was wearing white clothing and a white mask and while we watched she would crouch down and then pop back up, gyrate for a bit, and then crouch down again.

It had the appearance of being directed towards us since we couldn't see anyone else around her and she was facing right towards us. Jen said it must be a music video or something while I was figuring it was either drug related or maybe just an odd person dancing at random people and making the word a more interesting place.

Eventually a guy got out of the car and after about five false starts they made their way over to us and asked about the next section of trail up to Sandstone Peak. When Jen asked they said they were making a music video.

We'd originally planned on cooking dinner in the general vicinity and finding a place to stealth camp for the night but since it was still early we decided to push on. We also hadn't gone through near as much water as we'd anticipated thanks to the cold rainy weather so we each had an extra gallon sloshing around on our backs as we set off for Sandstone Peak.

And of course the next section was all up hill!


The rain had let up by now though the clouds kept blocking the sun off and on. As we climbed I could see down to Echo Cliffs and just make out a few climbers doing their thing on the wall.


The trail passes a short distance under Sandstone Peak and since we were right there we figured we might as well drop packs and tag it.


There was quite the crowd up top and with the views obscured by clouds we only stayed for a minute.


After returning to the trail we started looking in earnest for a campsite. I had a few flatter locations I'd been eyeing on the map but the extensive burn terrain meant we couldn't find ground suitable to sleep on even ignoring the fact we ideally wanted to be out of sight of the trail.

We eventually found a patch of dirt a short distance of the trail and declared it was good enough. No sooner had we dove inside the tent but the rain started again in earnest 8% indeed...


Backbone Trail Day 5
Sandstone Peak to Ray Miller Trailhead



So here is an important tip when preparing your trip using someone else's GPX: make sure all your tracks are going in the right direction. We started out the day thinking we had 2 big hills and 4k of gain to get through because the original track had been made west to east and I'd apparently managed to reverse all the days except for this one. I figured out the issue when we reached Davidson and told Jen the good news that we were "basically" done.

When we found our site the night before we'd been inside of a cloud bank and it had continued raining on us throughout the night. As a result we didn't get a proper look at where we were until the sun came up in the next morning.


Thanks to the rain everything was spectacularly clear and we had great views off to the south as we packed up and started on down the trail.


I particularly loved the section around mile 59. It was right before we dropped two thousand feet in a few miles and for a brief section it felt like we were walking along the top of the world!


We took a nice long break on the warm sand of that apparent tent sight I mentioned at Mile 63 lamenting how much nicer it would have been vs where we'd stayed. Ah well!


We reached Danielson Ranch at the bottom of the big descent around mile 65. They had water and porta potties available thought we still had plenty of water left over from the previous night.

This area was filled with mountain bikers and we had to take care on the blind corners as we did the last 900' or so of gain to get over our last hill.


After that it was just a few miles of very gradual switchbacks. So gradual it was annoying and I commented it felt like it must have been designed for mountain bikers. Which was odd because it appeared like they weren't allowed on this section.

We did pass several large groups of boy scouts trudging up the hill looking like they weren't having the best time along with an assortment of dayhikers out of Ray Miller.


Despite our late start and relaxed break schedule we still finished easily a little after 5 pm. According to my GPS I had done 73 miles and 11,600' of gain stretched over the 5 days.

We jumped in the car and started driving south finding traffic to be surprisingly light. Apparently there are some positives to a growing public concern about the new virus going around.


We even managed to make it back to OC early enough to hit our favorite local mexican joint Avila's. We'd missed out on our birthday tradition since I'd been on the road ferrying my Jeep out to Colorado last month over my birthday so we took this opportunity to treat ourselves to nachos, a massive post hike margarita, and makeup birthday celebration before heading back to the campground where we kept our conversion van.

And Finally...


So what did I think of the Backbone Trail?

It far exceeded my expectations and I really enjoyed the entire experience. The fire damage is unfortunate but the vegetation has been growing back rapidly and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this as a stellar local backpack.

I just wish they had a few more campsites and water sources along the western part of the trail so more people could have the same experience.

Even with the current situation it is quite doable as long as you don't mind a night or two of stealth camping or you have local friends who can ferry you out to legal campgrounds / an AirBNB for the night. Before Rachel had offered her services I'd looked into getting an Uber to / from the trailhead to a campground and that probably would have worked though the lack of cell service at some spots might have required a bit of extra hiking.

With the rise in popularity of things like the 6 Pack of Peaks it occurs to me that this trail would be perfect as a part of some sort of Southern California backpacking training progression. Start with something that's an easy one or two night trip, then do the Trans-Catalina Trail as a 30-ish moderate trip, followed by this. It would be a great way to take in some unique LA area terrain while building up your endurance ahead of the summer Sierra backpacking season.

Maybe someday!

Next up: all hell breaks loose thanks to COVID-19.

You Might Also Like

0 comments