Los Angeles is a special place, geologically speaking: It’s one of a handful of large metropolitan areas that’s bifurcated by mountains. Not just a few big hills — an actual mountain range named the Santa Monica Mountains runs east to west across much of the city — and this week, a 109km trail connecting the peaks of many of those mountains will open to the public in its entirety.
The Backbone Trail just west of Malibu. (Images: National Park Service)
The Backbone Trail, as it’s called, has been over 40 years in the making. It wasn’t as much an infrastructural challenge to sculpt the trail out of oceanfront canyons and chaparral ridges, but rather a political one. About 180 parcels of land — worth more than $US100 million ($139 million) — in several different cities were turned over to the public to complete the route. This includes a hefty 40-acre donation from none other than former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The trail is now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a 150,000 acre unit of the National Park Service which is the largest urban national park in the US.
The 109km trail goes from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood of LA to Pt Mugu in Ventura County
The completed trail is kind of like a miniature version of the Pacific Crest Trail, but set in a much more urbanised corridor. The Backbone Trail is technically travelling through wilderness, but it’s never more than a few kilometres from the 101 Freeway. Thanks to businesses on canyon roads that run north-south, there are restaurants, grocery stores and even wineries very close to the trail to serve hungry and thirsty hikers along the way. Plus, since the trail is largely within the confines of civilisation, there are also plenty of transportation connections. The eastern trailhead is easily accessible by LA’s 2 bus, and it’s easy enough along most of the route to hike down to Ventura Boulevard and catch a bus or train back to where you’re staying.
The towers of LA’s Westside are seen in the distance with the Pacific Ocean to the right
The super-urban setting of the Backbone Trail does create some issues when it comes to overnight stays. Due to the small strips of public land the trail travels along, camping options are limited, and the National Park Service (NPS) recommends completing the trail in sections over time (this is the way that many hikers attempt other long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail). But the plan is to eventually build campsites which could be reserved ahead of time to allow hikers to trek the trail in one trip — called a “thru-hike”. “We want to create a small number of backcountry campsites for use with permits. Right now, we as the National Park Service only operate one camping spot in those mountains,” NPS Communications Fellow Zach Behrens told LAist. “It’s our goal to start making thru-hiking a reality for more people.”
The BBT’s terrain is incredibly varied as it travels through several microclimates
These types of urban greenways are becoming more and more popular as cities realise the importance of carving out space for people to move through them in ways that aren’t in cars. Consider the BeltLine, a 53km loop around urban Atlanta which reclaims right-of-ways from a former railway for walkers and bikers. When LA expanded its newest light-rail line, planners added a 10km trail alongside it. There are also ways to “build” trails using apps and smartphones to direct people to public space assets. LA’s also working on an ambitious interactive urban trail system within the city that uses existing pedestrian infrastructure like the city’s hundreds of public staircases. A 290km trail through LA called the Inman 300 hits 300 of those staircases, and is being billed as the “world’s first urban thru-hike“.
A quiet moment offering view of the Channel Islands in the distance
The next milestone for the Backbone Trail is to connect it to over 800 more kilometres of nearby trails into a large continuous network, which would give millions of Angelenos easy access to hiking and camping options that are already practically in their backyards — but not that easy to get to at the moment. Another vision is to extend the Backbone Trail eastward, into an even more urbanised section of the city. This would require manoeuvring around Bel-Air mansions and over two freeways to connect the trail with Griffith Park, the large urban park that’s also the terminus of the Santa Monica range. At that point, the Backbone Trail would also quite poetically intersect with the Los Angeles River trail that’s aiming for completion of its 82km greenway by 2020. LA will soon have hundreds of kilometres dedicated to what are essentially freeways for feet.