“Pristine backcountry” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Los Angeles. But the nearby Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area offers a surprisingly easy escape from potholes and population density. Hiding in plain view above (insert your least favorite L.A. freeway), the 153,000 acres of sage-covered slopes and oaky canyons are laced with over 500 miles of hiking trails stretching from central L.A.’s Griffith Park to outer Malibu. Home to more than 1,000 plant and 500 animal species, it’s been called the world’s largest urban national park.
Winding through it all is the Backbone Trail, one of the longest continuous trails in Southern California. At 67 miles, it threads through one of the largest Mediterranean-type ecosystems on Earth. It doesn’t take long to completely forget you’re near a mega-city better known for crushing dreams than recharging souls, yet the route is largely unknown, even to locals.
Thru-hiking urban SoCal’s answer to the Appalachian Trail in one shot isn’t really an option at present given the shortage of campgrounds. The best way to bag the Backbone is by spreading it out over several day hikes. Two favorite legs are found at opposite ends of the trail. For A-list cityscape views with prime Pacific Palisades people-watching, the Backbone’s eastern trailhead at Will Rogers State Historic Park starts 20 miles from downtown. For vertiginous, front-row Pacific Coast hiking you can often have all to yourself (seriously), the place to start is the trail’s western terminus at Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.
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