Category Archives: backbone trail

Looking for Boney Peak

Boney Peak from the Backbone Trail
Boney Peak from the Backbone Trail

Along with Sandstone Peak, Tri Peaks, and Exchange Peak, Boney Peak is an officially named peak that is part of the Boney Mountain massif. The peak is located about 0.5 mile southwest of Sandstone Peak and is easily accessed from the Backbone Trail.

I’d climbed the other peaks in the area, and run past Boney Peak many times, but never scrambled to its summit. Getting to Boney Peak from the Wendy Drive trailhead was pretty much the same as doing Sandstone Peak. I took the “escalator” up the Western Ridge of Boney Mountain to Peak 2935 and then ran over to Tri Peaks. From there, I followed the Tri Peaks Trail to the Backbone Trail, near the Mishe Mokwa Trail junction.

Tri Peaks from the top of Boney Peak
Tri Peaks from the top of Boney Peak

The use trail to the top of Boney Peak leaves the Backbone Trail about a mile from the Tri Peaks/Mishe Mokwa Trail junctions. Other than a little brush, it’s fairly easy to get to the peak’s boulder-strewn summit. There was a red register can stashed in the rocks. (The title photo of Boney Peak was taken where the use trail begins.)

The actual high point of the peak is atop, a large, exposed summit block. Various trip reports describe the easiest route up the summit block as class 3. That seems about right. Although relatively straightforward, the use of handholds is necessary, and a fall would ruin your whole day. Like many such boulders, it is easier to climb up than to climb down, and someone without rock climbing experience could easily find themselves unable or unwilling to climb down.

California poppy blooming along the Chamberlain Trail segment of the Backbone Trail in February
California poppy blooming in February!

From Boney Peak, I returned to the Backbone Trail and headed west, down the Chamberlain Trail and on to the Danielson Multi-Use area. A few brightly-colored, yellow-orange poppies were already blooming along the trail. The rest of the run was the usual jog up Sycamore Canyon to the Upper Sycamore Trail, and then back to Satwiwa and Wendy Drive.

Here’s a 3D Cesium interactive view that shows a GPS track of my route. The view can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. Placemark and track locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Some related posts: Looking for Boney Mountain, After the Woolsey Fire: Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park, Boney Mountain’s Western Ridge

Malibu Canyon to Saddle Peak, Topanga Lookout, Calabasas Peak, and the Secret Trail

Corpse Wall and other rock formations along the Backbone Trail near Saddle Peak.

The range of temperatures had been remarkable. At the Secret Trail trailhead in Calabasas, where I left my car, it had been a balmy 60 degrees. Near the start of my run from the Tapia Trailhead in Malibu Canyon, it had been a very chilly 32 °F. Near the end of the run, the temp topped out at 79 °F. That’s SoCal Winter running!

On the way to Saddle Peak, I was surprised to see how wet it was on some sections of the Backbone Trail. There has been very little rain this January, but marine layer dew, the trail’s north-facing aspect, the low sun angle, the canopy of bays and oaks, and relatively cool temps have kept the trail damp. In places it looked like it had just rained yesterday.

Elevation profile for trail run from Tapia to Secret Trail via Topanga Lookout and Ridge.
Elevation profile for trail run from Tapia to Secret Trail via Topanga Lookout and Ridge.

Because there’s about 1000′ less elevation gain, I usually do this run in the opposite direction, starting on the Secret Trail and ending at Tapia. This is the route described in the venerable guidebook, 50 Trail Runs in Southern California. But I’d run it in that direction a bunch of times — so here I was, chugging up the Backbone Trail, nearing the end of a 2600′, seven-mile climb from Tapia to Saddle Peak.

The area around Saddle Peak is yet another spectacular section of the Backbone Trail. (There are so many!) Just west of the peak, the trail winds through a narrow passage with massive sandstone rocks on either side. As the trail levels out, there is a short spur trail to the peak’s antennae-infested summit.

Even if a little obstructed, views from the top extend to Catalina, Boney Mountain, Mt. Pinos, and Mt. Baldy. Sometimes San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak can be seen beyond Mt. Baldy. The round trip to the summit of Saddle Peak adds about 0.8 mile. The eastern summit is slightly lower, but no antennae obstruct the view.

Getting to Saddle Peak from the Tapia trailhead is relatively straightforward, if a bit strenuous. Getting to Calabasas Peak and the Secret Trail from Saddle Peak is not as simple.

The “normal” way to get from Saddle Peak to Calabasas Peak would be to run back down the Backbone Trail to the Stunt High Trail and then follow that trail to the parking area on Stunt Road. Calabasas Peak Mtwy is across the highway and slightly downhill (west) of the parking area and leads to Calabasas Peak and the Secret Trail.

If doing the regular route, note that the Stunt High Trail crosses Stunt Road twice on the way down. In each case turn right and follow the road east about 100 yards to pick up the trail on the other side of the road. There are also various side trails to avoid.

Calabasas Peak from Topanga Lookout Ridge.
Calabasas Peak from Topanga Lookout Ridge.

I had been planning to do the regular route, but as I was returning to the Backbone Trail from Saddle Peak, it occurred to me there was a way to avoid backtracking. Instead of turning left on the Backbone Trail and descending to the Stunt High Trail, I turned right and continued east, past the water tank, to the Lois Ewen Overlook. From there, I ran over to the Topanga Lookout and then scrambled down Topanga Lookout Ridge to Calabasas Peak Mtwy.

This option is more adventurous, but requires good route-finding skills and being comfortable clambering down a rocky ridge. This 3D Cesium interactive view shows a GPS track of my route. The yellow track is today’s route. The red track is the usual route between the Backbone Trail and Calabasas Peak Mtwy. The view can be zoomed, tilted, rotated and panned. Placemark and track locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Scrambling down the ridge put me at “The Bench,” at the junction of Calabasas Peak Mtwy and Red Rock Road. This is a little more than a mile from Calabasas Peak. Once on Calabasas Peak, it was only about 0.6 mile to the top of the Secret Trail, and from there about 1.3 miles of mostly downhill running to the trailhead.

With about 4000′ of gain over 14 miles, it was a demanding route, with challenging route-finding and a fun scramble down a rocky ridge. Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Topanga Lookout Loop, Plus Saddle Peak; Secret Trail Variations; Secret Trail to Calabasas Peak

Backbone Trail: Encinal Canyon to Mishe Mokwa Out and Back Trail Run

Backbone Trail, Triunfo Lookout, Boney Mountain, and Sandstone Peak from Etz Meloy Mtwy
Backbone Trail, Triunfo Lookout, Boney Mountain, and Sandstone Peak from Etz Meloy Mtwy

Several segments of the Backbone Trail are spectacular and have superb scenery, but one of my favorites is the stretch between the Encinal Canyon and Mishe Mokwa Trailheads. Accentuated by dramatic rock faces and outcrops, expansive mountain views are at every turn.

Done as an out and back run, the 21-mile route has a modest 2500′ of elevation gain. This translates to a relatively moderate and runnable course with more than 18 miles of single-track.

I had not run this stretch since the Woolsey Fire ravaged the Simi Hills and western Santa Monica Mountains, a little more than a year ago. While I was discouraged to see the burned limbs of what had been 8′-12′ tall red shanks, it was heartening to see that the area was recovering, and was no longer a barren and blackened “moonscape.”

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Related post: Kanan to Mishe Mokwa to Wendy Drive

Looking for Boney Mountain

The Backbone Trail west of Exchange Peak, in the Boney Mountain Wilderness

If you look at the traditional USGS 7.5 minute Triunfo Pass and Newbury Park topographic maps, BONEY MOUNTAIN refers to the large, mountainous plateau that extends roughly from Peak 2417 on the west; to Peak 2793 on the north; and to Sandstone Peak on the east. However, when people say they are climbing “Boney Mountain,” they are usually referring to a high point north of Tri Peaks, on the northwest corner of the plateau, above Newbury Park. This illustration shows these features.

This high point has an elevation of about 2935′ and is typically reached by ascending the Upper Cabin Trail or Western Ridge route. When climbing to this point, most start at one of the Satwiwa trailheads, such as at Wendy Drive and Potrero Road. The high point is NOT the same as “Boney Peak,” which on recent maps is ascribed to a peak adjacent to Inspiration Point, and has an elevation of about 2825′.

Today’s running adventure ascended the Western Ridge route to point 2935 and then worked over to the Backbone Trail, by way of Tri Peaks. Part of today’s adventure was to investigate a peak near the top of the Chamberlain Trail that is labeled peak 2880 on traditional topo maps, but is labeled “Boney Mountain” on many online, GIS-based maps.

The traditional, hand-crafted USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps were produced from about 1945 to 1992, with map revisions continuing until 2006. These maps are now part of the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection (HTMC) and still widely used. The intended replacements are the GIS-based “US Topo” maps, first released in 2012.

The USGS “US Topo” maps are digitally produced from GIS data. As a result, some features traditionally included in USGS topographic maps — such as trails, landmarks, buildings and recreational features — may not be included. It also appears there have been some issues with geocoding placenames.

The conditions for today’s run were fantastic. Wind-driven clouds condensed along Boney Mountain’s western escarpment, spilling and tumbling over its edge in dramatic fashion.

Clouds spilling over the lip of Boney Mountain's western escarpment.
Clouds spilling over the lip of Boney Mountain’s western escarpment.

As for the other Boney Mountain — Peak 2880 — it was brushy and the rock wasn’t the best, but climbing it did provide some fresh views of the Boney Mountain area. My guess is that the “BONEY MOUNTAIN” label, which described an area on the traditional maps, was treated like a point feature when geocoded. The nearest point happened to be Peak 2880, which speciously became “Boney Mountain.”

In the 2018 edition of the Triunfo Pass US Topo, the Boney Mountain label was moved to Tri Peaks, and the label for Tri Peaks was moved to another, unnamed, peak. In the current online version of the map, the Boney Mountain label and Tri Peaks label are at Tri Peaks. Over time the maps should improve, but until then, I’ll continue to use the traditional 7.5 minute USGS maps, or commercially produced maps that have been field verified.

And what about point 2935 – the high point on the crest that so many people climb? It really deserves a name. Given it overlooks the Danielson Monument and cabin site, maybe something like “Danielson Peak” would be fitting.

Here are a few photos taken on my hike and run.

Some related posts: After the Woolsey Fire: Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park, An End of Year Boney Mountain Adventure

Fire Followers Along the Backbone Trail

Fire poppy (Papaver californicum), a fire follower, along the Backbone Trail west of Sandstone Peak. May 18, 2019.
Fire poppy along the Backbone Trail.

Fire followers are plants that grow in a recently burned area in much larger numbers than before a fire. In some cases the species may rarely have been observed in the area prior to the fire.

A good example of a fire follower is Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi), which became widespread in the San Gabriel Mountains following the 2009 Station Fire.

A wet rain season also increases the population of many species. Combine a fire and wet rain season and plant distributions and populations can be dramatically altered.

Large-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora), a fire follower, near Tri Peaks. May 18, 2019.
Large-flowered Phacelia near Tri Peaks. Click for larger image.

Yesterday, I did a long run in the Santa Monica Mountains that included several miles of the Backbone Trail between Sandstone Peak and the Danielson Multi-use area in Sycamore Canyon. This area was burned in 2018 Woolsey Fire and there were some stunning displays of fire followers and other wildflowers.

Star lily was one of the earliest fire followers to bloom in the area and remains prevalent, but the champion fire follower at the moment is large-flowered Phacelia. Before the Woolsey Fire it would be unusual to see this plant on this section of the Backbone Trail. Now its purple-blue flowers blanket large areas along the trail.

Although not as numerous as the large-flowered Phacelia, I’ve never seen so many fire poppies along the Backbone Trail. Its orange-red color is striking and stands out sharply against the brown, charcoal-infused soil. Also more abundant this year is the vibrant yellow collarless poppy.

Here is a slideshow of some of the wildflowers seen on the run.

Wildflowers, a Waterfall, and Recovering from the Woolsey Fire

The Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail in Pt. Mugu State Park.

The sun had not yet risen and the poppies along Danielson Road were still tightly furled against the morning’s chill. The purl of Upper Sycamore Creek resonated in the canyon below — a wonderful tone that in recent years has too often been squelched by drought.

I was running to the Old Boney Trail and the start of the ridge that follows along Boney Mountain’s western escarpment to the massif’s huge summit plateau. Several of the Santa Monica Mountains highest peaks are on this plateau, including the range’s highest peak, Sandstone Peak.

In December I’d climbed this route to check the impact of the Woolsey Fire on the area. From the top of the ridge I’d been disheartened by what I saw. Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak and much of the top of the Boney Mountain massif were a blackened, barren mess.

Now, three months later, I was headed back to Boney Mountain and would continue to Sandstone Peak for the first time since the fire.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Related post: After the Woolsey Fire: Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park