Category Archives: backbone trail

A Windy Run, Walk, Ride, for Wildlife Research

Boney Mountain and Serrano Valley from Overlook Fire Road
Boney Mountain and Serrano Valley from Overlook Fire Road.

The Overlook Fire Road in Pt. Mugu State Park was nearly empty. I’d seen only two hikers between the top of the Fireline Trail and the top of the Wood Canyon Vista Trail. Maybe it was the wind. There had been 20-25 mph wind gusts much of the morning. Along the ridgelines, the gusts were even stronger.

Run, Walk, Ride 2020

I’d picked Pt. Mugu State Park to do a run in support of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund’s Run, Walk, Ride, for Wildlife Research. Many mountain lions have included Pt. Mugu State Park in their home range, including P-1, the patriarch of the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains study.

According to the NPS website, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the world’s largest urban national park. Wildlife in the Park is affected by issues resulting from the proximity of urban and wild areas. Among the problems are poisoning from anticoagulant rodenticides, limited genetic diversity, and vehicular deaths. Only by studying Park wildlife can we better understand and manage these and other issues.

Because water is usually available at several spots in Sycamore Canyon, it’s a great place to do a self-supported ultra-length trail run.

A very windy Pacific and the Ray Miller segment of the Backbone Trail
A very windy Pacific

So far, today’s run had taken me from Wendy Drive in Newbury Park to Serrano Valley via the Old Boney Trail. I’d circled past the old ranch in Serrano Valley and then descended the Serrano Canyon Trail to Sycamore Canyon. A short jog south in Sycamore Canyon put me at the bottom of the Fireline Trail, which I’d followed up to the Overlook fire road.

Next up was a scenic loop in La Jolla Valley. After that, I would work my way back to the Upper Sycamore Trail via Sycamore Canyon. From there, it would only be a few miles back to the Wendy Drive Trailhead.

The Santa Mountain Mountains Trails Council has been hard at work. Even though they can’t currently accept volunteer assistance, it looked like the Old Boney, Serrano Canyon, and Upper Sycamore Trails had been recently maintained.

Some related posts: It’s Raining Mountain Lion Tracks!; Mountain Lion Tracks on Rocky Peak Road; Mountain Lion Saga; Reagan Ranch Bobcat; Hawk, Bobcat and Rabbit

Topanga Lookout From Topanga Ridge

Topanga Lookout From Topanga Ridge

This morning, did the Topanga Lookout Ridge loop, plus the twin summits of Saddle Peak.

California buckwheat along the Backbone Trail, east of Saddle Peak
California buckwheat along the Backbone Trail

Here’s what the Topanga Fire Lookout looked like in 1969.

For more info about the loop, see the posts: Topanga Lookout Loop, Plus Saddle Peak and Topanga Lookout Ridge Loop

Note: The short service road at the top of Saddle Peak’s antennae-festooned west peak was closed.

Too Many Flowers on the Chamberlain Trail

Flower stalks of bleeding heart on the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail
Flower stalks of bleeding heart on the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail

After climbing the western ridge route on Boney Mountain and scrambling over Tri Peaks, I was trying to run down the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail. Usually one of my favorite downhills, the trail was so glutted with the flower stalks of bleeding heart, it made running difficult. Here’s a video snapshot of one short section of trail.

During this second Spring following the Woolsey Fire, bleeding heart has become a predominant fire follower in the Boney Mountain Wilderness. Its rampant growth is reminiscent of the explosion of Poodle-dog bush in the San Gabriel Mountains the second Spring following the 2009 Station Fire.

Plummer's mariposa lily along the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail
Plummer’s mariposa lily

Sticky snapdragon is another fire follower that has become especially prevalent this Spring. It is truly sticky, with rose-purple-colored flowers along a long stalk.

Other wildflowers seen along the way included Humboldt lily, yellow mariposa lily, Plummer’s mariposa lily, slender tarweed, and scarlet larkspur.

Some related posts: Fire Followers Along the Backbone Trail (May 2019); Wildflowers, a Waterfall, and Recovering from the Woolsey Fire (March 2019); Boney Mountain and Pt. Mugu State Park (December 2018)

Trees, Bees, and a Washed-Out Footbridge on the Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park

Looking along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.
View east of the Santa Monica Mountains from near the top of the Bulldog fire road.

With the reopening of trails in the Santa Monica Mountains, my list of “must do” trails is impossibly long. Today, I headed over to Malibu Creek State Park to do a variation of the popular Bulldog Loop, and catch-up on what was happening in the Park as it recovers from the Woolsey Fire.

The route I was running starts at the Cistern Trail trailhead on Mulholland and descends to Crags Road using the Lookout and Cage Creek Trails. After a side trip on the Forest Trail to see the coast redwoods, it continues counterclockwise around the regular Bulldog Loop. Here’s an interactive, 3D view of the approximately 17-mile variation of the Bulldog Loop.

Crossing Malibu Creek

As I ran along Crags Road toward the M*A*S*H site, I wondered how much water would be in Malibu Creek, and if the fallen tree used to cross the creek would still be there.

Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek
Washed-out footbridge on Malibu Creek

Since February 2019, hikers, runners, and riders doing the Bulldog Loop or headed to the M*A*S*H site have had to either get their feet wet or use a fallen tree to cross Malibu Creek. The concrete slab bridge is still there, but the stream now flows around the bridge, rendering it useless.

The bridge survived a canyon-wide flood in mid-February 2017. But two years later, and just 11 weeks after the Woolsey Fire, sediment-laden runoff from burned hillsides clogged the drainage pipes embedded in the bridge’s concrete slab. With nowhere to go, the stream simply circumvented the structure.

Nearly to the bridge, I turned right off of Crags Road and followed the well-trodden path along the creek for about 70 yards. The downed tree had not washed away. Not wanting to take an early morning bath, I carefully worked across the logs and limbs and then rejoined the Crags Road Trail, near a coast redwood.

Checking on the Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods

Whenever I do the Bulldog Loop, I usually stop by the Forest Trail and see how the 100+ year-old coast redwoods are doing. Several of the 16 or so redwoods were killed by the 2011-2015 drought, and virtually all the trees were scorched in the Woolsey fire.

New growth on a young redwood in Malibu Creek State Park
New growth on a young redwood burned in the Woolsey Fire

I’d last checked on the redwoods at Christmas and had been encouraged by the condition of the remaining trees. In Los Angeles, three of the past four rain years have recorded average or above-average rainfall. This seems to have really helped the surviving redwoods.

There are five or six trees that are doing well. They’ve added a lot of new foliage and look healthy. I was excited to see that a young, naturally-germinated redwood was thriving. It was burned in the Woolsey Fire and lost most of its foliage.

Leaving the redwoods behind, I continued toward the M*A*S*H site and then up the Bulldog climb.

Coast Live Oak Recovery

Live oaks are amazingly resilient. Oaks, more or less as we know them, have been around for millions of years. According to Cal Poly’s PolyLand web site, 25 myr-old fossils of coast live oak have been found in the Pacific Northwest. This suggests an exceptionally adaptable species.

Epicormic sprouting of a coast live oak burned in the Woolsey Fire
Recovering coast live oak

As I worked up the Bulldog fire road, I marveled at the number of live oaks sprouting new foliage on their burned trunks and limbs. On Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, there is a grove of live oaks that used to provide welcome relief from the blazing-hot summer sun. On the crest of a ridge, the trees must have been fully-engulfed in fire when burned during Woolsey Fire. None the less, the trees are recovering. Compare this December 2018 photo of one of the larger live oaks, to what it looks like today. Incredible!

Digger Bees

Cruising along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road, I took an auditory double-take. What the heck was all the buzzing around me? That’s when I realized the loud, resonate buzz was from thousands and thousands of bees. I’d just run into a huge aggregation of digger bees.

Digger bees in Malibu Creek State Park
Digger bees along Mesa Peak Mtwy fire road

I’ve encountered them before. Even though the males (reportedly) don’t have a stinger and the females (reportedly) aren’t usually aggressive, it was a little unnerving walking through so many active bees. Here’s a video snapshot of the bees.

Digger bees are not social in the same way as honeybees. Female digger bees build their individual brood cells in a communal area to efficiently reproduce. According to behavioral ecologist John Alcock, the males emerge slightly before the females and then fly low over the area, searching for females that are about to emerge. Using their antennae, the males can find the females in a burrow, before they emerge, gaining a competitive edge. For more info, see the article Desert Diggers, in Arizona State University School of Life Sciences’ Ask A Biologist web site.

Splendid Mariposa and Other Wildflowers
Splendid mariposa lily in Malibu Creek State Park
Splendid mariposa lily

At first I ran past it. I was descending the Tapia Spur Trail and nearly to the gravel parking lot in Malibu Creek State Park when a flash of purple caught my eye. My thought was that it was a solitary farewell-to-spring (Clarkia). But something didn’t seem right, and it would be unusual to see just one farewell-to-spring. So I went back to take a look, and it turned out to be a splendid mariposa lily (Calochortus splendens). Although it is common in areas south of Los Angeles, it is the first I have photographed in the Santa Monica Mountains. This one was not quite so splendid as it might have been since a beetle had been feasting on its petals.

Here are a few other flowers seen along the way:

Filaments of spider silk on Indian pink (Silene laciniata)
Indian pink

Indian Pink (Silene laciniata)

Wild morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia)

Canyon Sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides)

Bleeding heart (Ehrendorferia ochroleuca)

Large-flowered phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora)

Some related posts: After the Woolsey Fire: Bulldog Loop, After the Woolsey Fire: Malibu Creek State Park March 2019, Malibu Creek Flooding, Malibu Creek State Park Redwoods: Fighting the Drought

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