Category Archives: backbone trail

Sean O’Brien 50K Training Run

Rock outcrops of the Sespe Formation along the Mesa Peak Mtwy segment of the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains.

I looked at the mileage on my Garmin watch — 11.93 miles. I was at Kanan Dume Road and debating whether to make Kanan my turnaround point. My run had started at Malibu Canyon Rd. & Piuma Rd., where I’d picked up the Sean O’Brien Trail Runs course at around mile 2. After crossing Malibu Creek, the 100K, 50M, 50K and Marathon courses all follow the Backbone Trail westbound from Malibu Canyon.

The ground had been spotted with raindrops as I started the nearly 3 mile, 1500′ climb out of Malibu canyon. Subtropical moisture was streaming in from the southwest and there was a broad swath of clouds over Southern California. There were scattered showers, but most of the rain was evaporating before it reached the ground. The last time it had rained was more than a month ago, and the smell of rain was intoxicating.

Mesa Peak Mtwy segment of the Backbone Trail.
A short downhill on Mesa Peak Mtwy before the next climb.. Click for larger image.

Two weeks ago I’d done this climb as part of a “reverse” Bulldog loop. It hadn’t become any less steep. Most of the climb is on a fire road and some of it is runnable — just how runnable depends on your VO2max, determination and inclination. It was a relief to reach the top and start running downhill, even if another climb loomed just ahead.

Rock gateway on the Backbone Trail east of Corral Canyon Rd.
Rock gateway on the Backbone Trail. Click for larger image.

Once to the top of this next climb, it is about a mile and a half to Corral Canyon. There are a couple of short ups and downs along the way and the rock formations become increasingly dramatic. Just east of Corral Canyon the Backbone Trail winds through a wonderland of rocks and pinnacles, climbing a steep sandstone ramp and passing through a rock gateway.

A tranquil spot along the Backbone Trail in Upper Solstice Canyon.
A tranquil spot along the Backbone Trail in Upper Solstice Canyon.

From Corral Canyon the Backbone Trail drops into Upper Solstice Canyon. Today, the 16 crossings of the small creek in the canyon were all dry. Someone had provided log seats under a sprawling oak at “heart” meadow. I had to stop for a moment just to enjoy its tranquility. On a run here in January several years ago, the area was covered in ladybugs.

Gate on Newton Mtwy on Castro Peak.
Gate on Newton Mtwy on Castro Peak. (Not on the Backbone Trail.)

The high point of the 50K course follows the climb out of Upper Solstice Canyon and is near the saddle at Newton Mtwy. Back in the day the Bulldog 50K used to climb up and over the shoulder of Castro Peak from the top of Bulldog; then descend to this saddle and continue to Corral Canyon on the Upper Solstice Canyon Trail. This 2004 Los Angeles times article describes why the road is now gated and private.

Hummingbird Sage along the Backbone Trail
Hummingbird Sage along the Backbone Trail

The day was a little warmer than expected and the shaded sections of trail in Newton Canyon were refreshingly cool. The dried out stalks of last year’s hummingbird sage were common along the trail and given the lack of rain, I was very surprised to find a plant that was blooming.

The Sean O’Brien Marathon turns around at Kanan Dume Road, which is what I should have done. That would have resulted in a pleasant 24 mile training run with a bit over 5000′ of gain. Instead I decided to continue west on the Backbone Trail and “just run down to the bridge” to see if there was any water in Zuma Creek. There wasn’t. The bridge also would have been a perfectly good turnaround point that would have netted a 26 mile run.

But it was one of those rare, long run kind of days where the mind and legs are in sync and the miles almost didn’t matter. I reasoned that the Sean O’Brien 50K turnaround was “only” another mile and a half away, so why not continue. That way I’d have an even better idea of what to expect on race day.

Runners descending Mesa Peak Mtwy into Malibu Canyon.
Descending Mesa Peak Mtwy into Malibu Canyon.

I did continue, and with the exception of running low on water, everything went well. At Latigo Canyon several runners had just returned to their cars and I was able to fill up my Camelbak(R). Thanks Lou! And thanks to the other runners at the trailhead for their offers of gels, beer and salt!

I’ve run that section of the Backbone Trail several times, but never as an out and back. I now understand why the times for the Sean O’ Brien 50K are a little longer than the typical 50K. For one thing the course is about 1.5 mile longer than a 50K. For another, it has a TON of elevation gain. Using the elevation profile from my fenix 3 and a 1/3 arc-sec DEM from the USGS, the hand-calculated elevation gain worked out to be around 6000′. Tack on another 500′ of gain to account for the Tapia Spur Trail and the total gain for the Sean O’Brien 50K works out to a stout 6500′, give or take.

An End of Year Boney Mountain Adventure

Runners on Boney Mountain's western ridge

The last day of 2017 had been a near perfect day for a trail run. I’d started my adventure with an ascent of Boney Mountain’s western ridge — joining the Trail Runners Club on their annual scramble — and then continued to Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak, the highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. A circuit of the Mishe Mokwa loop had added a few scenic miles and put me on the Chamberlain segment of the Backbone Trail, headed west.

About a half-mile past the Backbone Trail’s western junction with the Tri Peaks Trail, the Backbone Trail begins a 4.7 mile, 2400′ descent to Sycamore Canyon. I had started this descent and was nearly down to Chamberlain Rock, when I heard voices on the trail ahead. They sounded like they were just around the next switchback. Slowing to a walk, I rounded the sharp corner. Three smiling hikers said hello, and I wished them a Happy New Year.

It’s a little unusual to see a group of hikers on this section and for a moment I wondered if they might be doing the full length of the 68 mile Backbone Trail. I asked how they were doing and one of them casually replied, “Doing great — we’re just headed down to the Sandstone Peak parking lot…”

What?? They were miles from where they thought they were and headed in the opposite direction they should be. Every step down the trail was taking them farther and farther away from their intended destination. They looked fit, experienced and well-prepared, but somewhere along the way, they had taken a very wrong turn.

From what I could determine they had intended to do the Mishe Mokwa – Sandstone Peak loop counterclockwise or a variation that involved Tri Peaks. Apparently, at the top of the Mishe Mokwa Trail instead of continuing toward Sandstone Peak on the Backbone Trail, the hikers decided to take the Tri Peaks Trail. They followed the Tri Peaks Trail until it ended at the Chamberlain/Backbone Trail, about two miles west of Sandstone Peak.

At this junction, to get back to Sandstone Peak (and their car), they needed to turn left (east). Instead, they turned right and headed down the Chamberlain Trail.

The good news is they only had gone about a mile down Chamberlain from the Tri Peaks Trail junction. This put them about 2.5 miles from Sandstone Peak and about 4 miles from their car. It was around noon and the weather was good. If they had no route-finding issues on the way back they would probably still have time to do Sandstone Peak. They just would be doing more of an End of the Year adventure than they planned.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Some related posts: Boney Mountain Western Ridge & Loop, Balance Rock, Misplaced on Mt. Wilson

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Bulldog Loop Near Corral Canyon

Backbone Trail near Corral Canyon.

The high point of the 14+ mile Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park is near the center of the skyline in the photo above. The Bulldog fire road can be seen cutting across the peaks on the right. Bulldog tops out at the Castro Peak fire road, which is the fire road leading up from the Corral Canyon Road parking area. Castro Peak (privately owned) is the peak on the left with the antennae.

Top of the Bulldog climb in Malibu Creek State Park.
Top of the Bulldog climb in Malibu Creek State Park.

From Crags Road to Castro Peak fire road, the Bulldog fire road gains about 1727 feet in 3.4 miles. The steepest mile starts at mile 2.0 of the climb and gains about 732 feet.

Today I was running the loop clockwise, so got to run down Bulldog for a change!

Some related posts: Best Trailhead to Start the Bulldog Loop?, Malibu Creek State Park Scenic Loop, Vertical Relief, M*A*S*H Sunrise

Topanga Lookout Loop, Plus Saddle Peak

Topanga Lookout Ridge

A run doesn’t have to be long or difficult to be interesting. I’d done the Ray Miller 50K the week before, so was looking to do something not too long or strenuous. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be a run with an adventurous edge. After considering several options, I finally settled on the Topanga Lookout Ridge Loop, plus a short side trip to the summit of Saddle Peak.

This 8.5 mile route combines a fun run, hike and scramble up a mile and a half long ridge to the Topanga Lookout with a scenic run on a segment of the Backbone Trail. The return to the Cold Canyon trailhead on Stunt Road is accomplished by descending the Stunt High Trail from its junction with the Backbone Trail.

The Backbone Trail climbs to its second highest point near Saddle Peak and it takes only a few minutes to run over to the summit of the peak. Despite rumors to the contrary the West peak (with all the antennae) is the higher peak. That’s where the benchmark is, and 1/9th arc-sec DEM data puts its elevation about 18′ higher than the East peak.

Here are a few photos taken along the way.

Related post: Topanga Lookout Ridge Loop

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Ray Miller Training Run

Pacific coast and Mugu Peak from the Ray Miller segment of the Backbone Trail.

There’s magic in the morning, when the owls hoot softly and there is a chill in the air.

I’d started my run from the Wendy Dr. trailhead when there was just enough light to see the trail. The moon was poised low in the western sky, full and bright. As I passed the frame of the Chumash ‘Ap at the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center I’d thought about the Chumash, and how well they must have known this land. It is one thing to visit a place, and quite another to live there.

Moon setting over Rancho Sierra Vista/ Satwiwa.
Moon setting over Rancho Sierra Vista/ Satwiwa.

Today the plan had been to run to the Ray Miller Trailhead and do a little of the Ray Miller 50K course along the way. At the start of the run I hadn’t decided which route I was going to take to Ray Miller — Hell Hill or Fireline. I’d finally opted for Fireline, since that route would follow the last 5 miles of the 50M/50K course and is much more runnable.

I hadn’t run Fireline since the 2013 Ray Miller 50K. With only 7 miles on my legs (instead of 26) it didn’t seem nearly as steep. Once at the top of Fireline, and after doing a bit more uphill on Overlook fire road, I eventually got to the best part of today’s run — the 2.5 miles of scenic downhill on the Backbone Trail to the Ray Miller trailhead on PCH.

PCH at the Ray Miller Trailhead.
PCH at the Ray Miller Trailhead.

The Pacific was painted in a palette of wide-gamut blues and although it was hazy offshore, there were excellent views along the coast. To the west Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands could just be seen in the ocean haze and Mugu Peak loomed golden in the morning sun. The Ray Miller Trail is very popular and on the way down I passed several runners in the first miles of their morning run.

At the Ray Miller parking lot my Garmin fenix read 12 miles. Just like climbing a mountain, getting to the turnaround point of a long self-supported run is only part of the adventure. I gulped down some water at the water fountain; checked how much water I had left in my pack; ate a Snickers left over from Halloween; and then started the 1000′ climb back up the Ray Miller Trail to the Overlook fire road.

The Mugu Peak Trail starts in upper La Jolla Canyon and climbs up and around Mugu Peak.
The Mugu Peak Trail starts in upper La Jolla Canyon and climbs up and around Mugu Peak.

The run was going well and at the start of the climb I was thinking about following the 50M/50K course up and around Mugu Peak before starting the trek back to Wendy Drive. By the time I’d reached the top of Ray Miller and had climbed up to the high point of Overlook fire road my mileage appetite wasn’t so big. Following a short side trip into La Jolla Valley, I returned to the Overlook fire road, descended Hell Hill and Wood Canyon, and started working my way back up Sycamore Canyon on the Two Foxes Trail.

At the Danielson Multi-use area there was a large group participating in a guided hike. A familiar runner with a distinctive hat was making his way around the group. It was photographer and ultrarunner Larry Gassan. Larry joined me for the remainder of the run and his stories made the run back up Sycamore Canyon and Upper Sycamore much more interesting.