Thursday, March 20, 2008

Santa Monica mtns on Spring Break

For several months I had been planning a backpacking trip on the Backbone Trail across the Santa Monica mountains during my Spring Break from school. The route starts at Point Mugu State Park at the western end of the Santa Monica mtns. From that point, the Backbone Trail follows a mixture of trails and fire roads until it ends 65 miles later at Will Rogers State Historic Park in the east. Even though the highpoint is only 3100', the BBT gains over 13,000' along the way. There are more well known places to backpack in the southwest, but I was looking for a place in March that would have no snow, mild temperatures, and good scenery so the BBT seemed to be a good option.

The BBT can be quite a logistical headache. There's no camping along the route except in four designated areas which are disproportionately spaced. There's also not many water sources except at those campgrounds. Sometimes the trails are not clearly marked, but fortunately the NPS provides a list of 42 GPS coordinates for the junctions along the way.

The BBT is a great place to get accustomed to backpacking. There's no high altitude and there's no bears. Being so close to the ocean, the temperatures are very moderate. The main issues to consider are rattlesnakes (which aren't usually out in March) or poison oak… very minor obstacles compared to backpacking elsewhere.

As Tuesday dawned for the start of my big trip, I could tell I was already starting to get sick. I still left for the trip, but I could tell that I was going to have to change my plans. The problem with attempting a backpacking trip along the BBT is that once you start, you're basically committed to finishing it to the end, and I could tell that the logistics of this trip just weren't going to squeeze into my schedule this week and especially since I wasn't feeling well.

So on Tuesday, I opted for a day-hike of a clockwise loop instead of a multi-day, point-to-point backpacking venture. I arrived at the Malibu Creek State Park campground and took the trail south over the ridge and down to Tapia Park. Then I picked up the BBT at the trailhead just south of the bridge on Malibu Canyon Rd. Then I headed up Puerco Motorway (a fire road) towards Mesa Peak. From there I took the Mesa Peak Motorway (a fire road) due west towards Corral Canyon Road. It was disappointing to see that most of the vegetation to the south towards the pacific had burned in the Malibu fires last October. This dirt road had served as the firebreak to keep the fires from advancing further north. Still, the trail at this point offered stunning views to the south towards the Pacific and inland to the north.

At Corral Canyon Road, I left the BBT and continued on further west towards Castro Peak (2,640'). Unfortunately, I was thwarted from going to the actual peak due to privacy restrictions at the gate. So I ate lunch and then backtracked and headed down the steep fire road known as Bulldog Motorway. I was dropping hundreds of feet in elevation very rapidly.

Finally, I reached Crags Road and headed east towards the next highlight of my hike… the old film set for M*A*S*H 4077. Sure enough, just as I had read, I came across the umistakable rusted out skeleton of an old jeep and an old army ambulance. Nothing else remains of the set because evidently it burned in a different brush fire years ago. Still, it was kind of cool to be walking through the site where Hawkeye, B. J., Radar, Klinger, Colonel Potter, and Major Houlihan were filmed. I kept looking up at the bluffs above almost expecting choppers to fly in. A few miles further down the road and I was back at the campground. I'm guessing it was about a 14-mile loop that I had hiked.

The next morning, I awoke to a frost covered tent and car. I was feeling sore and achey, not so much from the hike, but the effects of my cold which was getting worse (clogged up ears, sore throat, and runny nose). I wasn't ready to call the trip completely off yet so I drove up Yerba Buena Rd for a shorter day-hike on the high point of the Backbone Trail.

I started hiking at the Sandstone Peak TH (2,030'). After a mile, the trail comes around the north side of Sandstone Peak (3,111'), also known as Mt. Allen (name after the founder of nearby Circle X Ranch). Sandstone Peak is the highest point in all of the Santa Monica mountains. I scrambled up to the peak and signed the register. The peak offers stunning views of the entire coastal mountains and even snow-capped Mount Baldy 40 or 50 miles in the distance.

I then continued on the trail past Boney Peak (a great place for rock-climbing), Inspiration Point, and on up to Tri Peaks (3,010'). From there I took the Mishe Mokwa Trail around the north side of the mountains and passed Split Rock and Balanced Rock. It made for a nice little 6-mile loop to finish off my trip to the Santa Monica mountains.

Overall, I'm disappointed that my schedule and then sickness only allowed a couple of day-hikes, but I was grateful for the chance to get out, take in some fresh air, and to experience some great scenery.