Distance: 6.0 miles (10 km) One Way
Elevation: 2300-2800 feet
Time of Year: September to May (avoid heat in summer)
The Backbone Trail follows the high ridges and summits of the Santa Monica Mountains from Los Angeles to the end of the range near Point Magu. It is 68 miles in length and is a spectacular area of chaparral covered slopes bursting in amazing wildflowers and offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands, and San Gabriel Mountains.
Late March and April is an excellent time to hike this area because of the amazing wildflowers that are bursting out into this recovering burn zone and the still moderate temperatures. It is also a great escape from the craziness and traffic of Los Angeles and a way to get above the smog line.
While the Backbone Trail runs for 68 miles in length, we decided to do a segment that ran from Casto Crest to Malibu Canyon. This was a truly beautiful stretch and well worth checking out. Since it is a one-way route, you can basically follow the ridgeline as far as you would like to go and then turn around. But, if you do need to turn around, the spot that is best to do so (which will be discussed below) will be about 4 miles out, so plan for a 8 mile roundtrip.
To get to the trailhead, look for Corral Canyon Road just a few miles west of downtown Malibu. Drive up Corral Canyon Road all the way to the trailhead at the top (5 miles up). The road is very narrow and twisting. Along the way, you will pass $1-2 million dollar homes and their associated Ferrari's hanging from the cliffs.
The road is paved all the way up and then will end at dirt parking lot with two fire roads leaving in opposite directions. At the trailhead, you will see some interesting sandstone rock formations to the right (east), just follow the trail up onto those rocks, look around a bit, and then descend down to the fire road below you.
Then, all you do is follow the fire road as far as you want to go. If you do not have a shuttle and need to backtrack to the parking lot, then the best place to turn around is when you reach the intersection of two fire roads (Mesa Peak and Puerco Canyon). Then, just a short ways downslope on the fire road Malibu Canyon becomes visible below, and the route begins a clearly obvious and steep descent down to the canyon bottom (about another 2 miles).
The view into Malibu Canyon from the turnaround spot
If that is your turn it would be about 4 miles back to the trailhead at Casto Crest. Or, you can split up and have one group descend to Malibu Canyon and the other go get the car and pick them up at the bottom.
But, however you wish to do it, the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area is a jewel of the National Park System located just 15 miles away from 15 million people, but which feels like 150 or more!