Bordered by two of the busiest freeways in the world--the Ventura and the San Diego--they remain a near-wilderness. Within easy reach of 16 million people, they nevertheless offer solitude and plenty of silent places.
Cooled by the nearby Pacific Ocean, they are the Santa Monica Mountains, a range like no other in America.
For many years, hikers have promoted the idea of a 65-mile Backbone Trail following the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains from Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu. When completed, the trail will enable Southland residents to spend days and weekends hiking, backpacking and horseback riding along the crest of the range.
"The Backbone Trail gives access to many of the natural wonders and historic sites in the mountains," said Milt McAuley, author of a newly published guidebook, "Guide to the Backbone Trail" (Canyon Publishing, $7.95).
"When you're hiking some of the wilder parts of the trail, it's sometimes hard to believe that you're so close to civilization," McAuley added.
November is Backbone Trail Month, a time for celebration . . . and concern. About two-thirds of the trail (44 of 65 miles) is completed, and that's cause enough to celebrate. The concern comes from wondering when--or if--monies to purchase land and right-of-way for the rest of the trail will be allocated.
"Los Angeles is one of the few cities in the world to have a mountain range cross it, and the only one with a national park (the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area) in its back yard," adds Ruth Kilday, chair of the Santa Monica Parklands Assn. and the organizer of Backbone Trail Month.
"But few people seem to know about the existence of the park and even fewer know there's a wonderful trail that leads across it."
One reason why few people know about the trail is that the Backbone Trail is so poorly signed. The trail is not a single trail, but a collection of nature paths, horse trails and fire roads that lead through a multitude of parks administered by federal, state and county park systems.
Backbone boosters hope that the monthlong celebration, with its interpretive programs, McAuley's new guidebook and the release of a new map, "Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains," will familiarize the public with the long-distance trail.
The map, produced by the nonprofit California Coastal Trails Foundation with help from private publishers and public agencies, is the first map to detail all of the mountains' many miles of trail.
Maps and guidebooks can be a big help out there. One of the few east-west ranges in the country, the Santa Monica Mountains can cause some geographic confusion for the first-time visitor. Since the Santa Monica Bay and Malibu coastline also run east-west, the mountain explorer actually looks south to view the ocean and goes west when heading "up the coast."
The Backbone Trail in the three large state parks--Topanga, Malibu and Point Mugu--has been a popular hiking route for almost 20 years. But between the state parks, the trail is a different story.
While the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, the Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council and other volunteer groups have labored more than 50,000 hours constructing the Backbone, two major gaps in the trail remain.
One gap is the stretch from Topanga State Park to Malibu Creek State Park. While the state parks system has owned the land for several years, it has not yet built the trail. Another gap is westward from Kanan Dume Road to the Circle X Ranch near Pt. Mugu State Park. The Backbone Trail will cross Zuma and Trancas canyons, which the National Park Service owns. However, the agency has not yet built the trail.
Conservationists claim that the Backbone is more than just a nice long-distance urban recreation trail. "The Backbone will link the scattered beauties of the Santa Monicas and really make the mountains seem like a complete national park," Kilday says. "The trail is a legal--even a spiritual--connection."
Throughout November, many guided hikes will take place along the Backbone Trail. There will also be conservation activities and an art show. For a complete schedule of hikes and other events, call the Mountain Conservancy Foundation at (800) 533-PARK. The National Park Service also has Backbone Trail information: (818) 597-9192.
Note: For a copy of "Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains," send $4.95 to Olympus Press, Attn.: S.M. Map, Box 2397, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93120. Nature and history notes plus camping and recreation information are included with the map.
Hiking / Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail Where: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, back side of Malibu Creek State Park. Length: 65 miles one way when completed (44 miles can be hiked now). Terrain: Canyons and ridgetops. Highlights: Near-wilderness close to the city. Degree of Diffculty: Easy to strenuous. For more information: Call the Mountains Conservancy Foundation at (800) 533-PARK or (818) 597-9192