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URBAN FRONTIER

Pushing 60

The miles add up for the Backbone Trail.

March 23, 2004|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

The Santa Monica Mountains are wallpaper for most Angelenos, a geologic screensaver that tells us we're not in Holland.

They're that big pile of rock and chaparral you see out the car window when you're parked on the 405 in the Sepulveda Pass. Sure, they're bigger than hills -- but mountains? Yes. Proof lies on the Backbone Trail, a nearly 60-mile-long network of fire roads and dirt paths running along the ridges and recesses of the range filled with foraging wildlife, calf-straining switchbacks and dramatic views from on high -- just like real mountains.

Get past the lowland view of these peaks as lifeless set backdrops and you'll find an island of wilds, rugged and definitely vertical.

Granted, you can spot mountaintop mansions decked with satellite dishes from Castro Crest and hit pavement as you cross more than one overloaded roadway at points like Topanga Canyon Boulevard. But this trail is the closest thing there is to a wild retreat from the concrete rivers and canyons of the denatured Southland.

You can camp, crunch dirt and wander for days on the Backbone and be home on the range at the same time, out of town without leaving it. Once you've tranced out to the silver dazzle of the mirrored Pacific from atop Inspiration Point or breathed in wildflowers down to your toes in La Jolla Canyon, these ridges are no longer a background blob in your windshield but central to keeping yourself from becoming urban wallpaper.

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Plenty of help to get on the right path

Sandstone slabs. Canopies of ceanothus. Chaparral slopes fired with pink, red and purple in spring. For those who crave the complete Backbone experience, the Sierra Club is leading a series of hikes this year over every segment of the current 59.5-mile trail. Hike No. 3, scheduled for next Tuesday, will take hikers eight miles from Hondo Canyon to Fossil Ridge, roughly between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Saddle Peak Road. For a complete list of the hikes, go to angeles.sierraclub.org.

The National Park Service, overseers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, also is sponsoring hikes along the trail and is a good source for maps of individual areas and segments. Call (805) 370-2394 or go to www.nps.gov/samo.

The only Backbone-specific book, "Guide to the Backbone Trail," was written by Milt McAuley, 84, an early trail advocate. Other books that detail some of the hikes include "John McKinney's Wild L.A.: A Day Hiker's Guide" and "Afoot and Afield in Los Angeles" by Jerry Schad.

Two recommended overview maps that highlight the Backbone Trail include one by Tom Harrison (in two parts, east and west) and another by National Geographic Trails Illustrated. Both are widely available.

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