Why You Should Thru Hike the Backbone Trail Westbound
When I was planning my Backbone Trail thru-hike, I had a lot of trouble finding resources and guides on how to actually complete this trail. There is so little information on it, partially because the trail is still considered incomplete by the National Park Service. The only posts I found mentioned doing the trail from East to West, so I planned my trek to follow the same route, and I’m so glad I did. This is why you should do a Westbound (WeBo) thru-hike of the Backbone Trail.
Elevation Gain and Loss
The Backbone Trail (BBT) spans California’s Santa Monica Mountains between Point Mugu State Park and Will Rogers State Historic Park. While both ends of the trail are located at about sea level, the elevation gain on day one is significantly different starting at Will Rogers at the Eastern Terminus, versus Point Mugu’s Ray Miller Trail at the Western Terminus.
Starting at the Ray Miller Trail at the Western Terminus will force you to start off your thru hike with the largest climb of the entire trail, with your high point for the day being at the end of the day at Sandstone Peak, which stands at 3,111 feet (and is the tallest mountain in the Santa Monicas).
However, if you start at Will Rogers, your ending elevation for the day (camping at Musch Camp) will be around 1,200 feet with your high point for the day being around 2,020 feet.
The BBT is full of canyons to descend and hills and mountains to climb, so there really is no getting out of climbing and descending the collective 12,874 feet that exist along this trail. However, I found throughout my hike, that the sections I was descending would have been extremely difficult to ascend, and vice versa. The sections of trail that were uphill for me would have been steep and sketchy downhills. Going WeBo, in my experience, made these rolling sections slightly more bearable than they would have been going in the opposite direction.
Terrain of the BBT
I found throughout my hike, that the actual terrain I was hiking on got significantly more rugged as the hike progressed. The only exception to this was day two, where the trail had been affected by heavy rains. I think a huge reason for this is that hiking toward the Western Terminus meant that I was hiking away from civilization and toward the BBT’s only designated wilderness.
Early sections of the trail, including the first section immediately after the Eastern Terminus, and the section going past Eagle Rock, are fire roads. While these sections tend to be steep, they are wide and maintained for vehicle traffic, making them easier to hike. Fire roads are a constant on the BBT, but they get to be less common on days four and five, with only one short fire road section on each of the concluding days. Hiking WeBo will also save your longest days for the end, when you’re more conditioned for them.
I suggest starting at the Eastern Terminus, so that you can slowly get familiar with the rough terrain throughout the trail. Starting at Ray Miller will throw you into some of the harder terrain right away, coupled with that tall 3,000 foot climb.
I’m a “save the best for last” type of person, so going Westbound gave me the ideal landscape for a rewarding hike. While there is beauty along the entire BBT, I found that the most beautiful section is the section between Mishe Mokwa and Ray Miller. Within this section, you’ll pass through the Boney Mountain Wilderness and Sycamore Canyon, both of which made for some of the most rewarding views. Starting at the Western Terminus will have you hiking this section first, rather than last.
I have heard the opinion that hiking Eastbound, however, feels better to some hikers because they enjoy the comfort of walking toward civilization rather than away from it. While a WeBo hike definitely can feel like you’re leaving the city with every step you take, rest assured that there are tons of people at Ray Miller, so you won’t be alone at the finish line.
All in all, hike your own hike! The entire trail is gorgeous, and whichever way you decide to travel, know that section 3 is one of the easiest days on trail (right in the middle!). Happy Trails!
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