Using Vacation Rentals to Backpack on the Backbone Trail - Backpacker

What to Do When a Trail Has No Campsites? Get a Room.

Can hikers leverage vacation rentals to turn Los Angeles's 67-mile Backbone Trail into a legitimate thru-hike? Will Cockrell investigates.
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Many rentals in Topanga Canyon are less than a quarter-mile from the Backbone Trail. This one is part of the new Airbnb Plus program, which sets quality standards.

Despite the Backbone Trail’s proximity to Los Angeles, I hadn’t seen another hiker for hours. So when I encountered a lone backpacker near the end of my first day on the 67-mile route, I stopped to say hello. Like me, he wore a layer of summer dust and had a sweat stain encircling his hat. We both wobbled a little, in that particular way you do when you stop the rhythm of your own footfalls.

I was closing a 12-mile stretch along a rocky ridge that began six hours earlier near the upscale suburbia of Sunset Boulevard. I had climbed above views of the Hollywood sign, where people go to see and be seen, and was suddenly away from it all, immersed in mountain lion country and following a chaparral-lined trail into Topanga Canyon. My new friend and I paused for a moment to look out over golden hills dotted with century-old oak trees, a landscape so quintessentially Californian that it made me wish I’d packed a Steinbeck novel.

“Thru-hiking the Backbone?” I asked.

“Well, part of it,” he replied, as he dropped a pack the size of a 4-year-old to the dirt. “There aren’t enough places to camp.”

He was right. The Backbone Trail, in its infancy, has only two designated backcountry campsites. Located at miles 12 and 65, the sites don’t allow for a proper thru-hike (even creative use of two campgrounds a couple miles off the trail would require a 30-mile day). Though the Backbone’s two dozen trailheads have long been popular launch pads for after-work trail runs, dog walks, and dayhikes, the path is seldom used for overnights. Which is a shame. Why shouldn’t Angelenos be able to go backpacking as easily as Denverites? Fortunately, the vacation rental boom opens a new possibility.

My new friend and I were both targeting Topanga Canyon, a sage- and chaparral-choked chasm that empties into Santa Monica Bay. There, he would set up his tent among eucalyptus trees at Musch Trail Camp, a dusty clearing with room for eight tents. I, on the other hand, would enjoy a soft bed in a mid-century craftsman. He’d top off his water from a creaky pump, and I’d use a filtered refrigerator tap. He’d do everything he could to escape civilization, while I would embrace it. Most importantly, however, he’d awake the next day and have to hike out to the trailhead. I would not: I’d keep heading west, into the 53-mile, campsiteless zone, knowing full well there were legal places to stay the night.

My plan? Link vacation rentals that I’d booked along the route. Call it room-to-room trekking.

Though parts of it have been around for 50 years, the Backbone Trail officially opened ass a 67-mile, end-to-end path in 2016. The challenge was creating a route through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—a 156,000-acre jumble of public land squeezed between enclaves of land privately owned by ranchers, recluses, and wealthy folks. It required decades of wrangling between the National Park Service and land owners, but now it’s not only possible to (legally) hike from Beverly Hills to Oxnard, it’s too nice not to.

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The Backbone Trail rides the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, soaring to Pacific Ocean views and diving in and out of canyon-riddled topography the whole way. It’s even become something of an entry point to hiking for novices, as everyone from nouveau-
outdoorsy hipsters to celebrities feels the pull to post a picture from one of its high sandstone ridges. (Or other area trails: Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel are regulars in Runyon Canyon, while Ashton and Mila prefer Franklin Canyon.)

Hikers, though? Real hikers? Like my friend pointed out while we caught our breath above Topanga Canyon, there’s nowhere to camp. It’s nearly impossible to string more than two days together on the Backbone without stitching together two marathons in a day or stealth camping illegally. And so the trail remains as full of untapped potential as it is with coastal views.

But there’s a workaround: Topanga, Monte Nido, Latigo Canyon, and half a dozen other mountain hamlets pepper the 67-mile route. Five years ago, that simply would have meant that you might see a glass-paned mansion perched on a hillside every so often as you were hiking. Today, it means you can rent a room in one. At press time, more than 100 properties within a mile of the Backbone Trail were available to rent on Airbnb.

The rental options, which are much better than standard condos and in-law studios, elevate the Backbone Trail to an entirely new experience. Take your pick: a night in an Airstream trailer with panoramic Pacific Ocean views; a tiny treehouse tucked into a grove of oaks; or, perhaps, a movie-star palace, complete
with infinity pool.

At first, this strategy might seem kind of out-there. But I like to consider it a uniquely modern version of European-style hut-to-hut trekking. What you’d miss in the lack of traditional tent camping, I believe you’d more than make up for in face-to-face interactions, windows into L.A. subcultures, and manageable mileage (plus a lighter pack). Better yet, with the wide range of available rentals, hikers can curate their trail experience to their liking, as low- or high-end as they’d like. And, frankly, the unconventionality of house-to-house thru-hiking seems to match the trail’s unconventional vibe.

Backbone Trail

The Backbone Trail climbs high near 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak.

The morning of day two was cold and dewy and began with a stiff ladder of switchbacks up and out of Topanga Canyon. It also gave me a condensed preview of what the Backbone Trail is all about. The singletrack led me onto a narrow, sandstone ridgeline before dropping off again into a garden of truck-size boulders. One moment I had a 50-mile view across the ocean to where the Pacific melts into the sky, the next I could see clear north to the snow-capped San Gabriels on the far side of the San Fernando Valley.

Eventually, I began to see the houses of Monte Nido dotting the distant hillsides. A small, rural community in Malibu Canyon, Monte Nido is near mile 22 on the Backbone. The “town” lacks restaurants and hotels but has plenty of rooms for rent. Like the communities before it, Monte Nido’s vacation rentals skew toward the eccentric: Options include a private “yoga retreat” with a swimming pool, a simple cabin in the woods, and a treehouse perched in an oak, among others.

The area offers a tempting array of options, but it’s not the last opportunity to rent a room, so I kept going, roller-coastering into the Backbone’s wilder second half, where the path rarely dips below 2,000 feet. I no longer ran into people on their morning jogs, and the stretches between road crossings grew longer. People still live in these folds of the Santa Monicas, but they’re the kind that tend to embrace a little isolation. There are no towns out here, just a widespread collection of rural properties, many of which boast ocean views.

So at mile 32, I pulled into the luxury barn conversion I’d booked a few weeks prior. It’s down a dirt road, neighbors are nowhere to be seen, and it’s shabby-chic without trying. The owner, Daniela London, is a yoga-loving artist who rents out the guesthouse or the barn
itself (or both for large parties), and she happily opened up her chef-grade kitchen so I could cook up some embarrassingly simple pasta.

I asked her about thru-hikers and whether she’d be willing to cache food or supplies for a guest. Not only that, she said, but she may even start stocking the most requested items if more Backbone hikers pass through. She’s kind and generous—but she also knows that a grungy hiker like me pays the same fee as any other guest.

As the sun set over the Santa Monicas that night, a startlingly dark sky revealed a dense cluster of stars. It was the most un-Los Angeles view on my entire thru-hike—and yet I was still in L.A. County.

The final section of the Backbone is perhaps its most challenging. In the trail’s early guidebook, an out-of-print tome from 1990, the corresponding chapter says, “future use only.” It goes on: “Expect to pick your way around rocks and through buckwheat.”

These days, the trail is well-kept and easy to find, and it leads into a part of the Santa Monica Mountains that’s almost entirely public land. It feels remote, and comparatively, it is: The trailheads are an hour and a half drive from downtown Los Angeles. The few people who do make it out this far are typically on a mission to rock climb at the Echo Cliffs or bag 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the range.

Here, the Backbone twists around sandstone outcroppings and past views of undeveloped coastline—a section that’s crawling with what would be perfect campsites. But, of course, you’re not allowed to pitch a tent here. You must keep going to La Jolla Valley Hike-Ins, a waterless, three-site backcountry campground a half-mile off the trail—and spitting distance from the Backbone’s western terminus near mile 65. At that point, why even stop at all?

But near mile 43, two Airstream trailers are available for rent. The classic campers are situated on a privately owned, grassy knoll right beside the trail, and the owner, Murray Sumner, has even created two spurs from the Backbone to his property for easier access.

At press time, the trailers were the westernmost rentals on the Backbone Trail. Overnighting there still requires a 20-plus-mile day afterward, but I think Sumner’s efforts portend things to come: As more trekkers thru-hike the Backbone, more people who live along the trail will open up their guest cottages. It’s a nice thing to do, sure, but the owners will get money out of it, and that means it’s a surer thing than any long-term deal the Park Service might make in the coming decades. I bet people will put their empty Winnebagos to good use or simply allow hikers to pitch tents on their land.

The NPS says that creating campsites is part of the agency’s long-term vision, but this trend toward using Airbnb along the Backbone shows that people are taking matters into their own hands—and proving that they can expedite the process. Hikers have places to stay; private homeowners have paying guests. Everyone wins.

But until more campsites or—likelier—vacation rentals pop up in the final 24-mile stretch, I found myself enjoying the task of plotting my route. There’s no reliable water in this section, and planning my marathon day around Sandstone Peak echoed “regular” backpacking more than anything that came before. On my way to the trail’s terminus at Thornhill Broome Beach, I negotiated sandstone ridges where pointy spires framed Pacific views, and the only movement I noticed was the tall grass swaying in ocean breezes. This wilder side of the route—where dayhikers rarely venture—felt like every remote backpacking trip I’ve ever done.

But I found myself missing the Angelenos I’d been encountering every day before then. If camping ever becomes viable here, I think I’ll still lay my head down in the nearest treehouse with a flush toilet.

Thru-Hike the Backbone Trail

The 67-mile Backbone Trail runs from Will Rogers State Historic Park west to Thornhill Broome Beach near Point Mugu. Airbnb rentals pepper the first 43 miles (east to west), but are primarily clustered in Topanga (miles 12 to 14), Monte Nido (mile 22), and where the trail intersects with Latigo Canyon (mile 32). Prices start at $50 per night and go way up. Late winter and spring are best for hiking.

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