Segment #4 drops into several shady canyons. The climbs back to the ridges are pretty exposed. All 7 miles are single track with a little over 2,800 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss.
Remember to have a good breakfast and start hydrating well before you start hiking. Triple check the weather and your pack essentials. Never leave valuables visible in your car, nor the keys in the wheel well. And always be trail aware, one eye out for rattlesnakes ticks and poison oak.
Leave your cars here at the Latigo Canyon trailhead. Be aware that this trailhead is very easy to drive by. You'll carpool back to Encinal to start your hike. On this segment leave the trailhead hiking to the east. Ready to go forth into Trancas Canyon?
Trancas means bars, and the National Park Service elected to bar anything except for this trail in Trancas. The flora and the fauna have it to themselves all the way to Zuma Beach. In a quick 0.5 mile you'll reach Trancas Creek. How do you describe the sound of water? How much water have you crossed on the backbone so far? Water is a rare, fragile habitat; and life source in these mountains. Three bridges on this segment all burned in the Woolsey Fire. They helped us enjoy the damp sounds, smells and visuals of these fragile habitats from a distance. As rare as water is should all these trees be here?
These trees, the coast live oaks, are the keystone tree of the Santa Monica Mountains. They support thousands of species of mammals, reptiles, insects and other plant life. Clearly these trees aren't just part of the community, they are a community. And those are just some of the benefits above the soil line. Unfortunately, this critical species is vulnerable in several ways. They are slow growing and long-lived, and so they're slow to adapt to environmental changes. The tree’s seed, the acorn, disperses just a short distance from the mother tree restricting the oak's spread. Frequent wildfires and human development constantly threaten its existence. In addition to being a food source for insects and animals, the acorn was an essential part of the Chumash diet. Oak groves were so important to Chumash families that they were often made part of bridal dowries.
Climbing out of Trancas Canyon you'll meet a couple of roads. At each one continue east. You'll reach the ridge and Zuma Motorway at 2.25 miles. Walk north or downhill on the motorway for about 0.1 mile and the single track Backbone continues on the right. You've left Trancas Canyon and are now in the headwaters of Zuma Canyon. The stream fording at 4.0 miles used to be bridged. This is a special place. Try being silent for a few minutes and just enjoy the lovely music of nature. Continue and you'll see the ocean framed by Zuma Canyon. Zuma in Chumash means abundance. Ironically, nature may be at its most abundant after a wildfire.
Whether it's smoke in the air or headlines on our local news, we Californians are all too familiar with wildfire. In truth, wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains have shaped and changed the way we interact with the park. In 2018 the Woolsey Fire went on to burn nearly 100,000 acres. There has been at least one major fire every decade in these mountains. That means every slope, canyon and valley that you walk through while on the Backbone Trail has been impacted by wildfire. If an area is hit with too many fires in a short amount of time, it can drastically change the plant community that's there. It will be more susceptible to losing natives and being overrun by invasive grasses. This creates a repetitive nightmare since those new grasses can quickly ignite and possibly start the next big fire. We know Woolsey isn't going to be the last fire, but it's up to us to protect these mountains
The Kanan tunnel and restrooms greet you at mile 5. Continue over the tunnel and soon you'll cross a paved driveway as you enter Newton Canyon, a tributary of Zuma. You'll now be in the other main habitat for the sculptural coast live oaks, the shadowy, north facing slopes; with less evaporation and richer soils. Before you climb up to Latigo Canyon Road you might think you're in the Pacific Northwest. This north slope habitat of oaks and walnuts and coast wood ferns may seem very alien. From Latigo look back to Sandstone and consider what the simple act of putting one foot in front of another can accomplish. You've passed the Backbone's point of no return. Are you interested in exploring the second half?
Visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Park Service website for Backbone Trail reference materials, or contact the Visitor Center.
The National Park Service thanks the efforts of our dedicated volunteers and is appreciative of the support of the Chumash and Tongva peoples.
Segment four delivers hikers into Trancas Canyon, one of two impressive watersheds on this leg. Trancas introduces the first perennial aquatic habitat on the Backbone. How much water have you seen on the Backbone so far? Water always brings pleasure to all our senses; however, these habitats are rare, very fragile, and truly ‘life giving’ so leave them undisturbed.
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