We walk segment #6 east to west due to elevation, so do some good downhill training hikes. It is almost all downhill over its seven miles with about 3,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. Remember, a good breakfast, hydrate early, triple check weather and pack essentials, no visible valuables in the car and no keys in the wheel wells.
On the trail keep your good eye out for rattlesnakes ticks and poison oak. This segment ends at the Piuma Trailhead. So leave extra cars here. Then you'll drive to the top of this mountain, Saddle Peak. Park on the dirt shoulder of Stunt Road about 500 feet west of the Lois Ewen Overlook. The trail is across the street and you'll hike west.
And let's begin. A 0.5 mile up the ridge you'll walk around a water tank and a bit further you'll meet a spur trail to the top of Saddle Peak. Saddle Peak is the first real view across the greater Los Angeles basin from the Backbone Trail. Returning to the trail you begin that long descent amid magnificent stacks of sedimentary boulders. They accent a dynamic plant community. Do you know which plant community this is?
Chaparral is a predominant plant community for the entire length of the Backbone Trail. It is sometimes referred to as the elfin forest. Elfin because it is short. Forest because it is dense. Depending on the specific characteristics and topography of a particular location the dominant chaparral's plant species may vary. Some examples include chamise chaparral, another chaparral and manzanita chaparral. Growing at higher elevations means the chaparral receives more rainfall. But adaptation to the long hot dry months is still vital. The survival of plants and animals in this and other zones is dependent on co-evolution. Which means that plants and animals are dependent on one another. What might happen if we lose just a few species?
Continuing, you'll pass a spur trail to Stunt Road at mile 2. And enjoy the many glimpses of your surroundings through the chaparral. There's a certain kind of intimacy contrasting the tremendous quantity and scale of diversity turn by turn. Around mile five the trail will switch back and forth and so will your eyes from the flora at your feet to the vast watershed of Malibu Canyon. Finally an intimate rest stop in Dark Canyon appears. It is just one of hundreds of tributaries making Malibu Creek the only stream to cross through the Santa Monicas from one side to the other.
Water is life. And hiking through a transverse mountain range next to a fresh water source that's leading directly into the Pacific Ocean is a really unique place to be. In fact Malibu Creek has been an important cultural hub for people for thousands of years. Research has shown us that where the Visitor Center is located today, was once a large Chumash village named Talapop. This village has cultural deposits dating back 7,000 years. By analyzing the material we better understand that Malibu Creek was a bridge for the Chumash people. This bridge connected coastal villages like at Malibu Lagoon, Himaliwu, with Talopop. You can see names left behind by the Spanish ranching era including the Reyes Adobe, Rancho Las Virgenes and Tapia Park. And this canyon continues to serve as a major cultural hub as numerous tv shows, commercials and movies have been filmed right here. Malibu Creek, indeed, has played an important role for the Santa Monica Mountains.
In 0.1 mile the trail crosses Piuma Road and a little to the left. And slowly you enter a magical, damp, shady forest full of pleasures. Meandering through this California bay laurel woodland you might think you're in the broadleaf forest of another state. Inhale it all in. There is no checkered flag. Out of the woods what appears to be a residence is actually the California Wildlife Center. Continue across the driveway and past the pens. Soon you'll cross the creek and continue on the shoulder of Piuma Road to Malibu Canyon Road and the Piuma Trailhead.
From Saddle Peak you can see the far-flung communities of Los Angeles, but here chaparral is the community. And Malibu Canyon outlines both the many unique layers in the small mountain range, but also what you've accomplished.
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.
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Segment six rewards you from the outset with the vast panorama of the Lois Ewen Overlook, which only improves once you’re atop Saddle Peak. Like rainwater, you’ll meander toward Malibu Canyon’s floor amidst sandstone outcrops that oversee the chaparral plant community blanketing the slopes.
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Download the Backbone Trail Map and Brochure
For detailed topographic information, purchase the four Tom Harrison maps:
The Trails Illustrated Santa Monica Mountains Map is less detailed, but covers the entire Santa Monica Mountains in one map (half on each side). The Santa Monica Mountains Interagency Visitor Center has all of these maps.
Last updated: April 8, 2021