Road Miles: 0
Trail Miles: 8
“I read your post about bullying the dog lover. We gotta get you on trail,” the text read. It was referring to an incident the previous day when I had observed from my perch on the patio a hand reaching through the fence, feeding something to the dogs. My mind instantly flooded with recollections of the many stories about dogs being poisoned while I was in Ecuador last year, and before I knew it, I was charging the fence, screaming “what the F*CK are you doing?!” It turned out to be the government guy charged with setting fruit fly traps in citrus trees. We had spoken briefly a month or so prior at which time he had asked if he could visit with the dogs and give them treats. Profuse apologies followed.
But, that I needed to get back out was true. After returning from the desert, I had become re-consumed by my efforts to get things in order before taking off again to head east. This is, of course, silly. At no time will everything ever be completely in order, and I had become stressed and angsty trying to fight this truth.
He suggested that I do the Backbone, which was designated a National Recreation Trail just last year. This almost 68-mile trail traverses the Santa Monica Mountains in coastal Southern California. I downloaded the brochure and trail map, noting that camping is prohibited except in designated campgrounds, and that reliable water sources appeared to be scarce.
“I’ll bring you stuff at road crossings. You’ll have [cell] reception the entire way. There are water sources – no need for a filter.” He had completed the trail at least a half dozen times, so I accepted his intel about the trail as accurate. He offered to give me a lift to the Ray Miller trailhead in Pt. Mugu State Park, which is the western terminus of the trail, and walk in the first 8 miles to the campground at Danielson Ranch.
I had concerns: there is one very long stretch between campgrounds which meant that if I only did 8 miles the first day, I’d have to car camp in the middle of the trail the second night, and there were some very long waterless stretches, since he reported that there were no natural sources on trail. However, he answered my reservations by assuring me he’d provide the needed support – bringing me water at the road (there are many crossings), and I could camp in the car on the second night. Because I was dying to get out and get in some trail miles, I agreed to his plan.
I took the Metrolink out to Union Station in Los Angeles where he picked me up and we drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway toward Pt. Mugu. We stopped at the Ralphs off the PCH in Malibu for last-minute supplies, and arrived at the trailhead around 2pm. I took 2L of water and had my Sawyer Squeeze on an empty bottle in my pack. He saw it and said, “you don’t need that; there’s no water on the trail. You should just leave it with me to save weight.” I left the filter and we started hiking around 2:30p.
At first, the views were generally obscured by a heavy layer of coastal fog, but the wildflowers in bloom along the trail were magnificent. Since the trail begins right across the street from the ocean, and the Ray Miller trailhead is the lowest point on the entire trail, most all of the first leg consists of climbing up into the mountains. Finally, the climb takes you above the fog, and you’re rewarded with great panoramic views in almost every direction except to the west, where the fog remains. We hiked at a fairly brisk pace, despite all the climbing, and despite the fact that this was my first hike with a full pack in almost a year, to make it to the campground at Danielson Ranch just before 5p.
The central feature of the campground is a large, rock-walled flagstone patio with picnic benches, a giant fireplace, and a sink with running water. There are pit toilets and even electrical outlets at the base of the lamppost bordering the patio. Now, I wish I’d brought the plug for my phone charger, but I’d left that behind anticipating being able to charge up the following day in the car.
“I hate to drop you here and leave, but it’s going to get dark soon and I still have to make it all the way back to the car. Just find someplace stealthy to pitch closer to sunset, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” And with that, he was off. I’m looking around at this campground with its sign warning that reservations may be required, and the tent sites so close to the patio almost certainly guaranteed to attract whatever rodents and other foraging wildlife that may be about (I’m looking at you, trash pandas!), noting that there is, in fact, no cell service in this canyon, and the still-light sky, and wished we’d started a bit earlier so I could hike to the next campground 8 or so miles up-trail, and then another mile or so down a road. I definitely didn’t have enough daylight left for that, though, and since there had already been some unsigned trail junctions, I decided it would be too risky to continue lest I get myself lost in the dark.
Resigned to staying at Danielson, but feeling uncomfortable out in the open of the campground, even though it is in direct view of the the ranger’s house, I ended up cowboy camping near the small creek (which was running) adjacent to the campground.