Live oaks and dense chaparral smother slopes traversed by the Backbone Trail near Topanga Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The nearly completed Backbone Trail rambles some 55 miles along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, from Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu State Park. Most sections of this trail traverse dry highland terrain, but some stick close to ravine bottoms, or north-facing slopes, where the chaparral and oak vegetation grows tall and lush. An excellent example of the latter, in the rustic Topanga area, is a 3.5-mile segment rising from Old Topanga Canyon Road to Saddle Peak Road. Assuming you've set up a car shuttle or planned some similar transportation arrangement, you can negotiate this trail either as a one-way downhill stroll or as a more strenuous uphill ascent involving about 1600 feet of elevation gain.

For the purpose of directions, let's assume the downhill direction. The starting point is a trailhead at mile 0.60 on Saddle Peak Road (0.6 mile east of Stunt Road). Several small turnouts can be found along the road here. The ending point is on Old Topanga Canyon Road, 0.3 mile west of Topanga Canyon Road, just beyond the bridge over the Old Topanga Canyon stream. There's only one small turnout here.

You start out in dry chaparral at the top on a short connector trail, quickly making a right turn on the segment of Backbone Trail descending into Hondo Canyon. After a few tedious switchbacks, the trail enters a more thickly wooded area consisting not so much of trees, but rather of a rampant growth of tall chaparral. The entire Hondo Canyon drainage was burned in the October 1993 Malibu fire but has been recovering quickly ever since.

Many more switchbacks take you inexorably downward along the steep south slope of Hondo Canyon, where you encounter Tolkienesque copses of gnarled live oak and fragrant bay laurel. Nearing the bottom of the canyon at about two miles, there's a short side path on the left leading to a point where you can view Hondo Canyon's stream (during and after rains, not this summer!) tumbling through a little V-shaped gorge.

Past this point the trail contours to a saddle, veers right, and descends a grassy slope into a separate lesser ravine, whose bottom is beautifully shaded by majestic live oaks. Water flows in this ravine only after a substantial amount of rain has fallen. A few minutes' walk down along the ravine takes you to Old Topanga Canyon's shallow stream and Old Topanga Canyon Road just above it.

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