Thought Leaders Talk Urban Access Challenges at Backbone Trail Event

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Visitors to Los Angeles are often surprised to learn that the second-most-populous city in the United States is also home to the world’s largest urban national park unit: the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Crossing this sea-to-summit terrain is the much-loved Backbone Trail, stretching more than 67 miles and highlighted as part of REI’s Every Trail Connects program. At a recent event along the trail at Topanga State Park, representatives from the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, outdoor agencies and advocacy groups, including REI’s CEO Jerry Stritzke, gathered to discuss the unique challenges facing the Backbone Trail and urban parks in general.

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REI CEO Jerry Stritzke also addresses the gathering. REI recently donated $50,000 to the Backbone Trail.

Rare Mediterranean landscapes, Pacific Ocean beaches, lush riparian canyons, and jagged peaks in the Southern California Transverse Ranges—along with historic ranches, artists’ hideaways, early filmmaking sites, and even Cold War missile launch facilities—comprise the unusual 154,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains NRA. Tying together multiple state, local and federal agencies along with sizable portions of private land is a communal will to protect these rare oases of open space in the Southern California sprawl. A large, enthusiastic and dedicated population can enjoy the region almost any time of the year.

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Hikers make their way through canyon oaks, chamise and black sage along the Backbone Trail in Topanga State Park.

First proposed in the 1960s, the Backbone Trail didn’t come into focus until the ’80s; only then was enough of the area preserved as parkland with trails that could be combined into one long-distance route. Today just a few miles of trail remain to be built to complete the route from Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Ocean, but closing those breaks in the trail isn’t the only challenge facing the Backbone.

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Hikers traverse one of the area’s many meadows, currently in summer dormancy.

At the Topanga gathering, under the ample shade of canyon oaks, Santa Monica Mountains NRA Superintendent David Szymanski got right to the point: “The truth is these lands are not accessible to all Californians.”

California State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap agreed, noting “15 million people live within an hour’s drive of the Backbone Trail and many don’t know it even exists.” Despite being ringed by a national recreation area, national forest and new national monument—not to mention dotted with myriad state, local and county parks—Los Angeles in general suffers from a lack of quality parks, a lack of easy access to those parks, or both.

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Craig Sap and David Szymanski address the assembled group.

The meeting at the ranch served as a combination brainstorming session and informal mixer for many groups who have been working on these issues individually. In a city known for its creativity, the potential solutions ran the gamut from free coach-bus rides from the downtown core to the coast, outreach in the dozens of different languages spoken in the region, new ways to present recreational information online, and yes, even trying to harness star power to give L.A.’s outdoors a bit of the red-carpet treatment.

As the ideas bounced around the picnic tables and echoed off the canyon walls, the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers and public servants was infectious. Thanks to the efforts of the outdoor community, it seems in the not-too-distant future hikers from all walks of life will be able to enjoy the entire Backbone Trail, soaking up the sun, sea and fragrant sagebrush—and will perhaps get inspired to become trail stewards themselves.

Photography by Terlaak Poot.