Sullivan Canyon and Santa Monica Running Trails | Trail of the Week

By Gwendolyn Ostrosky - The Santa Monica Mountains may be best known for the 68 mile Backbone Trail that traverses from Will Rogers State Park in the Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu State Park in Ventura County.  Every other year or so the Coyote Cohorts running group hosts an ultramarathon that covers the entire trail.  For non-ultra runners, one of the most popular races in the Santa Monicas is the Xterra Topanga Turkey Trot, put on every Thanksgiving and featuring fire roads with runnable grades along with some singletrack trail.

Santa Monica mountains trail running

Strava Santa Monica Mountains Sullivan Canyon

My favorite Santa Monica running trail is the singletrack on the ridgeline of Sullivan (“Sully”) Canyon.  It is not one long trail, but 4 or 5 segments that cut back and forth across the Sully Ridge fire road.  If you run the singletrack out and back, it turns into one of those runs that’s “uphill both ways,” due to its steep and rolling nature.  The payoff is sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and canyons below.

trail running Santa Monica mountains

Fog mountains Santa Monica

Trail running California

The shortest route to get there requires parking in a neighborhood at the intersection of Queensferry and Bayliss in the hills above Brentwood.  From the trailhead, you run down the paved hill into Sully Canyon, and continue for about .7 miles, at which point you turn left onto the semi-hidden singletrack aptly named “Bobsled.” Bobsled spits you out onto Sully Ridge fire road, at which point you turn right.  It’s paved for about a quarter mile, but turns to dirt after you pass a yellow gate. 

You continue uphill for about another 2.5 miles on the fire road, until you hit dirt Mulholland. Turn around to head back downhill, looking for the first singletrack on your left.  Since you have pretty fresh legs, you can crank your heartrate up on the steep ups, and then have some fun flying on the technical downs.  When the singletrack tosses you back on the fire road, just keep your eyes peeled for the next bit of singletrack on either side.  If you see something and think, am I supposed to go up THAT?, the answer is always YES.  The final stretch of singletrack, which is also the longest, at 1.1 miles, will spit you right back out at the yellow gate you saw earlier.

Steep climb trail Sullivan Canyon

trail running Santa Monica mountains

This past week, this short, sweet 7 to 8 mile route was not meant to be.  On the verge of fall racing season, my friends needed to get some miles on their legs.  So, I plotted a 20-mile route that would hit my favorite trail.

We parked at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Brooktree and headed up private Rivas Canyon Road. About a half mile up this road, at a dead end, we turned left onto the trail.  The trail starts very shaded and gentle, but then turns into switchbacks. The top of these switchbacks is a great place to catch a sunrise.  On this day, the views were shrouded in marine layer, but we were grateful for the shade. 

After the switchbacks, we took a singletrack on the right, which flips back almost 180 degrees. It is recognizable because it starts with some stairs.  This trail is not well traveled, and so you are likely to end up clearing spiderwebs with your face, no matter the time of day.  It is advisable to have your tallest friend go first, as he or she is likely to be the most effective web clearer for the rest of the gang.  Rivas has a series of false summits, each one steeper than the next.  Your friends will love it if you insist it is totally runnable, as they are rock climbing behind you.  The trail is fairly obvious, but you may need to use a little trail intuition to avoid heading off onto a side trail.  Towards the end of the trail, it gets a bit overgrown, and you are bound to leave at least a little blood on the trail.  After this overgrown, downhill section, you will end up on the Backbone trail, high above the Pacific Palisades.

Backbone trail santa monica mountains running

Running trails Los Angeles

After Rivas dumped us onto the Backbone, we turned right and enjoyed coasting for a few miles downhill.  At the intersection with J Drop (J is for Josepho), marked by a metal pole, we took a left for the steep .7 mile downhill into Rustic Canyon.  At the bottom, we turned right and headed by some of the old graffiti-laden structures.  The area is somewhat infamous for these structures as they were built in the 1940s by a Nazi sympathizer as a potential hideaway.  We took the 500+ stairs out of the “Nazi camp”, took a left onto Sully Ridge fire road (paved), and took a right to head down Bobsled (marked by a telephone pole).

stairs running Santa Monica

Sullivan Canyon

Just across the canyon from the end of Bobsled is the trail known as lower Luna.  After doing our slowest quarter mile ever up Luna, we reached the super highway known as Westridge fire road, surrounded by dogs, Lululemon and Michelle Obama (true story, different day). We headed left, uphill for about 3.25 miles, and refilled our water at the top at the Nike Tower (named after the missile, not the shoes).  I assured my friends it’s all downhill from here, except for the uphill downhills on the Sully singletrack.

We turned left on dirt Mulholland, then left at the yellow gate at the top of Sully, and started our fun on the singletrack.  With many miles on our legs, there was more huffing and puffing on the singletrack than flying. Once we hit the bottom yellow gate, it really was all downhill.  We took one more singletrack on the right, running parallel to the paved road, before rejoining the fire road and descending into a neighborhood. 

Trail running with friends

We were all grateful to have an easy cruise on the streets back to our parked cars about one mile away.  Covered in dirt and sweat, we all agreed that the Santa Monica running trails can be much more gnarly than their reputation might suggest.

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