It's hard to go very far in west Los Angeles without running into the name Will Rogers: a beach, a park, and an elementary school are all named after the cowboy humorist, who in the 1920s and '30s was one of the most popular and highly paid actors in Hollywood. Rogers used some of that wealth to purchase a sprawling 186-acre ranch in the hills of Pacific Palisades, just above Sunset Boulevard. The ranch, which became a state park after Rogers's widow died in 1944, has horse stables, a riding and roping arena, and a large, lush polo field, where matches are still held on weekends from April to October.
For hikers, it's also the perfect jumping-off point to explore a host of trails that begin there and wind their way through the ranch's land and then into the adjacent Topanga State Park. If you're short on time, or just in the mood to walk casually, there's a quick, two-mile loop that begins just to the north of Rogers's 31-room ranch house - now part of a museum - and snakes its way up along a ridge above the entire property.
For someone who was introduced to hiking in New England - where you often have to slog hours through heavy forest before getting any kind of view - the almost instant, spectacular sights on this walk elicit pangs of guilt, the result of a Yankee insistence on earning any reward. Indeed, within 10 minutes of leaving the parking lot, and after a very modest climb, a myriad of postcard-like views come into sight and remain a constant companion for much of the route. To the south and east are the skylines of Westwood and Century City and, even farther away, the towering skyscrapers of downtown L.A. Just to the west, and in sharp contrast to the teeming metropolis, are the Pacific Ocean and, at least on clear days, Catalina Island.
The summit of the loop is Inspiration Point, a flat clearing with benches that force you, as if you really need coercion, to sit and ponder just how enormous and diverse the city below actually is. If a mere two miles isn't enough, not to worry. Just below Inspiration Point is a sign that marks the eastern end of the Backbone Trail. Named for how the volcanic-formed ridge that the trail follows resembles a spinal column, albeit a horribly gnarled one, the Backbone Trail is almost 70 miles long, journeying from Will Rogers State Park west to the beach at Point Mugu State Park in Malibu.