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An octogenarian cowgirl takes on the 67-mile backbone of Santa Monica Mountains




81-year old Ruth Gerson prepares for her 67-mile ride down the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains.
81-year old Ruth Gerson prepares for her 67-mile ride down the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains.
John Rabe
81-year old Ruth Gerson prepares for her 67-mile ride down the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Ruth Gerson and her 19-year old palomino Crystal.
John Rabe
81-year old Ruth Gerson prepares for her 67-mile ride down the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Ruth Gerson is a longtime resident of the Santa Monica Mountains and an avid equestrian. She and four fellow riders embarked on a horseback ride across all 67 miles of the newly completed Backbone Trail on July 18, 2016. Shown here is the beginning of their journey at the Ray Miller Trailhead in Point Mugu State Park.
National Park Service
81-year old Ruth Gerson prepares for her 67-mile ride down the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains.
(L-R) KPCC's John Rabe, Crystal the palomino mustang, and Ruth Gerson.
John Rabe


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UPDATE 7/26/2016: Great news! The National Parks Service tells us Ruth and her friends finished the ride Saturday afternoon as scheduled. -- John Rabe

It's Monday morning at a trailhead just off PCH by Point Mugu. Five women are beginning a long ride. They're taking a trail that starts here, runs north a couple of miles, then turns right and runs east for a long way, staying four to five miles from the coast, then dips south to take you down to Will Rogers State Historic Park in the Palisades.

Up, across and down, that's more than 67 miles. It's called the Backbone Trail because is traverses the bony spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, and the trail is finally open all the way from Roy Miller Trailhead to Will Rogers. 

The newly completed 67-mile Backbone Trail.
The newly completed 67-mile Backbone Trail.
National Park Service

You could drive from Point Mugu to the Palisades in minutes, but then you'd miss ... well, everything.

The leader of the Backbone Trail Cowgirls is Ruth Gerson, who is replicating a horse ride she took exactly 25 years ago, when the trail wasn't all one piece, and she had to ride across private property – usually with permission, she says.

Back then, "We were all endurance riders, so we trotted and moved out. It was only three days. This ride is gonna be at a walk; we're just taking it easy, and we're taking six days to do it." Which would put them in the Palisades on Saturday.

But back then, she also wasn't 81-years-old with eight surgeries on one hip alone.

Ruth Gerson is good to go ... once she gets up on the horse

Gerson was born in Brooklyn and came to California by train "at a time when you could walk between the train cars by pulling open the heavy doors, feeling the wind as you hopped across the connections and opened the door to the next train car."

She went to Pomona College for the "tennis, fencing, swimming, skiing, shooting, flying airplanes, riding horses for Kellogg Ranch, and other pursuits," then says she got her bachelor of science in psychology from UCLA, and taught at UCLA’s Fernald Center.

After years of moving around, Gerson finally settled down to live in the Santa Monica Mountains 40 years ago, where she lives with "a 19-year-old Mustang mare, a 10-year-old Buckskin mare, a 31-year-old sorrel mare, and a 29-year-old Spanish Mustang gelding."

You won't be surprised that one of the reasons she's doing this is to prove "age is no limitation for riders or horses." Also, she wants to publicize the trail finally being open and to"remind national parks and state parks that we need some trail camps along the Backbone Trail. We're able to make arrangements (they're sleeping in their trailers, driven by friends), but the average person can't just park here and ride the trail."

The group – supported by California State Parks, National Parks Service, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy,  the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, the Recreation & Equestrian Coalition and Park Watch Report – expects to finish the ride Saturday afternoon. You can follow their progress in daily updates online.