Finding a naturally formed waterfall in the middle of the High Sierra or Yosemite National Park isn't unusual.
Finding one in the middle of Thousand Oaks, however, is a different matter.
"Not very many people know about it," said Tom Hoegeman, outdoor recreation unit leader for the Conejo Recreation and Park District. "Even people who live close to the park often say they didn't know it was there."
The 50-foot Paradise Falls is only one of the attractions for children at Wildwood Park, a 1,400-acre recreation area just west of the Moorpark Freeway.
Each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., children and their parents are led by a naturalist on a leisurely hike through the park, taking in the area's plant and wildlife along the way.
"Right now, everything is starting to bloom, and it's just beautiful," Hoegeman said. "Out on the mesa, on the way to the waterfall, you can see shooting stars, wild onion, chocolate lilies, California poppies, wild hyacinth and purple sage. The kids love it."
In a park with more than 60 species of birds, 37 species of mammals and 22 species of reptiles and amphibians, spotting wildlife along the way is commonplace.
"I've been with groups when we saw mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, possums, hawks, rabbits, vultures and ravens. We also have weasels and badgers, but we don't see them too often," Hoegeman said.
Though an occasional mountain lion has been known to enter the park in search of food, Hoegeman said that no visitor has ever reported being harmed by an animal.
The site of American Indian hunting camps 6,000 years ago, Wildwood is as rich in history as it is in wildlife. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the park became the backdrop for numerous Hollywood films, including "Wuthering Heights" and "Sands of Iwo Jima." Today, Wildwood serves mainly as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by urban development.
The weekends hikes, however, are not the only activities offered at the park.
On the second Saturday of each month, families can participate in a "night awareness" hike from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Led by a district naturalist, participants learn to trust their night vision while they look for wildlife that often stays hidden during the day.
"We tell them to bring a flashlight, but then encourage them not to use it," Hoegeman said. "We're not telling ghost stories or anything, and so this is really fun for the kids." The cost for the night hike is $1 per person.
On the fourth Saturday of each month is "Saturday Night S'mores" at the park. Participants meet at the Big Sky Drive entrance to the park at 7 p.m. and are led to the park's nature center, where they sing songs around a campfire and roast marshmallows. The cost for the night of s'mores--a campfire favorite made from graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows--is $2 per person. Reservations are requested.
On May 19, Wildwood Park once again will offer its family overnight program, discontinued for several years after Proposition 13 budget cuts took effect. After an evening hike to the park's nature center, which now is open every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., families will have a barbecue dinner around a campfire. Later, they'll sleep under the stars or in tents they have brought with them. Registration for the family overnight, which costs $4 per person, is required.
For more information, directions to the park or outing schedules, call 499-4355.