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A Creek Runs Through It : Water is again running through Cheeseboro Canyon. And a hike along the watercourse can be uplifting.

April 30, 1993|WALTER HOUK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Walter Houk is a Woodland Hills free-lance writer.

The cliche that Southern California is a desert just does not hold water, so to speak, when you walk beside one of our tumbling brooks. True, two years ago, you might have wondered about that dusty watercourse in Cheeseboro Canyon, one of those deep creases in the Simi Hills' south slope. But now after two rainy seasons in a row, it's a creek again. You can hear it.

In fact, water is high enough that you have to pick your way across on stepping stones, wade or splash mud if you're on a bike. The trail crosses the creek two dozen times, and in places even coincides with it, but as spring advances, the flow diminishes and crossings get easier. A few stretches will be dry by the time tadpoles you see in pools today graduate to tiny frogs, although in the lower canyon, a rippling water voice will last into fall.

Pastoral hills now rejoice in greenery that soon will fade to tawny tones, and the chaparral has yet to take on the dry look of summer. Sycamores, willows and canyon oaks are in fresh new leaf, live oaks have turned an intense spring green, wild flowers are popping out in the chaparral and meadow grass.

The hills are alive with the courting songs of birds. Overhead soar red-tailed hawks, and black ravens indulge in aerobatic play. On the trail, your footprints join the track of deer, coyote and other furtive creatures. Under thick plant cover scurry ground squirrels, cottontail bunnies and lizards. The rattlesnake is there too, to point out the wisdom of staying on the trail.

A unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Cheeseboro Canyon is one of the easiest places for a walk beside a brook. As level as they come, the main trail climbs scarcely 500 feet in four miles from a parking area in the lower canyon to the upper end.

For exercise, hikers and cyclists combine that with two parallel hill routes, the Modelo Trail on the west side and the Baleen Wall Trail on the east side. The canyon trail also has close-by alternates, but keep the creek in sight and you will not get lost.

In landscape, the canyon divides into distinct, uneven thirds. The short first third passes brushy slopes, live oaks and stream-side willows, soon reaching broad oak-studded grassland backed by rounded pastoral hills. At first, the trail is next to the creek, then crossing the flats, it pulls away to rejoin the stream where the canyon narrows.

Here begins the long middle third, a splendid California live-oak woodland where the creek bends in oxbows close to the trail. One grove shelters three picnic tables; others alternate deep shade with sunny meadows dotted with Mariposa lilies and other flowers. In the dense passages, you can easily imagine ancient Druids worshiping their oaks, or a sunnier scenario of ancient Greeks imagining satyrs and nymphs and deities of wood and stream.

You notice a faint gray tint in the creek about when you get a whiff of Sulphur Spring, another comeback since the drought. The spring's cloudy water gushes from a cliff out of sight below the trail into clear water from upstream.

Then past more spring seeps, an abrupt change occurs and you emerge into the canyon's upper third. The rugged white Baleen Wall rimrock, the park's major scenic feature, rears above. The oaks stop and the canyon widens into austere chaparral-clad mountains that create a sense of seclusion. Tall yerba santa casts a lavender haze across the land; new white flowers decorate branch tips on the chamise and other flowers line the way.

Again near or even in the creek bed, the trail climbs gradually to end in a former pasture, an upland bowl where the creek has dwindled to a trickle and a small sign announces Shepherds Flat. To the east, a short trail leads to the park's boundary with the Ahmanson Ranch. To the west, a trail crosses the chaparral to a relic sheep corral. Beyond that, a rough track climbs through thick, tick-infested brush to a western boundary ridge overlooking the Jordan Ranch. Both neighboring ranches have long contained been potential park property.

Retrace your steps. The scene is always different in the other direction and under other light. Allow three or four hours for the full eight-mile round trip.

Where and When Getting there: From the Ventura Freeway in Agoura Hills, take the Chesebro (that's the way they spell it) Road exit onto Palo Comado Road. Turn north around a bend and then north again onto Chesebro Road, a narrow lane that reaches the park entrance in 0.7 of a mile. Hours: The gate is open every day, sunrise to sunset.

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