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JAUNTS : A Night of Heavenly Sights in Mountains : Moonlight trek through Happy Camp Canyon Regional Park is for those who like to turn their eyes skyward.

September 09, 1993|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you go for a night hike with Terry and Dennis Leatart, you'll have your eyes on the sky as much as the trail.

The Moorpark couple takes a two-for-one approach when they lead hikers on a gentle, three-mile trek by moonlight through the 3,700-acre Happy Camp Canyon Regional Park near Moorpark.

Terry Leatart, a docent for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, points out the trail's highlight--where the acorn woodpecker has dotted a tree trunk with holes for his winter stash.

Her husband, an astronomy instructor at Moorpark College, knows the skies and brings along his powerful telescope for a look at the heavens.

The full-moon hike begins just before sunset. On a recent Sunday about a dozen hikers, including a 6-year-old boy with his grandparents, gathered with flashlights in hand at the Broadway Road entrance to the park.

A wide, arid valley stretches below, bordered by mountain ridges and Big Mountain. The hike actually starts about a mile from here. (Because Terry Leatart is a docent, the group was allowed to drive past a locked gate to the trailhead).

As the sun was setting, she led the way over a narrow trail into the canyon that once was a part of a huge cattle ranch operated by the pioneering Strathearn family. Long before that it was home to the Chumash Indians.

The walkers passed under groves of giant oak trees and crossed over a small stream several times. They sniffed the smelly leaves of the stinking gourd plant, they sampled the Leatarts' bag of horehound candy next to the horehound plant, and, at one point, they waited while a skunk moseyed off the trail.

The hike back to the trailhead was on a dirt road, and by this time it was dark. The air was cool and fresh, and the only sounds were crickets and an occasional hoot from an owl or the call of a coyote.

Along the way Dennis Leatart, who also teaches eighth-grade science, gave a quickie lesson on finding the Big Dipper, the North Star and other stellar sights.

Back at the trailhead, he and his wife pulled the 120-pound telescope out of their 1969 VW bus with its assorted bumper stickers: "Black Holes Are Out of Sight" and "Just Visiting This Planet."

In five minutes the boxy telescope was set up. With a 13.1-inch diameter, it looks like a cannon and has nearly the power of the telescope at the college's observatory.

Taking turns, viewers could see the craters on the moon, including the large crater, Tycho. If the fog had not drifted in, Saturn, with its rings, would have been visible. At other times of the year, hikers also can catch a glimpse of Jupiter, Venus and Mars.

* WHERE AND WHEN

WHAT: Docent-led full-moon hike and look at the skies.

WHEN: Generally each month. Next hike Saturday, Oct. 2, 6 to 8:30 p.m.

WHERE: Happy Camp Canyon Regional Park near Moorpark. Take California 23 north out of Moorpark. Go right on Broadway to the parking lot at the end.

COST: Free.

INFORMATION: Call (800) 533-PARK for info about the hike or the park, which is managed by the Eastern Ventura County Conservation Authority, a joint-powers agency of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Ventura County.

FYI: Bring a flashlight, wear long pants, and bring a jacket and water.

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