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JAUNTS : Hike Reveals the Magic of the Wild After Dark : Evening nature walks in Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks are a favorite with families.


By 6 p.m. darkness has settled in Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. Only the outline of the trees and canyon rim can be seen against the night sky. But for Peter Rice, it's the best time to take a hike.

Hike in the dark? Why?

"There's sweet music out here at night," Rice says as he leads another "night awareness" hike into the park. Rice, a naturalist for the Conejo Recreation and Park District, has been leading the night hikes for about eight years.

First, it should be made clear, this is not a hike in the dark with flashlights. Rice is something of a purist when it comes to the night-time. This is a two-mile walk in total darkness--a lesson in using our night vision, he says.

Amazingly, the going is not that tough once the eyes adjust. In fact, the hikes are popular with families, because Rice spices them with vivid Chumash Indian stories and tales about the constellations.

From the parking lot, he leads the group down the Moonridge Trail into the park. The sound of water in a stream below the trail wafts up from the canyon floor.

Along the way, Rice stops at a horehound bush and lets the group feel and smell the fuzzy leaves. The herb is an ancient remedy for sore throats, and he lets them sample some modern-day horehound candy.

He talks about the animals that live in Wildwood Park, once the home of Chumash Indians. Occasionally, he halts the procession to listen for animals like the coyote, or to imitate the hoot of the owl.

He has a slew of stories that appeal to kids, like the Native American tale about how the fawn got its spots. Stopping under a nearly pitch-black canopy of oak trees he relates another myth, this one about some cruel old women who find themselves transformed into owls because they refused a starving man some food. Strangely, an owl hoots nearby just as he finishes the tale.

In this totally dark setting, Rice lets hikers turn on flashlights briefly to climb down steps and cross a bridge. (The no-light rule isn't absolute; anyone who feels uncomfortable can use a flashlight, but darkness is preferred.)

Rice does the hikes in his spare time. By day, he works as an installer for General Telephone Co.

For children, the highlight of the two-hour trek in Wildwood Park comes near the end when Rice takes the stage for what he calls a light show. He pulls a bunch of doodads--balls, rubber insects and snakes--from his pack that glow in the dark.

He also passes out glow-in-the-dark stars. The procession makes for an eerie sight at the end as kids and parents--their faces glowing with stick-on stars--trek back to the parking lot.


* WHAT: Two-mile "night awareness" hikes, led by a naturalist with the Conejo Recreation and Park District, in 1,700-acre Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks.

* WHERE: The entrance to Wildwood Park is at the end of Avenida De Los Arboles where it intersects Big Sky Drive. (Take the Lynn Road exit off the Ventura Freeway.)

* WHEN: Night awareness hikes are held each month. The next one is Saturday, Feb. 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. (Full moon hikes in the park are scheduled Jan. 27 from 6 to 8:30 p.m., and Jan. 29, 8 to 10:30 p.m.)

* COST: $3 per person.

* FYI: For reservations, call 494-8301. (If the weather is questionable, call this number before the hike to check for cancellation.) The night awareness hikes are recommended for families. Bring water and a flashlight, although the hike is mostly in the dark without lights. Wear warm clothing, even gloves.

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