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Summer Splash: Jaunts | VENTURA COUNTY

Moonlit Meandering : A family-style evening trek through Wildwood Park includes a campfire, songs and gooey s'mores.

May 22, 1997|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you can't take your family camping this summer, this might be the next best thing: an evening ramble in Thousand Oaks' Wildwood Park, complete with campfire and that old chocoholic favorite, s'mores.

In fact, the Conejo Recreation and Park District bills this once-a-month outing as "Saturday Night S'Mores," after the gooey concoction of toasted marshmallows and melting chocolate squished between graham crackers.

For the kids, it's a sweet reward for hiking a mile into the deep canyons of Wildwood Park at dusk. For adults, the walk alone--with the sounds of frogs and crickets replacing urban noises--is often reward enough.

But don't get the idea that this 2 1/2-hour outing is a serene wilderness experience. You're likely to have some 60 people ambling along the trail with you--parents with babies nestled in backpacks, toddlers atop shoulders, vigorous grandparents, older kids grousing about the bugs.

The district limits the group to 60, and often these popular outings are booked solid a month in advance. The one scheduled this Saturday is full, but there are spaces in others planned for summer: June 28 and July 26, 7-9:30 p.m.; Aug. 23, 6:30-9 p.m.; and Sept. 27, 5:45-8:15 p.m. The cost is $4 per person.

If you've never ventured into Wildwood Park, you'll be surprised that this 1,700-acre rugged mountainous spread is tucked so close to suburban Thousand Oaks. You'll feel like you've been plunked down in the middle of a 1950s Western movie set, and your instincts will be right on target.

A slew of movies and television shows--"Wuthering Heights," "Sands of Iwo Jima," "Wagon Train," "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman"--were shot here from the 1930s through the 1960s.

It's a gorgeous spot at sunset as families gather at the trail head for the "Saturday Night S'Mores" program. It's still light enough to see the trail, but it won't be for the return trip, so participants are advised to bring flashlights.

On this trek, the easier half comes first as the group takes the gentle Moonridge Trail into the canyon. From the top, the views are wide open across a vast valley. Along the way, district naturalists point out plants like the prickly pear cactus and the inevitable poison oak.

As the route winds deeper into the canyon, huge, sprawling oaks canopy the trail in spots. The naturalists keep an eye out for lizards, rabbits, coyotes, deer and raccoon tracks, and natural wonders like the funnel spider that builds its web flat on the ground over a gopher hole and then waits for its prey to fall into the trap.

The mile-long walk--with many stops along the way--ends at the nature center with its fire pit and bench seats. With a campfire blazing as night falls, the kids get wooden skewers to toast marshmallows. They can wash the gloppy mess down with hot chocolate or lemonade.

As they gather around the fire, the group listens to naturalists tell old stories--maybe the Native American tale about how the stars twinkle because the hummingbird poked little holes in the sky. Then it's sing-along time--you remember those endless songs from camp days.

The district has offered this program for at least five years, and its popularity continues to grow, according to Michael McAdam, recreation coordinator for the district.

"People have a good time--they tell their friends," he said. There's something about being around a campfire, telling stories and eating s'mores. "It transcends generations."

The mile-long walk back to the parking lot takes a different route, along a dirt road. By this time it's dark, and unless there's a full moon, you'll probably feel more comfortable using a flashlight.

The district has 18 different naturalists who take turns leading the "Saturday Night S'Mores." Some have special interests, so the walk back might include a search for different constellations or a lookout for night owls.

BE THERE

"Saturday Night S'Mores," an evening venture into Wildwood Park once a month. Reservations are required. This weekend's program is full; the next one is June 28, 7-9:30 p.m. For information, call 495-2163.

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