Between the mall and the mountains, the freeway and the green way, lies Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, an outpost of native Southern California flora encircled by the city of Thousand Oaks. The garden's paths attract walkers and bird-watchers, as well as gardeners hoping to pick up a few hints from the considerable collection of water-conserving trees and shrubs on display.
In addition to local Mediterranean-style flowering plants, the garden also features a desert area full of cacti and a butterfly garden--a colorful gathering of plants that double as a nectar supply for several butterfly species. Hikers can stop for a little aromatherapy at the herb garden or at the salvia collection, which presents more than a dozen varieties of native sage.
One of the more intriguing although distinctly nonnative collections is an orchard of exotic fruit trees. While children roam in search of an edible treat, adults can puzzle over the identity of some of the truly strange fruit.
For a walk on the wild side, take the nature trail that descends from the heart of the garden into an oak-lined canyon. You can follow the canyon bottom for a short half a mile before returning to the main garden.
Conejo Valley Botanic Garden's meandering paths lend themselves to a wander-at-will kind of walk. Pick up a map at the bulletin board near the garden entrance, and enjoy.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Thousand Oaks, exit on Lynn Road and drive north three-quarters of a mile to Gainsborough Road. Turn right and head half a mile to the signed entrance for Conejo Valley Botanic Garden. Turn right and follow the park road to a large lot near a baseball diamond and basketball courts. From the parking lot, follow the dirt path to the entrance of the Botanic Garden.
While Dawn's Peak cannot be said to tower over its surroundings, at 1,057 feet above sea level, it is the highest point in the Conejo Valley. Summit views take in suburbia, the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills.
The peak, dubbed "tarantula hill" by some locals, is part of Conejo Valley Community Park, as is the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden. The reward for following the paved service road to the summit is increasingly good valley views. (Don't even think about driving to the top; the narrow road has no turnouts, and if you somehow managed to get to the top, you'd have to back all the way down.)
Atop the peak is what at first appears to be a prison exercise yard surrounded by chain-link fence and razor wire, but it is actually a covered reservoir belonging to the California American Water Co. You'll have to walk a dirt trail around the reservoir to take advantage of the 360-degree panorama from Dawn's Peak.
To Dawn's Peak trail head: Opposite the signed entrance to Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, on the left side of Gainsborough Road, you'll spot a paved service road snaking up Dawn's Peak. Park in a safe manner along Gainsborough Road.
McKinney's book "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" is available through The Times for $16.45 (including tax, shipping and handling) by calling (800) 246-4042.
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Little Loop, Dawn's Peak Trails
Where: Conejo Valley Botanic Garden
Distance: Loop around Conejo Valley Botanic Garden is 1 mile; to Dawn's Peak summit is 1 mile round trip with 200-ft elevation gain.
Terrain: Natural and cultivated hillsides.
Degree of difficulty: Easy.
For more information: Conejo Recreation and Park District; tel. (805) 381-2737.