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Winter Wanderings

Cool, shorter days are good for hiking and observing seasonal migrations.


It's 4:30 p.m. and darkness settles over our homes and offices confirming the presence of the winter season. 'Tis the time of year to settle in, get cozy and drink hot cider by the fireplace.

But this is also the time of year to hike in forests made green from winter rains, inhale the fragrance of pine, and observe the seasonal migrations of whales, birds and butterflies.

Although seasonal transitions in this part of the country are subtle, in winter we share one dramatic change with the entire northern hemisphere: shorter days and colder nights. But even with less daylight, there are plenty of things to do.

Michael Kristiansen, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation and an authority on native plants, explains that our Mediterranean climate provides the rebirth of spring when our calendars say winter. The winter rains promote regrowth, especially of Mediterranean plants such as lavender, rosemary and sage.

You can learn how to care for native plants in your own garden--January is the end of the planting season--at a workshop Jan. 17 at the Payne Foundation facility in Sun Valley. The session will focus on watering, pruning, weeding and fertilizing to enhance the appearance and extend the longevity of your native plants.

Payne volunteer and arborist Sylva Blackstone, who grew up in Reseda, equates the winter rain season with the new year's revitalization. "During this time of renewal, brown hillsides turn green, weeds grow out of sidewalk cracks, and the dormancy of the dry summer ends," she said. "The crisp air carries aromas of eucalyptus and wood-burning fireplaces. Walks in the mountains are redolent with the aromatic foliage of pines, conifers and eucalyptus."

Blackstone explained that the rain hastens the decomposition of leaves on the ground. That rich smell is carried especially well when rains create dense, damp air.

From her own childhood through her child-rearing years in the Valley, Blackstone recalls the magic of driving from her sunny neighborhood to the snow of Frazier Park or Wrightwood and creating improvised sleds out of trash can lids or cardboard boxes. Once mittens reached saturation, extra pairs of socks were pulled on as ersatz gloves.

Angeles Crest, Wrightwood and Frazier Park continue to beckon Valley residents. Although sleds, toboggans and more elaborate devices prevail, inventive thrill-seekers squeal with equal delight sliding down hillsides on their bottoms, legs protruding from holes cut in jumbo plastic trash bags.

Pam Gallo, park operations supervisor for Ventura County, recommends starting 1998 by "reaching inside of yourself for an ultimate experience and a great personal tradition, a new year's hike up a nearby peak." Gallo does this by climbing Boney Mountain, the highest peak overlooking the Conejo Grade near Newbury Park.

Nestled below Boney Mountain are the secluded hiking trails of Circle X Ranch, off Yerba Buena Road near Malibu. This former Boy Scout camp has picnic tables and grates for charcoal fires if you're planning to have lunch before or after your hike.

This area offers easy-paced short strolls or all-day vigorous explorations, including the climb to Sandstone Peak, which at 3,111 feet is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Winter offers the kind of clear days where a hike up Sandstone will reward you with magnificent views of the Channel Islands, and the Conejo and San Fernando valleys.

The trails within Circle X Ranch provide a glimpse of coastal ecosystems. Watch for stands of red-shank chaparral, recognized by its reddish-brown shredded bark, as well as abundant coastal sage scrub invigorated by recent rains. Now that the streams are flowing and waterfalls splash to life, the riparian communities at Split Rock on the Mishe Mokwa Trail and near Happy Hollow Campground are the places to see sycamores, live oaks and ferns.

These plants are also on view in Topanga State Park, also part of the Santa Monica Mountains. Docent-led winter adventure hikes, such as the one offered Sunday, offer hikers a chance to see, touch and smell some of the flora that comes to life in the winter.

Too rustic? Urbanites also can re-center themselves by starting 1998 with a hike to Los Angeles' geographic center. Franklin Canyon Ranch, near Coldwater Canyon, is rich in the California history of Native Americans, Spanish and early settlers as well as of modern water distribution and filmmaking. Volunteers from the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom guide walks through this unique canyon.

The area's mild winter climate annually beckons migratory birds, which are stopping here to rest en route to their warmer winter habitats in South America. Other birds that arrived in late December will stay for the whole winter.

In fact, one reason the National Audubon Society holds its annual bird count near Christmas is because this is when the most species can be observed.

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