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JAUNTS: in and around the Valley

Cool Canyons

Winter temperatures make for comfortable outings in countryside near Agoura.

January 08, 1998|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cheeseboro and Palo Comado--the vast, oak-dotted canyons near Agoura Hills--are giant ovens in the summer when the sun bakes the rolling hills to a toasty brown.

In the winter, though, the temperature dips to a comfy level for hiking. So now is the ideal time to explore these neighboring canyons that comprise a whopping 4,500 acres of spectacular park land.

For a free guided tour, a National Park Service ranger will lead a six-mile hike there Saturday. The four-hour outing begins at 9 a.m. at the Cheeseboro Canyon parking lot, off Chesebro Road at the south tip of the park, officially called Cheeseboro Canyon/Palo Comado Site. Hikers should bring lunch and water.

The route is a loop that gives a good sampling of both canyons, but means trekking twice over a lofty ridge that separates the two valleys. Even so, the entire hike is on a wide-open, gentle, well-groomed fire road.

These canyons, located just north of the Ventura Freeway, are part of the Simi Hills, although they occupy the northern section of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

"They're more rolling and gentle than the Santa Monica Mountains," said ranger Ken Low. And without as much chaparral, they're greener too.

For thousands of years, Chumash Indians lived in Palo Comado Canyon, perhaps sheltered by the plentiful oak trees that also supplied them with a steady diet of acorns. Today the remaining oaks are nesting places for raptors and provide a good spot for watching hawks and eagles.

Many of the trails that crisscross the two canyons were cut by the Chumash and later expanded by ranchers who grazed cattle here for 150 years. The park service bought Cheeseboro Canyon in 1985, and the era of grazing there ended.

In 1993, the park service plucked up Palo Comado Canyon during a heated development battle. Better known then as the Jordan Ranch, owned by entertainer Bob Hope, the $16.7-million land purchase was part of a complicated park-land-for-development deal with the Ahmanson Land Co.

Ironically, it was the poor access to Palo Comado Canyon that neighboring residents cited as one of the reasons they objected to development. Even now, park users don't have an easy way into the canyon. The main entrance is through Cheeseboro Canyon.

Getting to Palo Comado's fire road requires hiking about two miles over a ridge before you get to the fire road that winds through the ranch and up to the meadow known as China Flat. It's a problem the National Park Service has been working on since the land purchase.

The gentle route into Cheeseboro Canyon gets far more traffic than Palo Comado, naturally. It's a haven for mountain bikers, who whiz past on the smooth dirt road. The route cuts through the valley for 3.3 miles to Sulphur Springs, a cool, lush, oak-canopied spot where a small pool of water bubbles up in a nearly dry creek bed. The smell of rotten eggs is a dead giveaway that you're closing in on this spot.

Beyond Sulphur Springs, the trail ventures into the wide-open canyon where the grasslands and oak groves give way to dry chaparral. At the end (4.6 miles) is an old sheep corral, a good spot for picnicking and scanning the sky for golden eagles and other birds of prey.

Along the way, watch for deer, bobcats, coyotes, even an occasional mountain lion. Hikers and bikers came face to face with a bobcat wearing a collar on a recent warm, sunny day in Palo Comado Canyon. The skittish cat with its stumpy tail is part of high-tech study to monitor the movements and habits of the area's bobcats and coyotes.

Since 1996, a team of national park biologists and student volunteers has been tagging and tracking these animals here, using radio telemetry and automatic cameras. They hope to find out whether encroaching development is forcing out the animals.

Civilization is undeniably encroaching. The canyons are less than a mile from the Ventura Freeway, and the road to the parking lot goes through a residential area. From the ridge into Palo Comado Canyon, the sweeping mountain vista is dotted with orange-tiled roofs. Still, it's a spectacular vista that makes it hard to believe this is the doorstep of Los Angeles.

BE THERE

National Park Service ranger will lead a six-mile hike looping through Cheeseboro and Palo Comado Canyons near Agoura Hills. The four-hour hike begins at 9 a.m. at the Cheeseboro Canyon parking lot, off Chesebro Road, north of the Ventura Freeway. The park is open daily 8 a.m.-dusk. (818) 597-9192.

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