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The back door to big water

Where's the waterfall that's freeway close? James Caballero knows, but he insists on starting at a Thousand Oaks mall.

June 28, 2005|Jordan Rane | Special to The Times

"You won't believe that there's a 70-foot waterfall just three miles from here," says James Caballero. I believe him. But I want him to prove it to me anyway.

Caballero, an inveterate day hiker who has self-published a book of 139 hikes between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, is easy to spot when I pull into the Robinsons-May parking lot in Thousand Oaks.

He's the man in the mustache wearing hiking boots, cargo shorts, a clip-on pedometer, a Caballero Chiropractic Office ball cap and a sunny expression that says, "I'm not here to buy slacks." In fact, he's the only person parked in front of the store this early on a Tuesday.

The Oxnard-based chiropractor had suggested we meet here before driving to neighboring Wildwood Park, a 1,700-acre nature preserve in the Conejo Valley and the home of Paradise Falls, so I can see just how close a secluded waterfall hidden in a canyon full of oak trees can get to a mall parking lot.

The 4.4-mile Lizard Rock and Paradise Falls loop is hike No. 55 in Caballero's "Mileage Hiking Maps" tome.

We enter Wildwood Park along the aptly named Mesa Trail, a breezy, flat path flanked by waist-high brown grass, faded pink wildflowers that could use a drink and mounds of huge volcanic outcroppings that took shape 30 million years before the producers of "Gunsmoke" built their fake Dodge City here in the 1960s. The set has since vanished, as have all but a few traces of the area's original Native American residents who arrived in 6,000 BC and departed when the last Chumash were escorted off the property 200 years ago by deeded rancheros.

Today there's a large wooden tepee that serves as a rest stop built on a hill, a ranger-led group of school kids in the distance and a solo hiker asking if we've seen any snakes. Otherwise, Wildwood Park is what it has always been: a vast Western canvas devoid of even the local mall rats.

"That's Lizard Rock up there," says Caballero, pointing directly ahead at a scrubby hill laced with switchbacks leading to the hike's highest point -- a scoop of cold, blackened lava that may or may not resemble a lizard.

A quick, moderate climb to Lizard Rock offers a bird's-eye view that's far more dramatic than the flat Mesa Trail below had implied.

Brooding mountains and deep green canyons seem everywhere, along with a sprinkle of farmland, some new homes and a nearby water treatment plant dwarfed by ageless open space.

We look north. "That's Mountclef Ridge and over there is the Topa Topa range," says Caballero, who recently logged his 3,000th hiking mile. We look south. "That's Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, 3,110 feet."

Lizard Rock Trail winds down through a tilted field of prickly pear cactus and flowering yuccas into what is surely one of the Conejo Valley's prettiest and most accessible riparian woodlands.

On Lower Wildwood Canyon Trail, several short stream crossings along the North Fork Arroyo Conejo Creek (also known as Wildwood Creek) thoroughly soak my shoes.

We come to a shady picnic area, sit on a table, listen to the creek and feel the breeze wafting through a grove of old oaks. "I prefer day hiking," says Caballero, pulling some cookies and sunscreen out of his bag. "I once put on a 43-pound pack -- and I never did it again."

A few more creek crossings and twists in the trail, down a few steps and just to the right of the path behind some cottonwood trees we reach Paradise Falls.

It crashes into an emerald pool and shines in the midday sun with, as promised, no one to appreciate it except the two of us and a woman in a bikini lying on a rock with her ankles in the water. "I can't believe it," Caballero clucks. "People live their whole lives here and they don't even know about this."

We pull ourselves away from this semiprivate Eden. Indian Creek Trail winds us back to our cars, past a Chumash cave site, and (about three miles away) to Robinsons-May and the 101 Freeway.

Where people live their whole lives.

The particulars

Where: Wildwood Park

What: 1,700-acre recreation area in Thousand Oaks featuring waterfalls, archeological sites and an extensive multiuse trail system for hikers of all levels. Moderate loop to Lizard Rock and Paradise Falls is just under 4.5 miles with 1,200 feet of gain and loss.

How: Take the 101 Freeway to the Lynn Road exit in Thousand Oaks. Go north on Lynn Road, and turn left onto Avenida de Los Arboles and left into the Wildwood Park parking lot at the road's western terminus at Big Sky Drive. The park is open from dawn to dusk every day.

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Do you have a favorite hike close to home that you would like to share? We have nothing better to do than to tag along. E-mail takeme@latimes.com.

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