By Indre Kupczynski
There’s nothing like escaping the daily hustle and bustle of life once in awhile and simply enjoying sounds and sights of Mother Nature’s creations. However, when you think of Santa Clarita, taking on the great outdoors isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind.
Sure, there are rolling hills for miles around, but certainly no breathtaking Sequoia National Park material anywhere nearby. But are many of us completely glossing over a beautiful hidden gem that we have right here in our own backyard?
Enter the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. About a 10-15 minute drive down the 14 North freeway and you will find yourself in the forests that once stretched over the entire town.
“We’re literally only a mile and half east of the 14 freeway off of Placerita Canyon,” Frank Hoffman, the supervisor of the park said. “Within that mile and a half you’re in an oak woodland, you’re in a riparian stream.”
Think of it as passing through the wardrobe into the land of Narnia, only in this case, into a pristine California state park amidst the oak groves of the San Gabriel mountain range.
Boasting seven hiking trails that equate to about twelve miles, a general park area where you can picnic, and even a stage area for events, there are plenty of recreational facilities available for the public.
However, these woodlands are actually not property of the City of Santa Clarita. They remain in the hands of the Los Angeles County, which works to conserve and ensure that city development does not expand over the area. Thus, the city has no control over the park. This is most likely because the significance of the park lies in both its historical and natural history,even making it an internationally known location.
For example, many were probably taught that gold was first discovered at Sutter’s Mill up north near Sacramento, which inevitably lead to the California Gold Rush.
However, they may be surprised to hear that, truth be told, the first gold that was discovered in California was actually in that very park.
The Oak of the Golden Dream is a state historic marker where the first gold and California was discovered on March 9, 1842. Francisco Lopez was sleeping under that very tree when he pulled out a wild onion from the earth and found a gold nugget attached to the root.
Unfortunately, this isn’t really taught in school, and the tree doesn’t really have as much significance to a large part of the populace unless someone learns or hears about it directly from someone else.
Additionally, the Walker family set up their home in the area in the early 1900s, creating several homesteads throughout the valley. But the family eventually sold the property to the state of California to ensure its protection.
Their winter home still resides in the park, available for visitors to check out and read more information on.
The city also developed a facility where visitors can actually learn, in depth, about the ecology and wildlife that call these forests their home.
Hoffman described the area, as the “urban edge,” where the mountain range meets the city, and where it is particularly important learning how to truly cohabitate man-to-wildlife in these areas.
“First and foremost I want everybody to know that the Placerita Canyon Natural Area Nature Center is an educational facility,” said Hoffman. “Primarily, we are here to educate the general public about living with the wild world around us.”
His concern about the land primarily lied in the fact that with urban expansion, comes a manipulation of the natural world around it. Whether it’s intentional or not, the wildlife has to adapt to these changes, and the wilderness begins to lose some of its “wild” aspect.
This is why they house what they call “animal ambassadors”, or injured wild animals from the park (mostly birds), who are taken care of and out for visitors to observe and hopefully get a better understanding for these animals.
“Rather than be put down, we use them now as educational ambassadors to teach the public about conservation and allow them to get up close and personal with an animal that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to see,” said Hoffman.
The animals there were either injured, being rehabilitated, or simply imprinted by humans and thus unable to survive in its intended environment as a result, another downside to our anthropological effects on the land.
As a result of becoming more harmonious with the city, the animals often become reliant on humans for food, for example, for their survival. Hoffman made it clear, however, that these animals are wild regardless and that they should always be treated as such.
“Our permits [to house and rehabilitate wild animals] extend both locally via the state of California, and federally, through the state fish and wildlife,” Hoffman noted.
The facility also showcases a small “museum” where you can read more in depth about different plants and animals while having a look at scale models of the environment.
It also houses scores of taxidermied local animals which can be both unsettling and mentally enriching. There is even a full-sized, taxidermied bear along with a full-sized mountain lion, for goodness sakes!
Not only this, but the facility hosts different events for families to witness even more wildlife that the forest offers. These include various guided nature walks, as well as shows where the animals are brought out in a “show and tell” fashion to directly expose visitors to these precious critters.
To their credit, one would certainly felt more educated about our non-human cohabitants after staring eye-to-eye with a red-tailed hawk, waiting for it to devour them like a gourmet shrew on a platter–but I digress.
Hoffman’s statement regarding seeing animals that one would otherwise never have the opportunity to see in person rings true, as learning about the city’s natural habitats just isn’t the same as seeing such beautiful creatures up close. It can really change one’s perspective of Santa Clarita when they learn that our city was once home to wilderness just as wild as all the mountains are left over.
“Enjoy nature, enjoy it for what it is,” Hoffman said. “Respect wildlife. Respect that they were here first, we populated their property after they had already been here for thousands of years.”
It is unfortunate that so much of Santa Clarita’s natural land has been expanded over, but there is still so much left for us to appreciate and explore. Learn, listen, and take advantage of the lands around us, as it is a special privilege to see what our land would have been like hundreds of years ago. It creates an entirely new perspective of Santa Clarita.
This especially goes to our younger generations, as technology has replaced a lot of their desire to go appreciate the real world around us. But no technology can replace our natural world, and its degradation often is a result of our own ignorance and carelessness towards it in the first place.
Not to mention, that many of them are focused on getting out of Santa Clarita as if we have nothing significant to see here anyways. This is obviously not the case however, and this type of thinking seems to come from ignorance and not genuine curiosity to look for anything locally significant.
One should take an actual look for themselves and open their eyes to the beauty that we have in our own backyard if they truly want to see something special.