Placerita Canyon Nature Center is excited to be slowly going back to the pre-COVID normal as they allow guests back in for visits in their building, as well as on their guided hikes, beginning July 1.
The park was severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent guideline limitations. Frank Hoffman, Head Ranger and Recreation Services Supervisor, said getting back to a regular schedule at the park has been a process.
“The whole facility was shut down for a period of time without having any public access,” he said.
Many employees of the Los Angeles County park system also had to face lay-offs.
“During COVID, the county had released all of its part-time employees, be they lifeguards or recurrent rec leaders, folks that work here,” Hoffman continued. “During that time, our full-time staff was obligated to man the park, take care of the park, as well as all of the maintenance issues. I was here full time, taking care of all of the animals. We have approximately 50 animals that need to be fed and cared for every day. That fell on me, that was my responsibility because I’m the animal guy here. We were answering phones, we were dictating traffic, we were trying to let people know when we were open, when we weren’t, we were trying to tell them what our hours of operation were because they were fluctuating a lot in the last few months.”
Once shutdowns loosened “early on, we were allowing hikes and all of that [by May 1], but we weren’t allowing any formalized programming and [we had] a lot of formalized programming… [Also] no sit-down picnics or anything at that point.”
Luckily, this last month has been a good one for the park. As with many facilities, the park was able to open up much more on June 15.
“As of June 15, our parks [were] open outdoors with unlimited capacity usage. So we [could] open up for weddings again, picnics and larger gatherings. Programs indoors are still limited to under 30 people. Based on the size of the room, there is only a certain amount of people we can allow in at a time.”
The nature center has also been able to bring back its volunteers.
“We opened up for our volunteers in very small groups. Right now, I’m taking small groups in two [to] five at a time as long as they’re socially distanced and as long as they’re wearing their masks while they are inside… Slowly but surely, we’re getting back together. We don’t want to move too quickly, we want to make sure we do it right the first time.”
The park has several groups that volunteer their time, including docents from the Nature Center Associates of Los Angeles County.
“I take Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, walk-in volunteer requests, honor society candidates, college-level and high school [students]… [Our volunteers] are helping to water [the grounds], learning animal husbandry, they do animal care to a very small extent… I have an individual who is here five hours a day and five days a week [whose] key job is feeding the animals and working with the animal ambassadors here that we share with the public.”
Volunteers among Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops have been a constant element of the nature center’s history “for as long as I’ve been here,” according to Hoffman. Scouting activities such as hiking, Cub Scout to Boy Scout bridging ceremonies and courts of honor have regularly been held outside the nature center.
“They come and do their own self-guided hikes, their own adventures to earn merit badges… sometimes we will do planting and trail maintenance, maybe I’ll have them water [the nature center grounds] because that’s critical right now… I consider them community-based partners.”
For any would-be volunteers, groups or folks reading this who are interested in helping out or getting involved, Hoffman shared some instructions.
“To volunteer here, you want to call the park and talk to me and we can make an appointment and see if we have an availability. Everybody’s out of school, everybody’s looking for stuff to do. We expose them to a lot of different things.”
The park is now in the position to restart guided hikes, Hoffman said, something he’s excited about.
“Every Saturday at 11 a.m. we have a guided family nature walk that lasts about an hour. [It’s a] very gentle hike all about the local flora and fauna, the local history… we walk you through several historical points throughout the park and we explain those to you and get you kind of excited about them. Included is a hike to the Oak of the Golden Dream, where gold was first recognized as having been discovered in California…. [we also have] our first and second Saturday of the month bird walks, which start at 8 a.m… On the fourth Saturday of every month, beginning at 9:30 a.m., we have the blooms of the season flower and plant walk, so you can walk with our volunteer docents in any of these three programs… They’re free programs offered by our volunteer contingency, which we are going to be offering year-round again now that we are reopened.”
While limitations were previously in place regarding the width of people joining in on activities, “those limitations have been lifted… [Changes are] happening very quickly every day,” Hoffman said. Anyone interested in joining one of these hikes, all you need to do is come to the park with your outdoor essentials.
“You can show up without a reservation… on that day and be ready to go… Bring a water bottle, comfortable shoes, closed-toe shoes… loose-fitting clothes, a hat, sunscreen. Hydrate before you get here and just keep an eye out for your family and each other.”
If you like to go at your own pace, most of the park’s trails are reopened for public use. However, make sure to be aware of posted signs where areas may be restricted.
“All of our trails are open at Placerita except the Waterfall trail. That trail is still closed. Unfortunately people are still using it and they are liable to citation if they go in there. We have big signs and a chain-link fence that says do not come past here… People are still bush-wacking in there when they shouldn’t be. We’ve had two rescues already this year on that Waterfall trail that shouldn’t have happened because people aren’t supposed to be there.”
The Canyon, Waterfall and Los Pinetos trails were closed due to damage from the Sand Fire in 2016.
“We, maybe, eight months ago reopened our Canyon trail to the general public,” Hoffman said. “It had been closed for several years before the California Conservation Corps went in there and repaired it… The Forest Service opened up the Los Pinetos trail and the connecting trails to bring it back to the park. They had some pretty tough restrictions for a long time too.”
Hoffman referred to the Los Pinetos trail as a favorite among park goers.
“The Los Pinetos trail takes you to the top of the mountain range. You can take the Forest Service’s trail break to follow the ridge and come down to our Manzanita Mountain trail,” he explained. “That connects to the Hillside trail, which will bring you right back down to the picnic area.”
Hoffman also says to stay aware of your surroundings, as the heat can bring many dangers with it. With rising temperatures, local animals can make trails more hazardous. Hoffman said snakes have been seen as early as January and February.
“Mostly rattlesnakes, out of hibernating, it’s mating season, they’re hungry… keep an eye on the trail when you’re out there.”
He warned too that if hikers want to bring pets, keep an eye on them.
“We need to be aware of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in animals too. Over my 26-year career here with the County of Los Angeles and most of it here at Placerita, we’ve lost several dogs to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. People are walking them out there in the middle of heat yet they’re not spraying them, their little feet are pounding in the sand and they don’t put booties on their dogs… We have to be cognizant of our dogs when we come up here too, so hydrate them. Water, shade, plenty of rest in between the little bursts of energy. Just keep an eye out for excessive panting and stumbling.”
For people wanting to get out of the house without dealing with the heat, Hoffman suggested the nature center building.
“Our building is open. Our museum and our classroom, our educational interpretive center. We are open now during the normal working hours until 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Till 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday right now… If you come here, maybe use this as a place to cool down. In our museum, there are plenty of exhibits to see. If you’ve never been here before, I encourage people to come out and see our live animals that we have on exhibit [and] our taxidermy animals on exhibit. We have a little bone exhibit up right now [which includes] an alligator, a coyote, a barn owl, you could see a deer, a bison jaw, all kinds of cool stuff. You never know what’s gonna show here at any time. I have a saying, ‘you never know what’s gonna show with Ranger Frank.’”
Animal lovers can also come visit the park’s live animals.
“Out in our courtyard… I have two lovely redtail hawks, a long-eared owl, there’s a turkey vulture, and we have two desert tortoises… Within the building itself, we have live rattlesnakes on exhibit, we have a mountain kingsnake, a gopher snake and two western pond turtles… All of these cool wild animals that you can see.”
Visitors can expect Placerita Canyon to be opening up longer soon. By July 1, it will be open “seven days a week, as a park, as an open space for hiking, and anything you want to do outdoors from sunrise to sunset,” Hoffman said. The nature center hours will be different from the rest of the park, with staff and programming hours on Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
“We’re gonna be closed as a building on Mondays,” Hoffman added.
Hoffman wants people to come and have fun while making sure they are keeping themselves and their loved ones safe.
“We invite people to be outdoors. We invite them to come to the park. We want them to be safe. We want them to be cognizant of their surroundings. You’ve got to know that there is poison oak and rattlesnakes everywhere. We encourage people to stay on the trails, do not cut the trails or cut switchbacks. Make sure you’re prepared when you get here. Bring plenty of water, bring a water bottle, we have plenty of drinking fountains for you to refill your water bottles. Make sure you’re cognizant of your pets. Do not keep your pets in your car. Even when you come into the building for 15 minutes… It gets super hot in your car, even in the shade here. So, let’s be aware of our pets and our little ones. Little ones don’t show the signs of heat exhaustion as quickly as adults but when it hits them, it hits them pretty hard. So be aware of your little people and your older people… Have fun, enjoy it for what it is.”
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