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A Park a Day: Placerita Canyon Natural Area, Santa Clarita

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July is National Parks & Recreation Month, and all month long LAist will be featuring a hand-selected park a day to showcase just a few of the wonderful recreation spaces--big or small--in the Los Angeles area.

Pop quiz, hot shot! Where was gold first discovered in California? If you answered Sutter's Mill, you need to take a trip up the 14 & spend an afternoon in Placerita Canyon.

California's first gold flakes were found near the foot of The Oak of The Golden Dream in 1842, six years before prospectors rushed in. Legend has it that Mexican rancher Francisco Lopez y Arbello slept under the tree & dreamt of great riches. When he awoke, he dug for wild onions, and found gold nuggets attached. (Moral of the story: eat your vegetables!)

The Oak is just one site along Placerita Canyon's Heritage Trail. There's also The Walker Cabin, wherein frontiersman Frank Walker raised 12 kids in a space smaller than a Koreatown apartment. The cabin played host to countless Western film shoots until Walker sold his property to the state in 1950.

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If you're more interested in hitting the trail than the history books, Placerita Canyon boasts 10 in all, ranging from a 15-minute stroll to the butterfly garden to a seven mile stretch in & around the Canyon. Park materials claim most run 1-2 miles or less, but I was unable to follow any trails to verify. For some strange reason, my two-year old travel companion didn't feel like hiking.

For kids of all ages, the Placerita Canyon Nature Center is a treat. Some of the wildlife may be stuffy, but the staff are not. Docents are very friendly, knowledgeable & generous with photos (want to feel old? Try counting all the schoolkids snapping away on their camera-phones). Guided nature walks take place every Saturday, as well as an hour-long Nature Show that offers redeeming new looks at "pests" (opossums, spiders, etc.), and a rare audience with birds of prey who can no longer live in the wild due to injury. Keep an eye out for "O.J." (Owl Jr.), the Nature Center's mascot for 30 years and counting!

The facilities, including Walker Cabin & the Nature Center, were restored in 2008. Parking is ample, and there's plenty of shade in the picnic area. The only things that may bug you are red ants on trails & the occasional murder of crows.