It has been one of those weeks of endless traffic, of arguing over screen time, of too much social media and disheartening news reports. So, on a crisp, clear Sunday, I head to Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena. It is a rare morning when I am alone, so I decide to scope out this location and its hikes to see if it would be a good place for my two children, second-grader Cooper and kindergartener Lucy, to stretch their legs and their souls.
I arrive at 10:30 a.m. and am surprised to find that I am a latecomer. Even the overflow lot is nearly full. I snag a spot from someone leaving and walk to the nature center. It’s a relatively small building, but the staff hasn’t let an inch of it go to waste. There’s a topographic relief map of the area, an exhibit on identifying wildlife footprints, another on types of rock, a reading nook and a whole wall of aquariums filled with various local animals. A girl of about 9 stands transfixed in front of one tank, where a gopher snake flicks its tongue in and out. “Aw, he’s so cute!” she gushes, then follows up with, “Don’t worry, Mom, the sign says he is harmless to humans.” She is still cooing to the small reptile long after her parents have moved on, a perfect example of how open children often are to all forms of nature.
Most of the exhibits here are more about looking than interaction, but one toddler zeroes in on a “touch” opportunity immediately. “Where’s the button, Mom? Where’s the button?” she says upon entering. Her mother leads her to a button that, when pressed, lights up a model of bats in their habitat. She happily presses the light on and off, on and off.
There is also quite a bit of taxidermy; a large mule deer and a black bear are the most impressive examples. I’m there for almost 15 minutes before I realize there’s also a stuffed mountain lion crouching on a ledge above my head. There are even stuffed birds on the way to the bathroom. Lucy would like this.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” says one mother. “We had four children in our family, so we needed a place to go that was free. My own daughter is an environmental engineer now, and I think it’s partly because of the time she spent here.”
The most popular hike is to the waterfall, which is actually beyond the border of the park and just inside the Angeles National Forest. It’s supposed to be a mile and a half, but it feels a lot farther as the day warms up. I decide to stop after I’ve gone a mile, because I can’t imagine Lucy’s legs carrying her any farther. Besides, I’ve arrived at the wash. Children are everywhere, jumping from rock to rock, racing floating sticks in the current, splashing in the water. This is where I can bring the kids.
The most exciting moment of my Eaton Canyon visit, however, happens after I leave. I’ve purchased a small all-about owls gift bag at the nature center and, later that day, I present it to Lucy. She delights in the finger puppet and the zoo book. Before I know it, she is ripping the tinfoil off a small package that contains what can only be described as closely resembling, well, poop.
“Take it outside!” I say, a little too loudly. “What is it?” Lucy asks. I check the itemized tag on the gift bag. “Owl pellet and bone sheet” is the third item. This must be the owl pellet. Does “pellet” mean “poop?” I’m trying not to cringe while I Google this question. It turns out an owl pellet is the owl version of a hairball, containing the fur, teeth and bones of the prey it has swallowed whole. Hairballs are certainly preferable to poop, but I still want it outside. When I’ve got the pellet and the girl in the backyard, I tell her I’m going to get sticks so she can sort through the pellet to find bones. We should then be able to classify these bones with the identification sheet. By the time I return, though, she has already embarked on the search with her bare hands, tearing the pellet apart and plucking out at least a dozen bones. Among them, we identify two bird pelvises, four rodent femurs, a rodent jaw and several bird ribs. This is nature at its most intimate, and Lucy is thrilled.
Now she is motivated for a nature center visit herself, so together we set out to explore L.A. County’s newest addition, The Stoneview Nature Center in Culver City. Tucked at the back of a residential enclave next to the highway portion of La Cienega Boulevard, this location is a pocket of peacefulness. Although the center has been open almost a year, the newness is palpable. Even the sparkling bathrooms still smell like fresh paint.
For this reason, many features of the nature center can thus far only be appreciated in terms of their potential. The bee hotel has yet to attract any bees, the owl box is still waiting for an owl to discover it, and though there are plenty of young trees planted and growing, they are not a sufficient size to provide any shade.
What piques Lucy’s interest is that a lot of these trees are fruit trees, and several are already heavy with citrus fruit. There is also a berry garden that looks promising for later in the spring. The policy at Stoneview is that visitors are welcome to partake of any ripe fruit they find, as long as they leave some for the next visitor, and we resolve to return when the green has given way to more vibrant colors on these plants.
We’ve planned our visit to coincide with “Fun in the Garden,” a free educational activity for families held at 2:30 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. Although the nature center is not generally busy, Fun in the Garden is attended by more than 20 children. I learn that this month’s theme is birds, and after we watch a short video about owls, the main activity is – what are the odds – dissecting owl pellets. As I sit wondering if the cosmos is trying to tell me something about owls being my spirit animal, Lucy happily shows off her expertise to her table mates.
Her dissecting partner, an 8-year-old girl, tells us she comes here a lot because she lives nearby and her family gets exercise here – sometimes running the perimeter or taking part in a yoga class. We then play Bingo with the bones we find, and Lucy wins a peacock feather, which she holds against her cheek all the way home.
Dirt Doctors and Rats’ Nests
It seems only fair now to give my son an opportunity to commune with a nature center, so I make a reservation for the two of us to participate in a family tour with TreePeople, a nonprofit that operates out of Coldwater Canyon Park, a place awash in amazing views from its vantage point at the top of the mountain midway between Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks. These tours are only offered once a month, and perhaps as a result, our tour is at least 40 strong, including a dozen toddlers and babies in strollers.
The exhibits on the tour are well thought out and illustrate the organization’s goals of conserving resources and helping the environment. There are two life-size models of sheds with typical residential roofs, one conserving rainwater in rain barrels with a drought-tolerant yard in front, the other channeling all the water out through gutters and storm drains so that it is essentially wasted. There is also a demonstration of the benefits of mulch, which the guides make entertaining for the kids by dressing one of the children up in a mad scientist costume, calling him “The Dirt Doctor” and showering him with dry leaves.
Cooper seems to be the perfect age for this tour, as he is able to pay attention and understand the content of these demonstrations. He is most interested, however, in tracking where we are at any given moment on the map provided. He also gets a charge out of the abandoned rat’s nest that Isha, our guide, points out in a tree along our walk. “Don’t worry, there are no rats living there now,” Isha says. Cooper frowns. “But we leave it there in case a new rat family decides to move in,” she adds, to which Cooper says, “Yay!”
This enthusiasm for rats highlights for me the one-size-fits-all quality of nature. While I can take a deep breath and enjoy the foliage and picturesque views, my children can celebrate rats’ nests and owl pellets. But more than that, our preferred pleasures start to overlap, so that we can live vicariously through each other to enjoy more about what is around us. I see this overlap on the way home when I ask Cooper if he would recommend the tour, and am surprised when he says he would because it had “great views.” I couldn’t agree more.
L.A. Area Nature Centers
Information on many of these centers can be found online at parks.lacounty.gov
Deane Dana Nature Center, San Pedro: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Tiny Tortoises, with crafts, animal presentations, a bus ride and hike for ages 2-5, takes place from 10 a.m.-noon the first and third Friday each month. Fee is $5. There are also animal presentations from 2-3 p.m. Sundays, and birthday party packages available. (310) 519-6115
Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area, Pearblossom: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. This nature center boasts a bee hive and live snakes. Ranger-led Full Moon Hikes with hot chocolate and marshmallows take place monthly, and a telescope program happens at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. in March) the second Saturday each month. There are San Andreas Fault Tours at 1 p.m. Sundays. 661-944-2743
Eaton Canyon Nature Center, Pasadena: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Docent-led Family Nature Walks take place at 9 a.m. Saturdays, and a Nature Tails Story Hour follows at 10:30 a.m. 626-398-5420 www.ecnca.org
Placerita Canyon Nature Center, Newhall: Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun. On Saturdays, Family Nature Walks take place at 11 a.m. and Live Animal Presentations at 1 p.m. There is also a Nature Tots program for ages 3-5 from 9:30-10:30 a.m., and a Junior Rangers program for ages 6 and up from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. the second Saturday of each month. 661-259-7721 www.placerita.org
San Dimas Canyon Nature Center, San Dimas: Open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun. There are live animal presentations from 1-2 p.m. Saturdays. A Junior Naturalist program is available for ages 12-17 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays or 9 a.m.-noon weekdays, and eight-week Junior Ranger programs for ages 7-11 take place twice a year. 909-599-7512
Santa Catalina Island Interpretive Center, Avalon: Open year-round during summer, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue., Wed. and Fri.-Sun. the rest of the year. The center is self-guided and has kid-friendly exhibits. 310-510-0954 www.catalinaconservancy.org
Santa Fe Dam Nature Center, Irwindale: All programs – including wildflower, ethnobotany, bird, insect, ecology and weed walks – are led by volunteers on an “on-call” basis. Contact the nature center to schedule a day and time. The center also hosts demonstration gardens and a summer camping program. 626-334-1065 www.sgmrc.org
Stoneview Nature Center, Culver City: Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Story times take place at 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Mondays for infants to age 4. The center also hosts Family Zooga Yoga at 11:30 a.m. Sundays for ages 2-8 with an adult and Fun in the Garden from 2:30-4 p.m. Fri.-Sat. for ages 6-12. 310-202-3001 http://stoneviewnaturecenter.bhp.pagedemo.co
TreePeople, Beverly Hills: Family tours are offered from 10 a.m.-noon the fourth Sunday each month, moonlight hikes from 7:30-8:30 p.m. the third Friday and doggy hikes from 10 a.m.-noon the second Sunday. 818-753-4600 www.treepeople.org
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, Agua Dulce: Open 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Guided hikes and animal presentations take place at 10 a.m. the third Saturday each month, October through June 1. The center also houses live snakes, tarantulas and scorpions. 661-268-0840
Whittier Narrows Nature Center, South El Monte: Bird and nature walks take place at 8 a.m. Saturdays, with Animal Ambassadors presentations at 1 p.m. Sundays. The center also hosts Ranger Raccoon’s Recycling Rally, a National Owl Day celebration and weekend camps. 626-575-5523 www.wnnca.org
William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom and Sooky Goldman Nature Center, Beverly Hills: Movie Magic Hikes take place from 9-11 a.m. the first Saturday each month. The center also hosts full moon hikes and custom birthday parties. 310-858-7272 ext. 131 www.communitynatureconnection.org
Kate Korsh is an L.A.-based writer who spends lots of time out and about with her two kids.