Explore oak-lined canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The Cheeseboro/Palo Comado Canyons park site, a unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, draws tens of thousands of self-propelled travelers yearly, but there's plenty of room for those visitors to spread out. The long, leisurely loop route described here visits the two canyons, both surprisingly serene and pristine despite extensive suburban development in the surrounding region. Deer, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, owls, and various birds of prey can be spotted in both canyons, especially in the early morning.

Late summer brings midday temperatures in the 90s, making this area unpleasant for all but perhaps mountain bikers, who may enjoy the benefit of evaporative cooling if they move fast enough. Hikers had best stay off the trail until later in the season, when temperatures drop to comfortable levels.

From Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, take the Chesebro Road exit, go north about 200 yards on what is signed Palo Comado Canyon Road, then turn right on Chesebro Road. Drive 0.7 mile north to the main entrance to the Cheeseboro/Palo Comado Canyons site, on the right. Gates to the trailhead parking lot swing open at 8 a.m. -- but often earlier than that on weekends, when volunteers staff a National Park Service information booth here. A fenced trail into Cheeseboro Canyon bypasses the parking area, and hikers, bikers, and equestrians use it even when the gates are shut.

From the trailhead parking lot, follow the wide Cheeseboro Canyon Trail, which goes briefly east and then bends north up along the wide, nearly flat canyon floor. Two kinds of oak trees dominate the Cheeseboro landscape: evergreen coast live oaks clustering along the canyon bottoms, and deciduous valley oaks, widely spaced, striking statuesque poses in the meadows and on the hillsides. This looks like typical California cattle-grazing land, and indeed it was for a period of about 150 years. Now that the cattle have been removed, oak seedlings are taking root in increasing numbers.

At 1.6 miles on Cheeseboro Canyon Trail, near the Palo Comado Connector Trail joining from the west, you come upon a pleasant trailside picnic area. Stay on the main wide trail going north through the canyon bottom. At 3.3 miles you pass Sulphur Springs. Let your nose be your guide for locating the springs. There's not much to see -- the springs are mere seeps.

By 4.5 miles from the trailhead, in the corner of Shepherds Flat, you'll reach an old sheep corral made of wire. Pause here for a picnic, perhaps, before resuming your trip.

From the corral, continue west on a narrow trail through the brush. You pass over a saddle and briefly descend to meet the graded-dirt Palo Comado Canyon Trail (5.2 miles). Turn left now, and commence a short mile of crooked descent on the wide dirt road. You look down on a lovely tapestry of canyon-bottom woods and slopes adorned with dense patches of chaparral and sandstone outcrops. Soon you are amid those woods, which are mostly live oaks and sycamores. The going is easy for another two miles as you proceed almost imperceptibly downhill along the canyon bottom.

At 8.2 miles, there's a forced left turn out of the canyon (off-limits private land lies ahead) and onto the Palo Comado Connector Trail. You meander uphill for a mile to a rounded ridge, where you meet the Modelo Trail on the right. Use it, and later the Modelo Spur, to return to the trailhead by the most expeditious route.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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