Mateo hiking in Joshua Tree National Park

Photo by Ilsa Setziol 

Your big yard

All the world’s a classroom, so put on your hiking or biking shoes and take the family to these parks and gardens for a master class in Southern California’s abundant flora and fauna.

By Ilsa Setziol 09/01/2010

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It’s late on a hot summer night. I want my 3-year-old to lie down and sleep. 
He won’t — he’s busy nesting. Perched atop his scrunched-up blue blankie, he informs me “I can’t lie down, my eggs will get cold.” I suggest he keep them warm by lying on top of them. “They’ll break!” he wails.  
I’m guessing he was a sea turtle that night, because a recent trip to a turtle rescue center had made a big impression on him. But he could just as easily have been a flamingo or an alligator. Could there be anything cuter than Mateo pretending he’s an animal? Well, yes — when he strikes up a conversation with one: “Here, ladybug, you can land on me.” Or “Nice to meet you, bunny.” 
For a decade, I’ve written about the environment and pondered contemporary America’s disconnect from nature. So I’m eager for my son to get outside and explore. Since he was barely old enough to hold up his head, my husband and I have toted Mateo along trails in the San Gabriel Mountains, around public gardens and out to the Pacific. So here’s an introduction to some of my favorite spots and activities: 
When Mateo was an infant, we bought a Kelty Kids carrier, a backpack-like contraption. Gently jostling on Dad’s back and sheltered under the carrier’s canopy, he looked like a little Indian prince atop an elephant (apologies to Dad). 
The rough spot came when he hit 2½ — too heavy to carry for long, too toddling to walk far. Still, in the right setting and with a little encouragement, a little kid will haul tuchus. Look for places with nature centers, water and relatively flat trails. And take your time. Be content to spend a half-hour moving pebbles from one side of a path to the other. 

Monrovia Canyon Park
This lovely city park features a stream hemmed with alders, those elegant trees that seem to regard you silently (with the eye-like markings on their trunks). 
The waterfall trail is popular with families. If you have older kids, choose the trailhead near the entrance. You’ll get a 3.4-mile hike roundtrip and perhaps see some deer or native grey squirrels. For an easier 1.5-mile hike, start at the nature center farther up the road.
Ernest E. Debs Regional Park
If you haven’t already scoped it out, head to the darling nature center at Debs Park, near the 110 Freeway between South Pasadena and downtown L.A. A small area surrounding this Audubon Center has been beautifully landscaped with native plants, and there are many wonderful niches for kids to explore. “The water is a huge draw for all ages,” says center Director Jeff Chapman. “Kids also enjoy watching dragonflies and other animals that come to get water. They like seeing how water moves through our mini-arroyo.”  
For a great spot to picnic, enter the park on Monterey Road, north of Huntington Drive. Spread your blanket on the large tree-studded lawn, or trek up the (stroller-accessible) closed road for panoramic views.
Eaton Canyon Natural Area
This county park is familiar to many denizens of Arroyoland. Come early or on weekdays and walk quietly; you’ll be sure to see something new. Look for cottontail bunnies and lizards darting among the shrubs behind the nature center. And bring binoculars because birds abound here. 
My son and a friend recently spent a couple of hours completely enraptured by one stretch of the stream. They created little dams, scooped up polliwogs and poked the streambed with sticks. Mateo also loves the live snakes and frogs housed in the 7,600-square-foot nature center.
A docent leads free family nature walks here on Saturdays at 9 a.m.

Stough Canyon
The Verdugo Mountains, surrounded by La Cañada Flintridge, Tujunga, Glendale and Burbank, are a great place to experience wildflowers. In the spring, you might spot tall spikes of pink clarkias, scarlet delphiniums and California sunflowers. Most of the trails in the Verdugos are steep, though, so I recommend Stough Canyon, in Burbank, for older children.

Legg Lake Park 
Biking is another fun way to experience the outdoors. The paved trails surrounding Legg Lake at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area (Montebello/Pico Rivera) accommodate parents carting tots or kids riding on their own.
The lake is bustling with waterfowl of all kinds. Kingfishers also buzz around this supersize pond. There are ample picnic benches, ice cream vendors and pedal boats for rent.

Angeles National Forest
One of our most exciting trips during my son’s second year was a bike ride along the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, off Highway 39. He watched a man catch trout — and even got to touch one. He waded, climbed rocks and saw a frog. 
For a first fishing experience, a sure bet is Mt. Baldy Trout Pools, a stocked fishing area on Mt. Baldy Road, 10 miles north of Claremont.
For information about the San Gabriel River’s West Fork, visit For the trout pools, go to

Camping with kids can be exhausting — but rewarding. On a trip to Joshua Tree National Park this year, Mateo and his little friend devolved into cave-kids, whacking people with sticks and dumping fistfuls of gravel on each other. But it’s hard to top an evening of roasted marshmallows and stargazing. 
Despite the desert melée, one of my main camping recommendations is to go with another family. On the trail, kids will spur each other on; at the campsite, parents can share KP duty.  

Every day can be an adventure in your own backyard. Mine is teeming with native plants — which attract insects, birds and lizards — and edible plants. 
Among my son’s favorite backyard activities: planting seeds, picking strawberries, hauling soil in dump trucks, filling the birdfeeder, magnifying things, handling worms from the composting bins and catching bugs.
We’ve also raised painted lady butterflies from caterpillars we bought from 
Perhaps our most exciting backyard exploration was inspired by Brent “The Bug Guy” Karner from the Natural History Museum. He showed us how to catch bugs by swooping a butterfly net over the tops of bushes. He not only reassured us that the vast majority of bugs in our yard wouldn’t hurt us, he also told us it’s okay to play with them. 
“My feeling is the experience is very important,” Karner says. “Bugs are a lot tougher than we think. If we’re being generally gentle, the bug will probably survive and then you’ve learned a bit about it as well.” Since then, Mateo has slept with jars of katydids and worms under his bed. And he has composed lyrics such as “Roly-poly you’re my friend/I will make you a dinner den.”
A couple of months ago, we discovered a mourning dove nesting in our backyard. Mateo got a peek at her eggs and the baby. “Here, mother dove,” he said sweetly, “here’s some seed for you. Here’s some water.” 
As for the human mom in our household (namely, me), she’s tired of being tackled and punched, whined and yelled at. We’ve talked a lot about respectful behavior. And yet, when Mateo encounters animals, he’s exceedingly gentle, stroking them softly with two fingers, cooing to them lovingly.
If I pretend to be a bird, could I get some mother dove love?  

For more on Ilsa Setziol’s excursions, visit her blog on the natural environment of Southern California: 


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