Hitting the comeback trail

Hitting the comeback trail
Ed Benison hikes Los Pinetos Trail. It pays to watch your step; coyotes like it too. (Jenna Bordelon)
Placerita Canyon State Park looks a lot like Mars.

The ground, buried in layers of ash from a 2,800-acre wildfire in mid-July, resembles the inside of a barbecue pit, and the vegetation is extraordinary in that there isn't much. Here and there, clustered plants that resemble emeralds on black velvet huddle around the bases of giant shish kebabs, which turn out to be charred manzanita and live oak trees.

When I meet Silvia Darie and Ed Benison in this supernatural landscape before October's early rains, the trails are empty save for one other hiker. The air is unnaturally still and devoid of birdsong.

The park is undergoing a transformation, but as far as I can tell, barely anyone is there to see it. Except Ed and Silvia, who make Placerita Canyon a regular stop on their hiking itinerary.

"I saw a deer a couple of weeks ago standing right in the middle of the fire area," Ed says hopefully.

Placerita Canyon is still home to plenty of animals, such as the ornate shrew, the California pocket mouse, two types of skunk and 16 kinds of bats, including the little brown myotis and the hoary bat.

After checking out the park's nature center, we drive to the Walker Ranch trail head and take a short jaunt down Oak Pass Trail before hitting the Los Pinetos Trail.

Passing a stately eucalyptus that escaped the fire, we read the expensive-looking wooden sign in front of it: Centenial Tree. Whoops. I hope the sign hasn't been misspelled for 100 years. As we ascend the steepest, most exposed part of the trail, Ed points out evidence of ecological regeneration: morning glories, wild cucumber pods and loads of gooseberry-filled coyote scat.

The coyotes make a point of using the trail to do their dirty business, Ed says. "It's like they're thumbing their noses at us," he laughs.

Gravel loosened by the fire buries the trail at times in slushy rivers of rock. We traverse a steep segment, experiencing a slight rush of danger with each step.

In the cool of what Ed calls "the enchanted forest," the trail splits and we enter the Angeles National Forest. The trail splits again next to a rusted garbage can that Ed says hasn't been emptied in three years. At the top, we pop out onto a fire road.

Heading left up into the clouds, we reach a decent if somewhat smoggy lookout with a view of the San Fernando Valley. The hills are crisscrossed by bulldozer tracks made by firefighters.

On the way back out, we detour to explore the creek running through Waterfall Trail.

"This will be a challenge to your imagination because there's not a drop in it," Ed says, as we climb a set of wooden stairs.

I choose my steps carefully. The coyotes like this trail too.

The particulars

Where: Placerita Canyon State Park in Newhall.

What: A moderate 5.5-mile round-trip hike with a 1,400-foot gain on Los Pinetos Trail.

How: Take 14 Freeway east and exit at Placerita Canyon Road. Head south about 1.8 miles to the gated trail head at Walker Ranch.

Back story: The Oak of the Golden Dream, which stands outside the Placerita Nature Center ([661] 259-7721), marks the site of the state's first gold discovery.