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Hikers Head for the Hills : Recreation: The mountains of Los Angeles County are laced with trails where nature lovers can take a walk on the wildlife side.

<i> Hammers, a Northridge free-lance writer, is an avid hiker</i>

Everyone knows that walking is terrific exercise--but stepping out to face homicidal drivers, congested boulevards and murky brown haze isn’t exactly uplifting.

Instead, imagine strolling along an idyllic trail or by a flowing creek, seeing great ancient oaks, wild lilac and a golden dazzle of poppies. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse a deer or a golden eagle, and you are almost certain to spot a soaring red-tailed hawk or hear the rustle of a shy cottontail rabbit in the brush.

It is easier than you might think: You can get out of town without ever leaving Los Angeles. It also is possible to get a taste of Hollywood, a view of migrating whales and a clean whiff of sage all during one short walk.

Far removed from the cars and concrete, but only minutes from the San Fernando Valley are almost 1 million acres of wilderness. The Santa Monica Mountains extend 46 miles, from Griffith Park to Point Mugu, to the San Fernando Valley and Simi Hills. The Angeles National Forest covers about one-fourth of the land in Los Angeles County.

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This wild land is laced with hundreds of miles of well-maintained trails, fire breaks and unpaved roads. Walk past the parking lot and picnic benches and you’ll feel as if you have the entire canyon, mountain or forest to yourself--even on a gorgeous spring Sunday.

To escape urban work-a-day stress and also get some invigorating exercise, you needn’t be in top shape, and you don’t need lots of expensive gear. Like a good scout, you do need to be prepared.

What to Wear, What to Carry

“Day hiking begins and ends with the feet,” said John McKinney, author of “Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California” (Olympus Press). Since you’re likely to tackle rocky trails and climb steep slopes, you’ll need well-fitting, sturdy shoes.

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At about $50 a pair, shoes are the most expensive but most essential piece of equipment, said Kenji Haroutunian, manager of Adventure-16 Outdoor and Travel Outfitters in Tarzana.

“Hiking boots are designed to support your feet over uneven, unpaved terrain,” he said. “Sneakers or other sports shoes just aren’t made for hiking.” For optimal traction, comfort and support, Haroutunian recommends lightweight, mid-ankle hiking boots with a good tread. It’s a good idea to break in shoes before a long hike to help avoid painful blisters.

Haroutunian said that wearing woolen socks worn over thin liner socks decreases friction, reduces the chance of blisters and keeps feet dry and comfortable.

Many hikers set out with nothing more than a canteen, but to be optimally prepared, carry a sturdy nylon day pack, available at sporting goods stores for about $20 to $30. Fill it with the essentials: map of the area to be hiked (often also available at the local ranger station), small first-aid kit and lightweight jacket or sweat shirt.

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A guidebook, available at bookstores and sports and outdoor stores, can be extremely helpful. Hiking guides describe specific trails in detail, including location, level of difficulty, length in miles, time required, best time of year, landmarks and points of interest.

Recommended books include the Santa Monica Mountains series by Milt McAuley; “Hike Los Angeles” (two volumes) by Dennis Gagnon; and “Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California” (two volumes) by John McKinney, who also writes a weekly “Day Hike” column for The Times. John Robinson’s “Trails of the Angeles” describes 100 hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Always bring plenty of water. Jean Bray, spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, recommends at least one quart of water per person for short walks and more for longer hikes.

Fresh air and exercise are sure to stimulate the appetite, so take along a simple lunch. Pack a sandwich, fruit, maybe some trail mix or cookies, and plan to burn off the calories on the trail.

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Most hikers wear loose shorts on warm Southern California days, but long pants provide extra protection against poison oak, snake bites and ticks. Put on a T-shirt, hat, and sunglasses; smear on sunscreen; and you’re on your way.

Smart Hiking for Safety’s Sake

Before setting out, tell someone where you are going and when you’ll be back. Leave a description of your car and where you will park it. Bring along a hiking buddy for good conversation and extra security, but leave the pooch at home. Dogs are not permitted on most trails.

Upon reaching the trail head, check in at the ranger station if there is one, and inquire about trail conditions and information. Ask for a map, and stay on your established trail.

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From lizards to mountain lions, wildlife abounds in our local forests and mountains. Enjoy and observe them--but from a distance. Never attempt to feed or approach wild animals.

If the trail leads to crystal-clear creeks and streams, don’t stop to fill your canteen, no matter how cool and inviting they appear. “You don’t know what’s been upstream,” said State Park Ranger John Schmill. It’s liable to be something you’d rather not drink--such as human or animal waste.

Schmill added, “If you feel you’re overextending yourself, stop and go back. Have a good time--but use your head.”

Trail-Side Points of Interest

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While hiking, you may feel as though you’ve seen the place before. You probably have--on television or at the movies. Paramount Ranch was the site of dozens of movies and several TV Westerns. The “M*A*S*H” series was shot at Malibu Creek State Park. Franklin Canyon, on the edge of Beverly Hills, has portrayed everything from forest to jungle lagoon on countless television shows. Here are a few interesting trails where you’ll want to stop and see the sights:

Malibu Creek State Park

Malibu Creek State Park, a former movie ranch, has been called the gem of the Santa Monicas. A hike in this 8,000-acre wilderness will lead to rugged cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, rock pools, oak woodlands, grassy meadows and Century Lake. You’ll pass the old “M*A*S*H” set along the creek bank, but all that’s left is a rusted Jeep shell. On weekends, stop at the visitors’ center.

To get there: Take Ventura Freeway to the Las Virgenes-Malibu Canyon Road exit; go south about four miles. Park entrance is on the right. Parking: $3. (818) 706-8809 or (818) 706-1310.

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Paramount Ranch

Since the early 1920s, Paramount Ranch in Agoura has been the site of dozens of movies. “Wells Fargo,” “The Adventures of Marco Polo” and “Tom Sawyer” are just a few of the classics filmed here. Westerns from television’s early days, such as “The Cisco Kid,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Bat Masterson,” “The Rifleman” and the “Zane Grey Theater” were shot here as well.

The ranch, acquired by the National Park Service in 1980, still features a Western-style Main Street. Try the Coyote Canyon nature trail, which crosses Medea Creek, passes through the Western town and offers shady oak groves and hilltop views.

To get there: Exit on Kanan Road from the Ventura Freeway, go south on Kanan Road 3/4 of a mile; turn left at a sign reading “To Cornell Road,” veer right and go south 2 1/2 miles. Entrance is on the right side of the road. (818) 597-9192.

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Charmlee County Natural Area

Several trails and paths crisscross and wind through flower-carpeted meadows, oak woodlands and coastal hillsides in this 460-acre park above Malibu. Shady picnic areas, restrooms and drinking water are available. At the nature center, pick up a brochure describing the self-guided Fire Ecology trail. The Ocean Vista loop trail offers views of Catalina and the Channel Islands. (Remind yourself to come back next winter with a pair of binoculars. From late December through March, migrating California gray whales are often sighted.)

To get there: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Encinal Canyon Road (about three miles south of the Ventura County line). Turn inland and drive four miles to the park entrance. (818) 794-1866.

Sturtevant Falls

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Cascades, shady oaks, giant ferns and a 75-foot waterfall are among your rewards on this beautiful (though sometimes a bit crowded) creek-side canyon hike. Snacks, books and souvenirs are sold at the Chantry Pack Station near the trail head.

To get there: From the Foothill Freeway, exit on Santa Anita Avenue in Arcadia and turn north. The trail begins at Chantry Flat. (818) 790-1151.

Chilao Visitors’ Center

Among tall pines on the edge of the rugged, 36,000-acre San Gabriel Wilderness is the Chilao Visitors’ Center. Exhibits, trails and campfire programs introduce you to the forest, wildlife and history of the San Gabriel Mountains. Picnic tables and barbecues are available, and a nearby ranch cafe sells food, drinks and supplies.

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To get there: From the Foothill Freeway, exit on Angeles Crest Highway in La Canada and proceed 27 miles. (818) 796-5541.


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