It's cheap, close by and doesn't require expensive high-tech equipment or lessons. If you can walk, you can hike. And if you live in the San Fernando Valley, you have at your back door one of the country's premier year-round hiking areas, the Santa Monica Mountains.
Valley nature lovers seeking a peak with a view, a sycamore-lined canyon trail or even a waterfall can find it somewhere within the 65,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The 600-some miles of trails wind though some o the most diverse terrain around -- from chaparral to coastal sage scrub, oak woodland and meadow.
Because of our temperate Mediterranean climate, hiking here can be enjoyed all year (barring mudslides or fires). But, as with any activity in a wilderness area, it helps to be prepared -- for trail hazards as well as chagin weather conditions.
The clothing and gear require for hiking in colder climates or higher elevations -- such as some trails in the San Gabriel Mountains -- can be simplified for hikes in the Santa Monicas. Layering with lightweight clothing is usually sufficient for any season.
You can read up on your hike's trail characteristics, wildlife and communities by using a number of guidebooks. Basic hiking gear, topographic maps, and local guidebooks can be found at local sporting goods stores.
Where to Go
The Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills are easily accessible from the Valley. Shown below are four popular hiking areas, along with diagrams comparing their elevation gain.
Beginning hikers may wish to tackle portions of theses trails before attempting the complete round-trip hikes.
1. Topanga State Park
Highlights: Oaks, sycamores; landmark Eagle Rock, a layered sandstone outcrop, which has caves to explore; excellent views of Santa Ynez Canyon and the ocean.
2. Malibu Creek State Park
Highlights: Remains of the MASH television series set; visitor center; optional side trips toLost Cabin Trail, Rock Pool and Century Lake. Scenery includes oaks, meadows and the unusual Goat Buttes rock formation.
3. Caballero Canyon
Highlights: Impressive Valley views on a hike through a sycamore-dotted canyon. Popular Sierra Club night hike.
4. Cheeseboro Canyon
Highlights: Oak-studded hills, a stream, fossils in rocks along the Cheeseboro Canyon, Modelo Baleen Wall and Palo Comado trails.
Whom to call
* Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter, (213) 387-4287
* Wilderness Institute 991-7327
* TreePeople, Coldwater Canyon Park, 753-4600.
* National Park Service 597-9192: visitor center at 30401 Agoura Rd., Suite 100 in Agoura Hills, for maps, books and guides and trail information, open Mon. through Sat. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; put out a quarterly calendar of events, programs and hikes throughout the Santa Monica Mountains
California Dept. of Parks and Recreation, 880-0350 (for Malibu Creek State Park)
Topanga State Park, (310) 455-2465.
* Cotton t-shirt, light-colored to keep cool
* Long-sleeved shirt
* Water bottle or canteen
* Thermax or polyproplene socks
* Lightweight hiking boots or gym shoes
* Day pack
* Waist pack
* Walking stick
What to watch for
* Poison oak: "Leaves of three, let it be" is the rule in our mountains. This shrub is found throughout chaparral, especially near streams. Its three shiny leaves turn bright red in autumn. Any time of year, contact with this plant can causes severe skin irritation, so avoid it.
* Ticks: These tiny insects cling to low-lying brush, waiting to attach themselves to unsuspecting victims, such as hikers, dogs and deer. More than just a blood-sucking nuisance, ticks can transmit illnesses such as Lyme disease. Stick to the trails and wear light-colored clothing so ticks can be spotted before they attach. If wearing long pants, tuck them into your socks. There are several products to repel ticks that can be sprayed on pant legs and boots. After hiking, check to make sure there are no ticks on you.
* Rattlesnakes: Although the venomous Southern Pacific rattlesnake does exist in the Santa Monica Mountains, chances of seeing one are slim. Snakes prefer grassy areas, so stay on the trails and never put your hand or foot in areas you can't see. In April, May and June, snakes sometimes sun themselves in open trail areas.
What to Bring
* Maps - Topographic trail maps
* Food: Bring high-energy food such as granola, dried fruits and nuts
* Water - Bring a quart for a half-day hike, more for longer hikes and in hot weather. Never drink from streams or creeks.
* First-Aid: Carry along basic first-aid supplies such as band-aids, moleskin for blisters, an elastic bandage and medication if you're allergic to bee stings. Also bring sunscreen and lip balm
* Binoculars: For spotting wildlife such as hawks, deer and coyotes.
Things to Remember
* Hike with a partner. If you don't, let someone know where you'll be hiking.
* To avoid mid-day heat, hike in the morning and late afternoon.
* Don't cut through switchbacks or blaze new trails because this causes erosion
* Remember that you're sharing the trails with other recreationists, such as mountain bikers and horseback riders. Be especially alert for bikers on steeply descending portions of trails.
* Pace yourself, especially when hiking steep trails
* Dogs are allowed on leash in certain areas of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, but are not allowed in state parks.
Sources: "Mountains to Ocean: A Guide to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area"; "Day Hikers Guide to Southern California"; Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Topo Map; "Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains."
Researched by JULIE SHEER/Los Angeles Times