Till the cows come home . . .

It's been years since anyone has seen the free-range cattle in Cheeseboro and Palo Camado canyons.

But that doesn't mean they aren't there.

About five years ago, park rangers with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area swore that cattle had escaped from a nearby ranch and were living free and wild in the popular hiking and mountain biking canyons near Agoura Hills. The rangers said the cattle had been free so long, they had turned feral, becoming wiry, wily and stealth-like.

Straddling a mountain bike, I spent a couple of hours searching, unsuccessfully, for the escapees.

Since then, memories of the parkland's rugged bike trails that climb over grass-covered hills, drop alongside creek beds and meander through oak groves have stayed with me. So on a recent Saturday morning, I returned, planning to spend the whole day enjoying the trails. And maybe I could spot one of the legendary cows.

The last park official to spot the animals was Jim Richardson, a ranger who has since moved to another park. In a phone interview, he said the cattle were never caught and, several years ago, vanished. "It's still a little bit of a mystery," he said.

At the main entrance to Cheeseboro and Palo Camado canyons, I encountered several other mountain bikers, all of whom looked like serious biking junkies, riding man toys that probably cost more than my car. (No difficult feat there.)

My ride is an old rigid-frame bike I bought at a secondhand store and beefed up with new knobby tires and hefty brakes. My philosophy is that if I thrash my ride on the trail, I can bury it where it lands and be out only a few bucks. It almost came to that on my ride in Cheeseboro and Palo Camado canyons.

At a portable booth near the park entrance, I grabbed a trail map and asked a volunteer guide about cow sightings. He told me the park hadn't seen any cattle in years. Then he directed me to Cheeseboro Canyon Trail, an easy, long fire road, excellent for beginners and intermediate riders.

Four years ago, the Topanga fire blazed through the park, turning leafy oaks and swaying grassland into charred branches and piles of gray ash. But during my visit, the trees looked leafy and green. The grass, tall and abundant. The cackling birds, loud and lively.

A note of warning: There are rustic bathrooms at the main entrance to the park but no water. Make sure to pack lots to drink.

According to the trail map, the canyons are home to several species of prey birds, including owls and hawks. Sure enough, I spotted what looked like two red-tail hawks, squabbling with common blackbirds near a treetop.

As I rode, I remembered Richardson's theory that the feral cows might be hiding among the thick shrubs along the creek beds. I listened for movement near the water's edge but heard only chirping birds and scrambling squirrels.

The best part of Cheeseboro Canyon Trail is the series of "whoop-de-doos" I came upon after about 30 minutes of riding. The series of small knolls and gorges had me flying up and down like a kid on a roller coaster.

On one of the hills, I flew down a section strewn with "baby head" rocks (dubbed so because they are the size of, well, baby heads). My fun was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of metal parts mashing together, coming from my rear wheel. At the bottom of the hill, I investigated and found that my bike's derailleur (the device that moves the chain from one sprocket to another) had been bent in such a way that I could not shift to an easier, hill-climbing gear. I considered burying my bike in the weeds, letting Mother Nature absorb the metal and rubber back into the Earth.

But I pressed on, heading north, with a plan to ride to a spot called Sheep Corral Trail and then return south, along Palo Camado Canyon Trail, to the main entrance. With my derailleur broken, I had to push my bike up the hills and then coast down the other side.

Somewhere along the way, I got lost. Really lost.

I recall flying down a steep hill, through an open gate and ending up on a paved road.

A paved road doesn't belong in the park. I could see homes in the distance. Where was I?

That's when a security guard in a tiny, rusty jalopy flagged me down and told me I was on private ranch property.

"How did you get in here?" he asked.

"I rode from Cheeseboro Canyon," I said.

"It's lucky I found you," he said. "You have to head back. We have Brahma bulls out here."

"Where am I?" I asked, handing him my trail map. He stared at it with a confused look and pointed to a spot in the air, about 12 inches above the end of the map.

Somehow, I had ridden -- with a broken derailleur -- clear into Simi Valley, about 15 miles from where I started. I had covered the length of the park (and beyond) and seen some wonderful wildlife and landscape. But I saw none of the legendary feral cattle. Perhaps, however, I had stumbled upon an answer to the cattle mystery.

If I could drift into private ranch land, couldn't the escaped livestock do the same?

And so, maybe they live on, hoofing it from parcel to parcel, escaping capture like the legendary Sasquatch or Yeti.

But if I were an escaped cow, I don't think I could find a better place to hole up than Cheeseboro and Palo Camado canyons.





If you go


From Los Angeles, take U.S. 101 north and exit on Chesebro Road/Agoura Hills. Turn right on Palo Comado Canyon Road and right again on Chesebro Road. Continue less than a mile and look for the main paved parking lot on the right. Park here or continue on to a dirt parking lot for equestrian visitors next to a set of bathrooms. A gate at the equestrian parking lot closes at sunset.


No drinkable water is available on the trails and shade is scarce. Pick up a trail map at the booth near the entrance or upload a brochure at www.nps.gov/samo/planyourvisit/



National Park Service, (805) 370-2301, www.nps.gov/samo.

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