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Walk this hidden wildlife sanctuary not far from an L.A. freeway

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The first of the Tujunga Ponds, an unlikely wildlife sanctuary south of the 210 Freeway in the Sunland-Tujunga area.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

This is a wild and wonderful walk between Shadow Hills and Lake View Terrace that offers a little bit of everything — wildlife, urban decay and open water — in the midst of what would appear to be a barren flood plain. Although it’s a virtually flat circuit, the terrain includes rock, sand, mud and a water crossing. You are guaranteed to get your feet wet. Bring water and sunscreen, as always, but wear shoes that can get soaked.

The area burned in the 2017 Creek Fire and is coming back to life through restoration efforts. This is a slightly complicated walk, describing a counterclockwise loop, but you can’t really get lost. For bonus points, bring a grabber tool and a small trash bag. You’ll find remnants of litter bugs on this walk.

1. Begin this walk on Wentworth Street near the Sunland Boulevard exit from the 210 Freeway. Park near the corner of Wentworth Street and Mary Bell Avenue. Across the street from that intersection, find a gate leading into a seeming wasteland. Welcome to the 13-acre Tujunga Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary, dedicated as a public place in 1978 upon the completion of the freeway. Since then, it has become an unlikely haven for indigenous plants and animals.

Follow the trail to Tujunga Ponds, but follow the rules too.
Once you enter through the gate, follow the narrow sandy trail to the left to get to the Tujunga Ponds.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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2. Once through the gate, bend slightly left and onto a narrow sandy trail. Continue about 200 yards as this trail widens and aims for a stand of sycamore trees and an abandoned shipping container. Walk directly between these, past the remnants of an old house, keeping the shipping container on your right. Ahead and onto a piece of paved road, slightly to the left, you’ll see a white signpost announcing some of the sanctuary rules.

The wide and sandy trail that leads to Tujunga Ponds.
The wide and sandy trail that leads to the ponds.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

3. Drop down to a little trail next to the sign that leads to a marshy creek bed lined with cottonwood trees. Turn right and follow the narrow trail, with the marsh on your left and the hillside on your right. Walk on as this trail changes from hard pack to deep sand to rocky dry streambed that swings now left, now right. Note the horse tracks: You might be sharing the trail with equestrian friends. Give them the right of way and stand aside if you see them coming.

Horses on the trail to Tujunga Ponds.
You may see horses on the trail. Give them right of way.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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4. After 15 minutes or so on this now rocky trail, take the first left onto a broad plain. You should see the 210 Freeway rising in the distance, more or less straight ahead. Continue until the trail crosses the remnants of a chain-link fence. Turn right and follow this trail, with the fence on your right. Shortly you will see the first of the Tujunga Ponds downhill on the left.

5. Curve around, staying on the trail that follows the contour of the pond, dropping down a short hill and then to the water’s edge. Among the cattails you may see egrets, coots, hawks, ducks and other bird life, as well as bullfrogs and turtles.

6. Walk on past the pond along a wide, shaded trail that can be quite muddy. Continue until you come to a paved road, where you’ll see a green portable toilet open to all. Turn left to explore the second Tujunga Pond, then return here and continue up a short rise toward the chain-link fence. At the top, turn left past the gate and walk along a wide, sandy ridge trail.

7. Drop down a short hill and walk more or less straight ahead onto a narrow sandy trail crossing a dry wash dotted with cactus and yucca. Stay on this trail as it winds around, drops down into a lower dry wash and comes to a T intersection.

The ponds at the wildlife sanctuary near Sunland-Tujunga coexist on the urban edge.
The ponds at the wildlife sanctuary near Sunland-Tujunga coexist on the urban edge.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

8. Turn left, walk about 25 yards and — voila! — you are at the water crossing. When I walked here in August and again in January, there was about 6 inches of clear water in the stream. There’s a makeshift bridge that looked quite unstable, as well as a place where one could attempt jumping across. Both seemed unwise. So I stepped in and enjoyed the cool sensation of water on my feet.

9. Across the stream, walk about 75 yards straight ahead. Find a hard right onto the trail that you came down an hour ago and climb up. You’ll see the white shipping container ahead. Walk between this and the sycamores, keeping the shipping container on your left, and find your way back to the starting point.

Distance: 2.7 miles round trip
Difficulty: 3 on a scale of 1 to 5
Duration: 1¼ hours
Steps: 6,500
Details: Free street parking. OK for dogs on leashes and bicycles. Bus service on nearby Foothill Boulevard on Metro bus 90.

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Fleming is the author of “Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.” Each month, he leads a free walk at one of his favorite spots in Southern California. Find out more at his Facebook page, Secret Stairs. He is on Twitter @misterfleming


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