By Victoria Stuart

Placerita Canyon is one of Santa Clarita’s many preserved lands, primarily used for hiking, animal conservation, and education. The state park is one of the city’s vast historical landmarks.

“It’s a place for people to recreate. They come here to get away from the city. They come here to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the town,” noted Ranger Frank Hoffman, the park’s recreation services supervisor. “They come here for solace. They come here for peace and quiet. They come here to enjoy the birds and everything that we have to offer.”

Placerita Canyon was first inhabited around the year 450 A.D. by the Tataviam people, who were a Native American tribe seen in parts of Southern California, largely the Los Angeles County area. 

The next documented case of human life in the Placerita area was when the Portola Expedition came through Southern California in an attempt to place the region under Spanish rule. The Portola Expedition drove the Tataviam people out of the Santa Clarita area.

Not only were historical Native American tribes a part of the deep history of Placerita, but in fact, the area is also well known for being the first ever documented spot in California where gold was discovered.  On March 9, 1842, Francisco López found gold in Placerita Canyon and documented his finding.

The oak tree that Fransisco Lopez fell asleep under is currently known as the Oak of the Golden Dream. Victoria Stuart/Canyons News

Beyond the documentation, however, the specific details have gotten hazy over the years.

Rumor has it that Lopez was searching for some stray cattle, and on his hunt, he sat down next to an oak tree to take a short nap. He claims to have had a dream about discovering gold. When he woke up, he went back on his hunt for the cattle, but rather than finding the cattle, he found some wild onions. Attached to the roots of these onions were particles of gold.

Many people claim that this story is simply a legend since Lopez was a skilled miner and there was already a consistent flow of undocumented cases of gold findings throughout the current Santa Clarita Valley. Therefore, many opponents of this claim believe that Lopez already knew there would be gold in the area and made up the story to sound more elaborate for publicity.

After the California gold rush came and went, the Placerita Canyon area stayed largely dormant except for one family who owned most of the land. 

The Walker family purchased the land in the early 1900s and owned it for roughly fifty years. The Walker family was made up of 14 members: two parents and twelve children. One of their cabins is still intact for visitors to see.

In 1950, the State of California purchased the land from the Walker family in order to preserve this historic area. This land has turned into what is now Placerita Canyon State Park.

Placerita has gone from a historic gold mining location to an educational network of hiking trails, picnic spots, and informational classes for residents and visitors to enjoy. The park provides classes on the area’s plentiful species of animals and plants. Other classes are provided, such as bird watching and even classes for children, all led by park rangers and volunteer workers.

Placerita Canyon is a non-profit organization that strives to preserve and educate people on historically rich land, so the park gets funds strictly from donations. 

Placerita even has an adopt-an-animal program where people can “adopt” any of the native animals in Placerita for a donation which varies in price, based largely on the size of the animal. The donors can then visit the nature center in the park to see their animals in the weekly educational shows that the volunteers host.

Placerita’s nature center is also home to many injured animals. The nature center takes the injured animals that are found in Placerita, or in the Santa Clarita area, and nurse the animals back to health with the hope of releasing them into the wild when fully healed. 

The front entrance of the Placerita Nature and Recreation center is home to many injured animals being rehabilitated. Victoria Stuart/Canyons News

There are some cases of the animals not being able to be nursed back to health completely, so those animals then get a permanent home at the nature center where they are cared for by the rangers and volunteers.

“I’ve been volunteering here since I was eight, so about a decade, and I feel like this is a great space where you are able to see animals and get an experience with nature. I appreciate it because these are the natural animals that occur in California, so you get a sense of appreciation for the environment when being here,” said volunteer Jack Martin.

Placerita Canyon also offers its visitors several different hiking trails, ranging in length from 0.05 miles to 7.2 miles, making the trails suitable for all ages. Some trails have a steeper grade than others, and many provide wonderful views of the surrounding areas. 

With that in mind, safety is always a concern and Ranger Frank advises, “Be respectful of the environment. Don’t cut the trails. Stay on the trails and don’t go zig-zagging off.”

Like many wooded areas of California, Placerita Canyon has had its fair share of fires, burning down many parts of the Canyon over the years. The most recent fire, the Placerita Fire in 2017, caused considerable damage to the area’s ecosystem. However, with the help of firefighters, park rangers, volunteers, and nature itself, Placerita Canyon has been able to bounce back as it has from previous fires in the area.

“This park has nurtured so many amazing memories throughout my childhood. It offers a public space for families so they can have a nice picnic and know that their kids are going to be safe and experience nature,” Beckham Reynolds, a hiker, mentioned.

One of the best features of the park is that it is easy to get there. Placerita is located in Newhall, just off the 14 freeway, a short car ride or cycling trip from Santa Clarita. In spite of its proximity to the city, many people come here to get away from the rest of the world.

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