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The extravagantly lush Cold Creek Canyon Preserve is a crown jewel set in the patchwork of public lands known as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The preserve lies in a steep, north-facing bowl where moisture from winter rains is retained well into the late spring and summer seasons, making this spot much greener than elsewhere in the dry, scrubby Santa Monica Mountains.

The preserve, managed by a nonprofit conservation organization, is open by reservation only -- or you can attend one of the docent-led hikes offered here nearly every weekend. These guided hikes are listed and described in a quarterly publication called Outdoors, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, published by the National Park Service. Call 805-370-2301 to request this publication or to get information about reservations. The docent-led hikes may involve a car shuttle, which allows one-way, downhill travel through the canyon -- and that particular way of exploring the preserve is described here.

The one-way trip starts at the preserve's "upper gate" on Stunt Road, high on the shoulder of Saddle Peak, a notable high point in the Santa Monicas. Starting out in tall chaparral, you quickly descend on the spare remains of a dirt road into the V-shaped bottom of Cold Creek Canyon, which is graced with sturdy live oak and bay laurel trees. The farther and the lower you go from there, the more lush the canyon becomes.

You'll pass the curious remains of an old Dodge pickup hastily abandoned during a 1973 wildfire. Thereafter, you continue on a narrower trail threading its way through a fairyland of bracken and woodwardia ferns, tules, cattails, Humboldt lilies, and bright green grass thriving on soggy ground. From here on, you're seldom out of earshot of the canyon's delightful little year-round stream.

Next you come upon the site where a 19th-century settler constructed a lean-to between two sandstone outcrops. The settler raised celery (which still grows wild in the canyon) and hauled his crop down to the stage station at Calabasas -- several miles away on the edge of the San Fernando Valley.

After nearly two miles of travel by foot, you reach the padlocked "lower gate" on the lower end of Stunt Road, which securely blocks any access into or out of the preserve for those who don't have a key.

Hikers who have the energy and the wherewithal to travel farther throughout this agreeably scenic area can try linking the Cold Creek Canyon trail into a loop route that includes the Stunt High Trail to the west.

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