Poppy Reserve / Wild Cats / Vasquez Rocks

Sometimes, you just gotta get away from it all.  And immerse yourself in California poppies, the big cats, and rocks.  Yes, rocks.

Finding nature in our own backyard

Finding nature in our own backyard

That’s what J and I did this past weekend.

We started our Sunday morning with breakfast at our favorite diner, and then it was on the road to the Antelope Valley.

Our first stop was the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve – a state park dedicated to the preservation of the California state flower, the golden poppy – but we decided to take the scenic route to get there.

That entailed a long drive down San Francisquito Canyon Road starting in the Santa Clarita Valley and working our way through to the Antelope Valley.  According to Google Maps, this route would only take us 4 minutes longer than the freeway, and man, those 4 whole minutes we lost?  They were worth it!!

San Francisquito Canyon runs through – yep – a long and winding canyon that is nestled in the mountains between the two valleys. We were surrounded by hills and dales, all dotted with the unmistakable white blossoms of the flowering yucca.  It was open; it was natural; it was peaceful.  The landscape was breathtaking.

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Once we reached the Poppy Reserve, we started on our one-and-a-half mile hike across the northern slopes.  I probably stopped at every bush of poppies and took a picture on our way in, but I was anxious to see the meadows of orange and gold that characterize the Reserve.  J and I were disappointed to discover that we were either a) too late to see those eye-popping meadows, or b) the droughts currently devastating southern California have affected the poppy reserve too.  Because there were no meadows of orange, yellow, and gold.  There were pops of colors here and there, but no sweeping vistas with California poppies as far as the eye could see.

We were disappointed, as I mentioned, but we enjoyed our hike nonetheless.  The Poppy Reserve is out in the middle of nowhere; the only signs of civilization are the roads running alongside the park and a few scattered ranch houses.  So it felt like we were alone in the wilds of nature.  And we had the hurricane-force winds to prove it.

After the Poppy Reserve, we headed next to the Exotic Feline Rescue Compound.  I first stumbled across this little gem of a wild animal sanctuary many moons ago when I was looking for volunteer opportunities with animal rescues.  I would have volunteered here in a heartbeat except it is 80 miles away from LA.  And at the time I owned a gas-guzzling Jeep Wrangler, and I was a full-time grad student striving to survive on student loans.  I couldn’t afford to drive that kind of distance.

After getting lost in the wilds of the desert trying to find the Exotic Feline Rescue Compound, we finally made it!

After getting lost in the wilds of the desert trying to find the Exotic Feline Rescue Compound, we finally made it!

Anyway, the Exotic Feline Rescue Compound was on our way back to LA from the Poppy Reserve so I dragged J to go see some cats.  It was quite the adventure to get there because I vaguely remember where the sanctuary is located, but definitely not well enough to get there without the help of Google Maps.

Stupid Google Maps.

It gets us to the general area of the compound, but then guides us onto some back roads.  Some dirt roads.  That have been washed out.  And turns out they don’t connect to the animal sanctuary anyway.  We are literally off-roading on hiking trails trying to find the entrance.  At one point, we hit a 3-foot ditch that ran across the dirt road in front of us, rendering it impassable… J will never let me live it down because he had wanted to turn back when we started on the dirt roads, but I pushed him to keep going.  I trusted Google Maps to get us there.  Sigh.

Then I checked the compound’s website, and what does it say right there on the “Directions” page??  “Don’t use Google Maps or MapQuest to get directions to our location.”

So, we pulled out of the wild desert we were trying to drive through – in a Toyota Yaris, mind you – and followed the website’s directions to the compound.

Success!!

One of the many things I love about the Exotic Feline Compound is the size.  It is nice and small allowing you plenty of time to observe all the cats on display without feeling like you’re missing the opportunity to see 10,000 other animals.

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It is also very park-like, with lots of trees and a grassy meadow area, and even free-roaming peacocks!  Light breezes rustling through those trees, the occasional call of a peacock, and the distant growl of a large cat, and you couldn’t ask for a more peaceful location to spend a few hours.

And I love cats.  They will always rule my heart, no matter how many other animals come into my awareness.  I will always love cats the most.

So I felt like I was touching a piece of heaven.  Especially since some of the cats were actually quite active, considering we were wandering through at 12:30pm.  Anyone who has ever visited a zoo knows that middle of the day is the worst possible time to try and see any of the animals, especially crepuscular guys like cats (active at dawn and dusk).  But, I was delighted to see the snow leopard, the Amur leopard, the mountain lion, the jaguar, and one of the tigers were all up and moving around.

And they may not have been moving around, but the Serval and the Fishing Cat were at least out… and the Fishing Cat was keeping an eye on those passing by his hut, so it was a win all around!

We stopped at each habitat, and stopped at many of them again, and then we hit the Gift Store on our way out.  Can’t miss the chance to buy cat stuff!

Keeping an eye on all who pass by...

Keeping an eye on all who pass by…

We got back on the road and headed for our final stop on our agenda that day:  the LA County Park, Vasquez Rocks.

Truly one of the most unique natural areas in the LA County area, Vasquez Rocks was born out of geologic turmoil 25 million years ago.  Its distinctive look – large flat discs of rock that jut out of the ground at steep angles – is matched only in awe by its impressive history.

Human habitation has been known at Vasquez Rocks for at least 4,300 years.  The earliest identified peoples were the Tataviam, a Shoshone-speaking nation very similar in culture and lifestyle to the coastal-dwelling Chumash.  They built thatched, dome-shaped houses called wiki’aps, wove an impressive variety and style of baskets, hunted and gathered wild resources, and created colorful, symbolic rock art.  Tataviam villages were scattered around the Santa Clarita Valley, but one of the more prominent settlements was at Vasquez Rocks, and remained so until the Spanish came in the late 1700s.

After the Spanish came and went, Vasquez Rocks became a site for mining gold and drilling oil, interspersed here and there with time as a working ranch.  In the 1850s and 1860s, a notorious bandit and outlaw named Tiburcio Vasquez passed through the rocky outcropping several times as he robbed his way up and down California.  He was reported to hide out in the canyons of Vasquez Rocks, and even buried some of his looted treasure there as well.  After his capture in 1874 and subsequent hanging in 1875, the legendary outlaw’s legacy was cemented when the rocky area was named after him.

Vasquez Rocks is such a distinctive area that it has been the set location for several films and TV shows, including Star Trek, Blazing Saddles, and Roswell...

Vasquez Rocks is such a distinctive area that it has been the set location for several films and TV shows, including Star Trek, Blazing Saddles, and Roswell…

View from the top of one of the outcrops

View from the top of one of the outcrops

Today, Vasquez Rocks is a natural area, popular as a film location, and with lots of hiking and rock climbing.  J and I both ventured up and down the slopes of the rocks and along the trails, reveling in the beauty of the landscape … and for me, the sight of the flowering yuccas, and the feel of the breezes as I stood atop many of those rocky outcrops.  One thing I didn’t even notice until after I got back in the car?  I felt no fear.  I was climbing up and down these high plateaus of rocks, standing at cliff edges, and I was not afraid.  Me.  Terrified of heights.  And I didn’t feel a quiver of fear … even when I started sliding down one of the rock faces because of its steepness.

As I sat in the car on the way back to LA, I reached for my albatross and lighthouse tattoo.  Bravery?  Am I finally getting there?

That question aside, it was a beautiful, spectacular, wonderful, amazing day.  These are the days I live for now….

Another perfect day...

Another perfect day…

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