Go and do: Nix Nature Center

Looking for a weekend excursion? Try Nix Nature Center, your gateway to 20,000 acres of coastal wilderness.

Jenny Rigby

The pace slows and the views widen as you turn onto the rustic entry road to the James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center. Sage-clad hills and tree-lined canyons define the landscape, while birdsong and insect trills make it easy to forget city life is nearby.

Just off Laguna Canyon Road, Nix Nature Center lies at the foot of a 20,000-acre wilderness area, comprising woodlands, wetlands, meadows and coastal canyons. Visitors can begin their excursion at the nature center with maps and tips for exploring this wild, yet fragile, place.

The center has exhibits that introduce the region’s wildlife, natural communities and cultural history. Younger visitors can sift through a “paleo sandbox” in search of fossilized bone replicas of “false saber-toothed cats” and “bone-crushing dogs” that once roamed this land.

Older visitors can use a spotting scope to study the landscape, look at nature clues through a microscope, savor art, turn an antique wagon wheel or go on a scavenger hunt. There is also film footage that celebrates the canyon’s history.

From the nature center’s floor-to-ceiling windows, you can see Little Sycamore Canyon, aptly named for the stunted California sycamore trees that line a nearby creek. Their size could be attributed to the sandstone bedrock that lies close to the surface, which limits mineral- rich soil from accumulating. Despite their small stature, these trees are critical habitat. Invertebrates and reptiles rest in their fallen leaves. Birds of prey roost in their canopy, while other birds feast seasonally on mistletoe berries. The clusters of big-leaf mistletoe are difficult to miss when branches are bare in winter.

Several options for hikes stem from the nature center. Mary’s Trail is a half-mile loop trail adjacent to the building and “painters’ pier,” where artists set up their easels. It traverses a small meadow, a woodland of laurel sumac, hillsides of coastal sage scrub and sections of Little Sycamore Canyon. Young hikers and caregivers appreciate the trail’s level grade and rustic bridge that spans a dry creek bed. Other hikers value the trail as a sampler for future hikes along the longer Little Sycamore Canyon Trail, Serrano Ridge Trail and Stagecoach South Trail.

An underpass along Stagecoach North Trail (1.25 miles) offers safe passage from Little Sycamore Canyon to Barbara’s Lake. There you’ll find hundreds of northern shovelers, grebes, and ruddy ducks in the winter and melodious Pacific tree frogs in the spring. Barbara’s Lake Trail brings you to the edge of the water – welcome relief on a warm day.

Jenny Rigby directs The Acorn Group, a design firm dedicated to interpreting natural history.