Here in Los Angeles, we've got sea salt air, night blooming jasmine, and chlorinated pools, but for my money, the quintessential scent of summer is a good old-fashioned campfire ... preferably accented by charred marshmallows. That's why I was delighted to find out about the recurring Summer Evening Campfire events hosted by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority (MRCA) right up here in our own Santa Monica Mountains.
The series kicked off this past Tuesday at King Gillette Ranch in Calabasas, a gorgeous locale that I hadn't had the pleasure of visiting before. The 588-acre site in the Malibu Creek watershed was the former domain of razor magnate King C. Gillette (that's right; his first name was King. Is that baller, or what?), and includes some of the estate's original Wallace Neff-designed buildings. Most notable is the state-of-the-art Visitor Center, a former horse stable that has been completely redesigned for environmental sustainability. The LEED platinum-certified building operates on solar energy and includes interactive exhibits about the Santa Monica Mountains.
Tuesday's campfire was scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. We arrived at 6:30 and parked in the nearly empty visitor center lot. My kids and I spent a very pleasant but slightly confusing half hour or so picnicking, wandering the grounds (the visitor center closed at 5 p.m.), and wondering where everybody was. Finally we caught sight of a boy running like a jackrabbit to the visitor center bathrooms and then back away down the road. "Let's follow him!" shouted my excited six-year-old. "I think I smell smoke!" We followed the road across a bridge and through another parking lot (where they were collecting a $7 fee), past an old dormitory building, and then up a dirt trail. Just over the ridge we caught sight of a small amphitheater filled with people and surrounding a campfire. We grabbed our seats and joined the several dozen other families listening to our host for the evening, park ranger Ian Griffith.
We're big fans of Ranger Ian. Funny, friendly, and gregarious, the ranger engaged a rapt audience of all ages in an enlightening lecture about owls -- complete with hand puppets -- and then led us through a few silly campfire songs before handing out skewers and marshmallows so that we could go at it. The long trek back to our car under darkening skies compelled us to leave as soon as we'd wolfed down our roasted sweets, but there was one final treat in store: we spotted a family of deer grazing in the grass just a few yards off the road on our walk.
The evening campfire series will continue through August 8th at locations throughout the Santa Monica Mountains and other Los Angeles parklands, including Temescal Gateway Park, Franklin Canyon, Marsh Park next to the L.A. River, and Vista Hermosa Natural Park near downtown. You can find more information about dates and directions here.