Ask Dr. Norm

Hey all you hikers, mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts: Please welcome Dr. Norm Herr, a local professor, who will answer your questions on this site.

We want to encourage you to get out and enjoy all the great open space in and around Santa Clarita, but we realize that in doing so, you may have some questions about things you see out on the trail.  Author, teacher, scientist, avid hiker and outdoorsman, CSUN Professor Norman Herr is happy to answer your most obscure questions about Mother Earth.  As you enjoy the beautiful Santa Clarita open space areas and have questions about flora, fauna, animals, rocks, etc., send them to Dr. Norm.  You may pose your question below; it will be answered on this page. If you wish to include a photo with your question, upload it to Flickr and share the link to the photo in your comment.

dr normA little bit about Dr. NormNorman Herr, Ph.D., is a professor of science and computer education at California State University, Northridge. He earned his doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has worked as a scientist, high school science teacher, college science instructor, science education consultant, and director of graduate programs in science education. Dr. Herr has published research in the field of science education, and has co-authored Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications.  Norm is the author of the Sourcebook for Teaching Science. He grew up at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and has spent untold hours exploring the California mountains.

Norm says: I could never decide which science I liked best, so I ended up studying them all! My job as a professor of science education unites my love for physics, chemistry, biology and environmental science with my love for teaching and research. I love to spend time outdoors, whether skiing, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, or hiking.


  1. Hello and thank you for such a great resource. I was at Elsmere Canyon this morning and entered through the Newhall side. I was looking for a particular section but could not find it.
    Do you know where this is and how far it is from the closest parking lot?

    Thank you very much!


  2. Hello Dr. Norm, I am wondering if you know the different types of oak trees in the Santa Clarita Valley and whether or not they are all natural to the area verses being introduced. I do enjoy the oaks on my hikes but wish I knew the different species and how to recognize each. thank you!

    • Hi Carol, the two major types of oaks in the mountains and canyons surrounding Santa Clarita are the coast live oak (quercus agrifolia) and the valley oak (quercus lobata). The coast live oak is evergreen with small, leathery leaves with spines on the margins. The valley oak is one of the largest oak trees in North America. Some valley oaks can live up to 600 years old. It is deciduous, and the leaves are just starting to come out (early March) as I am writing this. The leaves are much larger, softer, and lobed than the coast live oak. The bark of the valley oak is thick and has deep furrows. The best place to see the valley oak is at the top of East Canyon on the Mission Peak trail. There are also many good specimens of the Coast live oak here as well. Elsmere Canyon has many wonderful coast live oaks. Here are some good websites for the valley oak ( and the coast live oak (

  3. Dear Norm,
    Thank you for this site, it is very informative.
    My questions, do you know of any local botany or naturalist classes for older children or herb and flower identification walks. I know Placerita Canyon has Blooms of the Season walk, are there any others?
    Thank you!

    • The only local botany class I am aware of is the one you mentioned: Every fourth Saturday of the month there is a “Blooms of the Season” wildflower walk from 9:30AM to 10:30AM at Placenta Canyon Nature Center. In addition the Placerita Canyon Natural Area docents lead a monthly Bird Walk at Castaic Lake Recreation Area on the first Saturday of the month at 8:00AM.

    • You can also go to “90 Days of Santa Clarita Valley Wildlflowers” by Wendy Langhans. It is easy to use because you search for wildflowers by color. You can also go to “Clarita Plants: 365 Species in 365 Days”. It is similar and shows a new kind of SCV plant every day for this year.

  4. Hello and thank you so much for having this column. My family and I love living (and hiking) in Santa Clarita and regularly enjoy the many open space and trail areas the city has made available. One of our favorite hiking activities is spotting and naming wild flowers. I was wondering if you know about how many different varieties we could be spotting in our area.

    • There are many native wildflowers in the open lands surrounding Santa Clarita. The following is a good website for flower identification ( Click on images of flowers to get more information. Wildflowers typically reach their peak in late April to early May. The following are some of the most common and easily recognizable wildflowers in our area : California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, our state flower), Coastal California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), Lupine (Lupinus spp.), Sticky monkey flower (Mimulus longiflorus) and Clarkia (Clarkia cylindrical), and black mustard (Brassica nigra, an invasive species native to the Southern Mediterranean region of Europe).

  5. I am moving to the area in a few weeks. I will be living by Bouquet Canyon & Vasquez. I like walking, & had some questions about the trails. I am use to walking 2 to 4 miles a day, around a lake near my house, in the state I currently live. Are there any trails that are near creeks, rivers, springs, fountains, waterfalls etc? Also, are there any trails that poison oak or ivy isn’t an issue? Are there any trails that have drinking fountains or benches along the way? Any additional advice would be appreciated.

    • Hi Connie, all of the local canyons were formed by water erosion, so everyone you see has water moving in it at some time or other. We have been experiencing a very significant drought, so most of the local streams are just trickles if running at all. If we experience good rains, you should expect to see good moving water in Towsley Canyon, East Canyon Elmere Canyon and Placenta Canyon, to name a few. All of these are in the Santa Clarita Basin. If, however, you are willing to take a longer drive, you can reach some very nice perennial streams. My personal favorites are the West Fork of the San Gabriel River near Asuza and the Arroyo Seco northwest of Pasadena. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is not found in the local mountains, but Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is quite common, particularly along streams. I got a rash from poison oak when I was about 6 or 7, and quickly learned to identify it, and have never gotten a rash since, so it is pretty easy to avoid. Some of the local trails have benches, including two dedicated to my late wife, and the late wife of a good friend of mine. This site has trail maps to these benches that are high in local mountains and provide wonderful vistas (

  6. Hi Dr. Norm,

    Have there been many mountain lion sightings in the Santa Clarita area in 2014?

    I ask this because my husband and myself walked by a mountain lion (eating something – it growled at us as we walked by) in a open space area in Placerita Canyon last Superbowl Sunday 2014.
    Thank you.

    • HI Lisa, yes there are mountain lions in the San Gabriel Mountains (in which Placerita Canyon is found) as well as in the Santa Susanna Mountains to the west. Wildlife cameras at East Walker Ranch recently recorded a rather large mountain lion. I have seen mountain lion prints in a number of location, and telemetry studies show that they range widely throughout the local mountains. Treat any encounter with a cougar (mountain lion) seriously. The Mountain Lion Foundation makes these recommendations: (1) Make yourself appear larger by picking up your children, leashing pets in, and standing close to other adults. Open your jacket. Raise your arms. Wave your raised arms slowly. (2) Yell, shout, bang your walking stick against a tree. Make any loud sound that cannot be confused by the lion as the sound of prey. Speak slowly, firmly and loudly to disrupt and discourage predatory behavior. (3) Maintain eye contact. Never run past or from a mountain lion. Never bend over or crouch down. Aggressively wave your raised arms, throw stones or branches, all without turning away. (4) Assess the situation. Consider whether you may be between the lion and its kittens, or between the lion and its prey or cache. Back slowly to a spot that gives the mountain lion a path to get away, never turning away from the animal. Give a mountain lions the time and ability to move away. (5) If attacked, fight back. Protect your neck and throat. People have utilized rocks, jackets, garden tools, tree branches, walking sticks, fanny packs and even bare hands to turn away cougars.

  7. Hello Norm,
    Just came across this site and I do have a question for you about ticks. I went for a hike and some geocaching in Elsmere Canyon with my dogs about two weeks ago. Four to five days after the hike I found some ticks on each of my dogs. What type of diseases are prevalent that may be transmitted to my dogs and maybe should be looking for …Lyme Disease?

    I know you from Valley Pres and it has been many been many years since we have spoken maybe we can get together for a hike in the near future and catch up with each other. Let me know if that would be okay with you.

    • HI Scott, it is good to hear from you and it would be great to hike with you! Ticks can transmit a variety of bacteria-based diseases, but the one of greatest concern is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is uncommon in southern California, but it is true that our local ticks can transmit the bacteria which causes lyme disease. Lyme disease occurs in humans, but can also occur in dogs and other mammals.

  8. What are the very green trees that I saw in Townsley Canyon yesterday when everything else was brittle and dry?

  9. What is the name of the mountain that Camp 9 Fire Camp is located?

  10. The City’s hike Santa Clarita site is pretty terrific. I appreciate how interactive and informational it is. My wife and I love to hike around Santa Clarita and especially enjoy Wildwood Canyon, Placerita and Golden Valley open space areas. Dr. Norm, I wanted to see if you know about the different poisionous plants we might encounter in the open space areas.

    • HI Rob, the most common poisonous plant is poison oak (Toxicodendron diversiloba; The oils in this plant give most people rashes. It is very common in shady canyons and is often seen climbing up the large coast live oaks or sycamores in the canyon bottoms. In addition, one may find Datura ( which contains a variety of tropane alkaloids. Datura has a very showy flower and often picked by children who do not realize that it’s flowers and seeds are toxic. In addition, one might find deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) who’s foliage and berries include scopolamine and hyoscyamine.

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