Ask Dr. Norm

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 has answered questions about things you might see when outdoors – scroll through others’ questions and you might find an answer to one of your questions!

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  1. Danny Moneypenny

    Hello and thank you for this wonderful site! You look like a smart fellow so let me ask, what is the black tar-like substance that seeps out of the ground on trails such as Towsley canyon? Is it left over from oil wells?

    • Yes, it is oil. You will see it on the surface in Towsley Canyon and East Canyon.

      This area is rich in fossil fuels and is the birthplace of California’s Oil Industry. The first commercially successful oil well in the Western United States is located in the Pico Canyon oil field west of Mission Peak. Pico Canyon was the site of an oil boomtown called Mentryville, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Pico Canyon’s Well No. 4 was perhaps the longest continuously running oil well in the world, operating for 114 years until it was capped in 1990.
      Mission Peak, atop which the Mission Beak bench sits, is just north of the Pico Anticline. The early roads in this region were established by the oil companies and now serve as hiking and biking trails. Oil seeps can be seen in Rice Canyon and Towsley Canyon, just to the west of the East Canyon Trailhead. The Pico Anticline is exposed in East Canyon and one can still see the pads of oil rigs. .

      The Pacific Oil Company started in the Pico Canyon oilfields. By 1883, Pacific Coast Oil had 30 producing wells yielding 500 barrels per day. Pacific Oil Company eventually became Standard Oil Company of California. Standard Oil merged with Gulf Oil to become Chevron Oil Company, an American multinational energy company active in more than 180 countries. Chevron, which is one of the world’s six largest oil companies, began in the shadows of Mission Peak. Hikers can easily see the oil platforms in East Canyon, Rice Canyon, Wiley Canyon and Towsley Canyon. The Neon / deCampos Trail passes Sulfur Springs on its way to Mission Peak. The sulfur smell is a reminder of the fossil fuels hidden beneath the surface. Just north of the O’Melvenly Park Trailhead, one can see the Cascades Oilfields, which is still operational.

  2. Hello Norm,
    My name is Verónica Agraz and I am interested in the trail ambassadors program. What is it? I saw it in the Seasons magazine, but I couldn’t find anything about it.
    Thank you!

    • Hello Veronica,
      Thank you for your interest of our Trails Ambassador program! This informal program will be a fun and educational introduction to the Open Space and trails for the young and the young at heart. We will have more information about it in the upcoming weeks, so please stay tuned for our announcement of this exciting program!

    • Hi Veronica,
      We just wanted to give you a quick update about the Trail Ambassador Program – it is now live! Check out for details on how to participate in this exciting program!

  3. 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!


  4. 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 (

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

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