You're invited! Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center hosts open house May 28

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Photo by Google Earth, screen capture. 

The Wheeler Gorge Visitors Center. 

By Perry Van Houten Ojai Valley News senior reporter

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After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the annual open house at Wheeler Gorge Visitor Center returns on Saturday, May 28, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We’re back to good things,” said Gordie Hemphill, WGVC director and president of the Ojai Chapter of Los Padres Forest Association.

The free, family-friendly event will offer something for everyone, from a program on reptiles of the Southwest to displays on California condors and exotic birds and pets, according to Hemphill.

“Our biggest addition this year is Marcos, our mountain lion,” he said.

The big cat, struck and killed by a vehicle in the San Marcos Pass in November 2020, was preserved by Ojai taxidermist Chuck Testa and installed at WGVC in late March.

For 15 years, Hemphill has been trying to obtain a mounted cougar to display at the center. “People will be surprised at just how big he is,” he said. “Those paws!”

Marcos joins Freedom, a giant, preserved California condor found in Santa Barbara County in 1907, and put on display at the center in 2017.

The forest’s most famous celebrity — Smokey Bear — will likely be available for photos at this year’s open house, according to Hemphill.

While the open house provides not only a good look at what’s new in the forest, the event will include a program on reptiles by the Southwestern Herpetologists Society and information on condors from the Friends of the California Condor.

Hemphill is even trying to line up a return appearance by backpacking goats that help maintain trails in the Los Padres.

Then there’s Bobbi, a preserved bobcat that kids can pet. They might even meet Gabby, a Steller’s jay who takes peanuts right out of Hemphill’s hand.

In past years, the open house has featured games, arts and crafts for kids, and prize giveaways throughout the day, along with exhibits on gems and minerals, backpacking and woodcarving.

A former U.S. Forest Service fire station, WGVC was opened in 2001 and completely remodeled in 2017. Operated by LPFA, it can see as many as 150 visitors a day during the busy season. It can get upward of 4,000 visitors a year from around the globe. Hanging in the center is a map of the world with pins showing the many countries visitors have hailed from.

The center — “a gem,” according to Hemphill — operates year-round, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and is always looking for volunteers to help out.

People heading into the forest for a hike can stop at the center and purchase drinks, snacks, maps, books and other literature. They can get information on where to hike and camp, current fire restrictions and the latest road closures.

“The forest is a very important part of our lives, and especially around here, because it’s in our back yard,” said Hemphill.

In addition to running the Visitors Center, the facility’s volunteers pick up trash on Highway 33, through the California Department of Transportation’s Adopt-A-Highway program.

LPFA is also making improvements to the nearby Wheeler Gorge Nature Trail, including new signage, removal of poison oak and better trail access, Hemphill said.

Fifteen minutes and a mere 7 miles from Ojai, WGVC is a place where young people can learn about the forest and nature. “We try to get the kids really involved,” said Hemphill. “I want them to get away from their computers on the weekends.”


Dogs are welcome at the open house, as long as they’re on a leash, said Hemphill.

For the time being, plans to resume the center’s annual series of summer educational programs are on hold, as Hemphill waits to see what develops with COVID-19.

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