Fun activities and events are under way at the Wheeler Gorge Visitors Center in the Los Padres National Forest, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers.

Members of the Los Padres Forest Association have created a vibrant educational program since opening in 2001, and are making considerable progress sprucing up the former forest service building across Highway 33 from the Wheeler Gorge Campground.

They help support their mission by selling maps and souvenirs to people passing by, and are filling the center with exhibits on local geology and wildlife. It’s the first dedicated visitor center since the national forest was created many decades ago, and they’ve already introduced thousands of visitors to nature.

Center Director Mike Havstad says they offer programs every Saturday from March through September. “It’s family and kids programs. Everything from dinosaurs, volcanoes, the Chumash experience by two different ladies who have the backgrounds, to plant and nature walks. I do one all about our local critters, where we cast animal tracks and talk about the animals while the tracks are drying. The kids get an exposure to what they should and shouldn’t do when they encounter wildlife,” says Havstad.

Even though it’s only 15 minutes from Ojai, visitors feel much farther away after passing through two 1930s-era tunnels and emerging into the trees, mountains and rushing waters of the forest. Numerous hummingbirds hover at feeders along the front porch, and other colorful birds eat from a tray in the front yard.

After someone brought Havstad a pretty woodpecker that had unfortunately been killed by a car, he had the bird mounted for display. Now, they’ve accumulated quite a collection including a fox and raccoon. They’re working on building new exhibits for a bear and a wolf they’ve obtained, and are seeking donations to have them put on permanent display.

Richard Wade is an educational performer who grew up among the exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where his parents worked on them, and brings his infectious enthusiasm to the center. During a recent presentation on dinosaurs, he excited the crowd with a replica Tyrannosaurus rex skull and tales of the life and death of the giant creatures.

Wade says performing at the center helps bring his presentations alive. “It’s wonderful. I love a setting like this,” says Wade. “To be out here in nature in a forest that’s probably similar to the end of the dinosaur age. And I have this T. rex skull here, and it’s kind of a nice setting because you can imagine him walking around in a forest very much like this.”

Wade stages another program on volcanoes on July 18. “I demonstrate how lava comes out of the ground, pushed up by bubbles, and how it’s formed and how it does many different things. There are a lot of pops and sizzles and explosions during the show,” says Wade.

The center relies on volunteers like Ojai resident Cindy Wright. “We just love being here. There are so many amazing speakers who come,” says Wright. “You get the idea that all kids are just into electronics, but there are many kids who are so excited looking at the stuffed animals and the bones, and hearing the speakers, and watching the hummingbirds in the feeders.”   

More information about the center’s programs is also available on the Los Padres National Forest Web page at