It might be South Pasadena’s best-kept secret.
Nestled in the southwestern tip of the Arroyo Seco Park in South Pasadena is a three-acre parcel dedicated to wildlife and nature.
Officially, it’s the Arroyo Seco Woodland and Wildlife Park, but hardly anyone describes it that way.
To most, it’s simply known as the Nature Park, and those like Barbara Eisenstein, Katherine Hashimoto and Randy Caruso will tell you it’s one of the best.
It’s an especially good time to walk down the path into the park through a gateway, made from huge rocks from the Arroyo, after parking on busy Pasadena Avenue just before approaching the York Street Bridge.
“Right this minute, the painted lady butterflies have been migrating through and we have wildflowers coming up, plants are starting to bloom so people should go and visit,” urged Eisenstein, founder of Friends of the Nature Park and a dedicated volunteer.
Eisenstein, who has been there from the park’s beginning, joined Hashimoto and Caruso, who were honored by the South Pasadena City Council last week with certificates of appreciation for their volunteer efforts in recent years.
“Part of what makes it so special is that we have some amazing volunteers,” explained Eisenstein. “This park is really maintained by stewards, and most of them are South Pasadena residents or from the local area.”
Hashimoto, a Pasadena resident, has been contributing her time to the park since 2009 and “is very knowledgeable and dedicated,” said Eisenstein, “but this is what is so important: She sent me an email this morning saying, ‘I’m going to the park and just pull weeds for an hour.’ Two and a half hours later, I hear, ‘I just have a few more over here.’ That’s what makes Katherine so special at the Nature Park.”
She’s overly generous with her time, much like Caruso from Glendora, who volunteers through his workplace, Bank of America. “Everything he does is on his own time,” said Eisenstein, noting that Caruso has helping for about three years. “It’s not paid time. He’s brought in many, many people to help out at the Nature Park and has done a really good job.”
Like Eisenstein, Caruso credits “a great group of volunteers” for making the park a hidden gem in the community. “When you’re working in there, you’ve got the blooming flowers, the humming birds, woodpeckers, and the folks walking their dogs, the runners who wave and say thank you. It’s just a little niche of nature surrounded by cities. It’s a special place.”
Eisenstein calls Caruso “the rock, mulch person,” explaining that he has moved more rocks and mulch than anyone she has ever known. “His work defines the paths in the park,” she said. “Many people don’t really understand native plants and this kind of wild look we’re after. When Randy puts those rocks around, it’s amazing.”
Caruso, a quality consultant for Bank of America and coordinator of the company’s My Environment Program, along with a team of volunteers was responsible for creating a labyrinth garden in the park, “sending out a message to everyone who visits the park that it is cared for,” Eisenstein said, adding that Caruso is highly instrumental in the park’s upkeep.
Joining the labyrinth garden, where some go to meditate, are new colorful interpretive signs describing the plants and other attractions in the park.
Hashimoto compares the park to a children’s book “where you go through this magic portal. When you go down in there it feels different,” she said.
An art professor was in the park one day with some of his students painting. “He said, ‘We can do landscapes here and it doesn’t even look like we’re in the city,” Hashimoto noted. “From a certain vantage point, it is that way. It feels like a vacation, your mental therapy. It’s the undiscovered gem, just off the street and a little walk.”
Much of the credit for the Nature Park’s existence goes to City Councilmember Michael Cacciotti, noting the small acreage of land was close to being sold by the city in 1997 to a private equity firm. In the days before serving on the council, Cacciotti joined others in town seeing the need to preserve the area behind the Arroyo Seco Golf Course driving range and, largely through public support, the sale was stopped in 1998.
Twenty-one years later, volunteers like Katherine Hashimoto and Randy Caruso are still being recognized for making the Nature Park a unique place where residents and visitors to the city can go and simply enjoy the best of what nature has to offer everyday.
“We appreciate them for all the hard work they do,” said South Pasadena Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian of those who contribute time to pulling weeds, planting, throwing out trash and keeping the place a city jewel. “The park is maintained by an all-volunteer effort because the city does not have the resources to do that, so we really owe a debt of gratitude to Katherine, Randy and Barbara’s team for everything they do.”