Ranch offers look into movie history

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. —Take a step back in history. Imagine a world where men on horseback lined the old dirt roads, where gunfights and runaway stage carts were the norm, and where local heroes filled the streets.


While these images and more can be relived in old Hollywood westerns, the location of some of these films and the history behind them are still alive. For a chance to undercover a bit of film history in the United States, look no further than Paramount Ranch at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.


“The movie ranches and surrounding area are rich in history,” said Marc Wanamaker, an authority on motion picture history, a film consultant and founder of the Bison Archives. “I have researched back to the time when the Chumash Indians lived on the land.”


The ranch was bought in 1927 by Paramount Films. While owned by Paramount, the land was not used as a movie set. In 1953 the ranch was purchased by William Hertz. He then built the western town that is still around today.


“These ranches were built were built on rancho property on Indian lands,” said Wanamaker. “The irony is that the films made on these ranches were made about the early California and the Indians. They make movies on the things that actually happened at the ranch.


At right, visitors travel on horseback through the western town set of Paramount Ranch in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (Photos by Kelly Burns). Below, this old hotel is part of the western town. Visitors can walk through the town or take a tour with a ranger upon request.

Soon, television shows and movies began using the ranch for westerns. Because of the set up of the land, the ranch had a versatility to reflect all kinds of landscapes.


Sometime after the ranch was sold and turned into a racetrack.  Only 18 months after that, due to accidents, the ranch began a series of changes. Finally the National Park Service purchased a section of the land in 1980.


“Film is such a powerful medium and a large part of the American Culture,” said Mike Malone, Volunteer Program manager and park ranger. “The acquisition of the land by the National Park Service was a great addition.”


Known as the park’s unofficial film historian, Malone dedicates much his free time to researching and discovering the history of Paramount Ranch.


“I have always had a passion for films. As an only child growing up in New York, I had a lot of free time,” said Malone. “When I started working here I was able to research for a purpose.”


The ranch has been used for long running television series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and various films. Some of the most well-known movies made here include: “The Virginian,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”


While large filming has slowly decreased due to the ailing economy, the ranch has been used in recent years for scenes in smaller projects such as the “Lake House,” the “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Van Helsing” and the television series, the “O.C.”


“We’re open almost every day for visitors to come and give tours,” said Malone. “Upon request we can even open up some of the buildings for walk-throughs.”


And while the movie-making dates are not broadcast to the public, if you happen to venture onto the ranch while filming is in session, visitors are permitted to watch from a distance.


The ranch, however, has more to offer than just views of popular western town and film sets. The park features events such as the monthly program entitled “Movie Magic” that teaches visitors about the making of the films on the ranch and stories behind certain movie scenes.


And, like most parks in the area, the site is great for hiking, picnicking and horseback riding. Also, some areas have become known for their diverse plant life, with wildflower viewing being one of the most popular activities.


“Because of our Mediterranean climate, we have flowers in California that you won’t find anywhere else,” said Tony Valois, a botanist with the National Park Service and creator of the wildflower identification database, used to identify species of wildflowers in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.


“Visitors with an iPhone can also check for identification, using the application while hiking,” said Valois.


Even though Paramount Ranch is only a small aspect of the entire recreation area, but has a lot to offer all on its own.


“These towns are created around their studios. The movie industry had a great impact on the area around them,” said Wanamaker. “When it comes to paramount ranch it’s not just a movie ranch, it’s a cultural landmark.”


A castor bean flower, not native to California, blooms on the Paramount Ranch site.


If You Go


Paramount Ranch is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The park is closed on major holidays.  

There are ranger-led programs as scheduled. Tours are available upon request. Call 805-370-2301

The best time of the year to visit for wildflower viewing is early spring. To see which flowers are in bloom throughout the year, visit:


Also visit for a program to identify flowers in the area by size, shape and color. The program can also be downloaded as an iPhone app.


For horse rentals for use at Paramount Ranch visit or


For similar movie ranches/sites check out Malibu Creek State Park’s Twentieth Century Fox Ranch. Visit for more information.


For more information, the Santa Monica Mountain NRA Visitor Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call for directions. 805-370-2301.

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