Just 45 miles north of Los Angeles, in the Sierra Pelona Mountains, lies one of California’s most iconic Natural Parks: the Vasquez Rocks. The Park is famous for its breathtaking rock formations that rise from the ground like whales peeping out from the water. Because of their strange angle, the rocks look almost unnatural, like something from outer space.
Geological History of the Vasquez Rocks
The Park’s geological history is quite interesting. These dramatic sandstones are basically deposits of crumbled sand and rocks from the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. What we see today is the result of thousands of years of erosion, pressure and precipitations that caused the sand to compress and form flat layers of hard sandstone.
Because the slabs had different densities they eroded at different rates, thus creating a layer effect. As for the rocks’ angled projection, that is due to their location along the San Andreas Fault. The continuous movement of the fault causes the rocks to shift, which in time resulted in their extreme lift.
How Did the Vasquez Rocks Get Their Name?
The Vasquez Rocks were named after a bandit –Tiburcio Vasquez– who stole horses and robbed stagecoaches in this area, in the 1850s.
There are many folk tales about Vasquez and his band of thieves. And like all tales, some are true and some are not. But what’s surely true is that Vasquez used to hide from the sheriff among the jagged rocks that today bear his name.
One story says that Tiburcio Vasquez, who was also a womanizer, had an affair with the wife of one of his lieutenants. The jealous husband shot and wounded Vasquez, but couldn’t kill him. Furious that he failed, the husband informed the lawmen that Vasquez and his men were hiding among the rocks.
Two posses moved in and surrounded the gang in the natural amphitheater, just south of the tallest rock formation. During the attack Vasquez was wounded, but managed to escape to the Mohave Desert. However, the posse caught up with him eventually. Vasquez was tried in a court of law and hanged in 1875.
Even today you can still see traces of the bandits’ fires on certain rocks that form natural fireplaces.
Hiking Trails in Vasquez Rocks
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park is a hiking paradise! The Park spreads over an area of 932 acres, so there are quite a few hiking and horseback riding trails around. Here are some of the most popular ones:
Famous Rocks Trail
If you are looking for something short, you can enjoy the half-mile Famous Rocks Trail that will take you through the most recognizable rock formations in the park. This trail is mostly flat and doesn’t involve any rock climbing, so it’s ideal for families with young kids.
If you’re not up to the short half mile hike, you can drive down this dirt road to see the most important rock formations.
Climbing the Famous Rocks
If you are looking for something more adventurous, step out of the trail when you reach the parking area at the end of the Famous Rocks Trail. Here you can climb up the slanted rock on the west side of the formation. If you follow the sandstone incline, it will take you to the top of the rocks. Just make sure you wear shoes with good traction as the rocks may be slippery.
You can return the same way you came, which is what we did. Or you can scramble down the east side of the Famous Rocks.
Vasquez Rocks Trail
This is a 2.7-mile loop trail that starts near Agua Dulce. The route is moderately challenging and takes an average of 1 hr 5 min to complete. Vasquez Rocks Trail is popular for both hiking and horseback riding, so expect to encounter many other people while on it.
Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the park and can be connected with a Foot Trail to form a 3.4-mile loop with 325 feet of elevation change. The route is considered moderately challenging and takes about 1 hr 45 min to complete.
The loop passes through impressive sandstone formations from where you can enjoy great views of the park. Keep your eyes open of some interesting petroglyphs (most likely from the Native Americans who inhabited this area).
Vasquez Rocks Movies
As you may expect, the striking rock formations pointing at a 45-degree angle made Vasquez Rocks an extremely popular filming location. As a result, the Park was was the setting of countless motion pictures, TV shows, music videos, and video games.
The first movie ever filmed here was Warewolf in London, in 1935, followed by One Million B.C. (1940) and The Ten Commandments, in 1956.
Some of the movies filmed at Vasquez Rocks were The Flintstones, Planet of Apes, Austin Powers, Galaxy Quest, and Cars. But perhaps the most popular of all were the Star Track productions, which included ten television episodes and three movies.
The Asher Ranch at Vasquez Rocks
If you stray from the Agua Dulce trail (at the back of the Visitor Center) you may notice the remnants of a stone fireplace at the top of a small knoll. This was once a 300 acres ranch, that even had a swimming pool overlooking the Vasquez Rocks.
The property was acquired by Jefferson Asher, a wealthy Los Angeles industrialist who built here the Asher Ranch, in 1934. The family used the ranch as a summer retreat, but also to raise cattle, pigs and horses. When the pool was built they discovered some old Indian burial sites around it.
In 1970, the Asher family sold the ranch to the county of Los Angeles, thus considerably increasing the size of Vasquez Rocks County Park. They also donated all the artifacts discovered on the site to the Los Angeles County Museum.
In 1971, after the ranch was sold, an earthquaked seriously damaged the house and all the structures around it. The county decided to bulldoze the building for liability purposes, as they feared people may want to climb on its rubble and get hurt.
Unfortunately, when the officials ordered the bulldozing they didn’t realize the pool was resting on an archaeological site that was part of the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, the site was destroyed and only bits and pieces could be salvaged.
Today, the only thing remaining from the Asher Ranch is the stone fireplace and a concrete platform.
It takes less than an hour to get to the Vasquez Rocks from Los Angeles, driving north on the Fwy 5 and east on Highway 14. The address is: 10700 West Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce, CA 91350.
The Park is open every day of the week, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The trails are beautiful to hike year-round, except for a few hot days during the summer months. A trail map is available at the Visitor Center which is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
I recommend stopping at the Visitor Center first and taking a map. There are many offshoots and foot paths in the Park, so it’s easy to get lost.
Also, the Visitor Center has some good exhibits of the birds and the snakes in this area. And, if you are curious, you can check all the movies that have been filmed in the Park.
No fee or permit is necessary for hiking. Dogs are welcome, but they must be on leash.
Hotels Near Vasquez Rocks Natural Area
As Vasquez Rocks Park is less than an hour from downtown Los Angeles, you can stay in one of the hotels in the city, or stay in other areas of L.A. But is you want to be even closer to the site, you should stay in Santa Clarita. Here are some hotels around this area that you could try:
A Final Word
Because it’s just a short drive from downtown, the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area is a very popular weekend getaway for Angelenos. But if you are a visitor and have more than just one day in Los Angeles, I encourage you to visit it. Much like Death Valley, which is one of the few National Parks close to L.A., Vasquez Rocks is a fascinating and unique place that you won’t soon forget.
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