Beginning 40 miles northeast of Hollywood, the high-desert regions of eastern California are home to a different sort of cinematic wonderland, one that has left its mark on the silver screen with a wide array of geological stunners. These dramatic, craggy backdrops have often appeared onscreen in classic Westerns, blockbusters like Iron Man and cult favorites such as the Kevin Bacon–fronted horror movie Tremors. Intrepid day-trippers can explore the region in various ways, perhaps by completing the circuit described below in one aggressive outing or slowing down a bit and staying the night in one of the area’s quaint towns.
We begin our geology field trip in San Andreas Fault country, taking Interstate 5 north to Highway 14 east and exiting at Agua Dulce Canyon Road. Barely an hour’s drive out of town, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park is a masterpiece of what geologists call differential erosion, where nonmarine, buff-colored sandstones from the Miocene Age are tilted 45 degrees. Sculpted by wind and rain, these angular forms have been an iconic setting for just about every TV Western from Bonanza to Zorro, not to mention numerous commercials and music videos. It was also the eponymous real-life hideout of notorious bandido Tiburcio Vasquez, celebrated outlaw of mid–19th century California. An award-winning new visitor center with interactive displays and a gift shop also is worth a visit.
Get back on Highway 14 northbound for about an hour, and you might think you’ve been transported to ancient Egypt. Red Rock Canyon State Park is a chromatic layer cake of volcanic and sedimentary rock that comprises the Dove Spring Formation. Here, Boris Karloff in the 1932 film The Mummy pointed the way to the tomb of his beloved. Dove Spring Formation’s rich fossil beds are a paleontologist’s dream, so it’s no surprise that the area served as a dinosaur dig in the opening sequence of Jurassic Park. The terrain is a favorite for location scouts, who have often cast it as a quintessential Western backdrop.
A short jaunt along Highway 395 brings venturers to the Alabama Hills, the Valhalla of geologic backgrounds, just west of the charming town of Lone Pine. At the junction of Main Street and Whitney Portal Road, turn left and drive a mile to Movie Road. It will take you through a jumble of ochre-colored boulders of weathered biotite monzogranite, which are the same age as the gunmetal-gray Sierra Nevada in the distance. This Technicolor expanse has served as the Himalayan foothills in Gunga Din, as well as the setting for an epic wagon-train ambush in How the West Was Won. More recently, it was featured in key sequences of Gladiator and X-Men. Hundreds of other films and TV programs were shot here, especially those featuring Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger. Big Valley star Barbara Stanwyck even had her ashes scattered here.
Take one final detour on the way back to L.A., about an hour south on Highway 395. Take the turnoff on westbound Highway 178 through Ridgecrest, and after about 28 miles look for signs and a graded dirt road on the right. It will lead you to the Trona Pinnacles, which are not volcanic or sedimentary in origin but rather date back to a time in the Pleistocene, when the desert was a lusher place, with many interconnected lakes. Calcium-rich groundwater percolated into the sodium-rich waters of Searles Lake, creating imposing stalagmitic formations that were exposed when the lake dried up. Sci-fi show Lost in Space memorably employed footage of the Pinnacles for some dramatic extraterrestrial land-rover scenes. Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier also used the Pinnacles in key sequences.
Head back west toward Highway 395, and in about three hours or so you’ll be home again, where you can park in front of the TV and, chances are, watch something that was filmed at one of the places you just visited.
THE HIGH DESERT
Getting there: Take Interstate 405 to Interstate 5 north, then east on Interstate 14, to the Agua Dulce Canyon exit. Continue northeast to Interstate 6, Red Rock Canyon State Park exit, then north to Interstate 395 and Lone Pine.
What to do: Make a stop at Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History, which catalogs and displays various pieces of ephemera from the many movies made in the area.
Where to eat: Run by French expats, Still Life Café is 15 minutes north of Lone Pine and serves a leisurely lunch and dinner. Call ahead, as hours of operation are unpredictable. 135 S. Edwards St., Independence, (760) 878-2555. Seasons is Lone Pine’s finest restaurant, open only for dinner and specializing in steaks, pasta and seafood. Reservations recommended.
Where to stay: The Dow Villa offers a time-travel lodging experience in its lovingly restored 1920s original hotel building, as well as midcentury modern accommodations in its motel annex. And, yes, John Wayne hung his hat here. 310 S. Main St., Lone Pine, dowvillamotel.com. Diaz Lake Campground is a scenic spot near the Alabama Hills with many amenities — and it’s located on the shores of what geologists call a sag pond, caused by movement along an earthquake fault. inyocountycamping.com.
Wild card: Fossil Falls, midway between Red Rock and Lone Pine, is a short drive off the highway and is a marvelous jumble of water-worn basalt. Petroglyphs and obsidian arrowheads are evidence that it was an aboriginal gathering