A Visit to Spahn Movie Ranch

By Michael G. Ankerich

My morbid curiosity is a side of me that most friends and family don’t understand. I simply had no choice, friends!  I grew up watching Dark Shadows, and the first scene from a movie I remember seeing was a decapitated head rolling down the stairs in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I remember burying my head into my mother’s lap and not coming up until “The End.”

I’d rather see low-budget movies (just watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown for the fourth or fifth time) about hauntings and serial killers than comedy or the commercially popular latest and greatest epic.

The really fun part is when it spills over into real life.  I love hanging out in cemeteries and going to those places where creepy and bizarre things happened. On my first trip to Los Angeles, back in the 1980s, one of the first places I asked to visit was Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered in 1969. On my next venture west, I found the La Bianca murder house.

You cannot imagine the disappointment when I trekked to the corner of Alvarado and Maryland in Hollywood only to find the courtyard apartment where William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922 was a parking lot. Or, when I went to the apartment house where Marie Prevost died and was unable to go inside.  We learn to live with life’s little disappointments.

High on my list was the site of Spahn Ranch, which had once been a 500-acre movie ranch for filming Westerns and numerous television programs.

Spahn Ranch in the day

Spahn Ranch in the day

You know the story. By the late 1960s, little filming was actually done on the desolate property in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth. Its owner, 80-year-old George Spahn, blind and ailing, now used the ranch for horse rentals.

It was in 1968 that Charles Manson and his followers, “The Family,” came to live at the ranch.  Spahn allowed them to stay rent free as long as they help out with chores. This abandoned, isolated ranch, 20 miles from Los Angeles, became the primary residence of Manson and the Family during the time they committed the Tate-LaBianca murders until Manson’s arrest in 1969 during a raid on the property.

The dilapidated buildings of Spahn Ranch burned to the ground in 1970. Mother nature reclaimed the property. It eventually became part of Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

On previous trips to LA, when I was traveling alone, I had been reluctant to explore the area. It was not on any tourist map, and I frankly was not excited about stepping on rattlesnakes or getting lost in the wilderness.

In October 2014, Charlie came with me. I was in LA for the second time. The first time was in the spring when I flew out to film an episode of The Ghost Inside My Child.

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Garage where Thelma Todd was found dead

Now, I’ve coaxed Charlie into experiencing some rather wild adventures over our 23 years together, but I don’t think he took seriously my idea of visiting Spahn Ranch on this trip. When we left Hollywood for the coast that morning, just days before Halloween, I had the ranch on my radar for the afternoon.

On our way to Malibu, we stopped in Pacific Palisades and located the garage where Thelma Todd was found dead way back in 1935.

Later that morning, we hiked in Malibu Canyon and rested at the site where they filmed the exteriors for M*A*S*H.  After lunch at Duke’s on the coast in Malibu, we turned inland on Topanga Canyon Blvd. for the Valley.

As we neared Chatsworth, the terrain turned mountainous and rocky. Right before we reached Ronald Reagan Parkway,  we turned left onto Santa Susana Pass Road and headed west.  When we got to Iverson Road, I knew we were there. I looked to the left. Nothing to indicate it was Spahn Ranch. We turned right onto Iverson. Just ahead, we pulled into the parking lot at Church at Rock Peak. Leaving the car, we set out on foot, back down Iverson toward Santa Susana. Just passed the guardrail, we skidded down a bank and found ourselves in brush and brambles.

 

 

Spahn Ranch, then and now

Spahn Ranch, then and now

As the shadows grew longer in the waning light, I led Charlie down a trail toward the dry creek bed. It had to be here.  But where? At one point, the bed was at the bottom of a gully.  I had no choice but to go down and explore. Charlie said he’d wait on me. If I found what I was looking for, holler for him.

Clinging onto a branch, I lowered myself down toward the creek bed. When I let go, the leaves and loose rocks sent my feet out from under me (maybe the wine from Dukes had something to do with my unsteadiness).

I tumbled to the bottom, scrapping my shine and breaking the arm of a pair of Revos on the way down.

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

So overgrown with vines and limbs was the area, there was no way to travel along the creek. I carefully pulled myself out of the ravine and met Charlie back on the trail.

Daylight was fading, but not my determination. We walked back toward the road and took another trail that led down into the creek bed. Then it came into view, the cave where the Manson family took their now infamous photo.

The Cave, then and now

The Cave, then and now

It felt creepy being there, that’s about the best way I can describe it. Although decades had passed since the horrible crimes, a sense of evil still hung in the air like a fog. It was time to go.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Iliad Books in North Hollywood — one of my favorite haunts, then had dinner in Studio City at Vitello’s Italian Restaurant. After we turned over the car to the valet, I motioned for Charlie to follow me around the corner from the entrance to the restaurant.

“You know what happened here, don’t you?  As I figure it, it happened right about there.”

“No, what happened here,” he asked reluctantly.

“This is the place where Robert Blake’s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely, was shot to death while she waited for Blake, who had supposedly returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left behind.  Interesting, huh?”

Charlie had had enough.  “Come on, I’m hungry.”

My own directions to Spahn Ranch

In the event that you have an afternoon to spare and want to make your own visit to the site of Spahn Movie Ranch, follow my directions.

  • Type 22601 Santa Susana Pass Road into your GPS. That will get you close to the ranch.
  • Be careful if you park alongside the road.  Better yet, park discretely in the church parking lot (Church at Rock Peak).
  • Back on Santa Susana Pass Road, walk to the end of the white guardrail.
  • Leave the road and follow the trail into the brush.  You’re there! Now, explore. Be careful.  Watch for rattlesnakes.

 

Spahn Ranch, a bird's eye view

Spahn Ranch, a bird’s eye view

 

Your map to Spahn Ranch

Your map to Spahn Ranch

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “A Visit to Spahn Movie Ranch

  1. Hi Michael, Very interesting read! I remember reading about the Spahn Ranch and of course the Tate murders. It was a horrible tragedy. Glad you and Charlie were able to go on this adventure! Love Judy

  2. I too have a morbid curiosity. Enjoyed this about the Spahn Ranch! Keep me coming! Tell Charlie hello from a fellow Ellavillian! Haha

  3. My first thought is what a SAINTED husband you have, to accompany you on all your madcap treks! Sure wish I were so lucky! I have to do most of my “scandal tromping” alone, or with various friends, who usually require serious arm-twisting! How lucky you are to have someone to “aid and abet” you as you trek to, oh, say, THE SPAHN RANCH!! Bravo to both of you, for your determination in simply finding it! And I appreciate the detailed instructions, since I hope to attempt a trip there myself, someday!

    As always, Michael, your books continue to give me great reading pleasure. They’re not the kind that one reads once and then puts on the shelf. I re-read them all the time, especially “Broken Silence” and “The Sound of Silence”. Whenever I read these amazing interviews, I can’t help but think how FORTUNATE you are, to have had the idea, the determination and the dedication to tracking them down…and talking them into being interviewed–some, for the first time in many decades! I sure wish I’d done the same, as I was a silent-film obsessed child, from early-on…and I’d always had the dream of doing just what you did: Finding the last remaining stars and interviewing them. Now that they are all gone, all during the same relatively short period, it’s especially SO significant that we have an interview with…Madge Bellamy…or….David Rollins. Your books are an invaluable record of a magical time in history that has disappeared into the rear-view mirror–and would almost seem like a mirage, had it not been for chroniclers like yourself who had the foresight to get these bygone idols “on the record,” before they disappeared for good. My fedora is off to you! (and St. Charlie!!)

  4. Hi Michael,
    Funny I’m sitting here in my car directly in front of Spain Ranch. Why is it always nighttime when I arrive here? This is my 3rd time in 5 yrs…. never knew you could walk about the place… thought it was No Trespassing. Well now that you’ve been so generous with your info, I will go early one morning & check it out. I’ve been to Sharon Tate’s house too, b4 it was demolished. Never could go on property. But sure wasn’t for lack of desire… wow the investigator in me won’t stop. I also went to Death Valley, but could no way get into Barker Ranch Territory… Always alone but never afraid. I’ve been entranced with Sharon Tate since I heard about her murder as a 10 yr old in Dallas Texas… Throughout the years I’ve made it my destiny to find out about true crime & literally search the places out. If I go to a library & read a cool true crime boom, next thing I know, I’m there… in the territory feeling out the sense of what went down. Went to Graceland too, of course. Another obsession – Elvis. And Marilyn Monroe. Climbed the wall at her house, but did not leap, as it is private property with a resident. Oh how I wanted to go to the door, and sense Marilyn everywhere.
    There are so many more. I just left Antelope Valley & Lake Los Angeles in the deep Mojave Desert, checking out the area where a huge manhunt went down for a cop killer. The book I just read was DESERT RECKONING… well that caught my eye! I’m a writer. I want to write a boom. I’ve got so much to tell. I don’t know where to begin. Wish I had a mentor to convince me it’s simple. You can WB if you’d like to. I’m sure we could share some cool stories. Perhaps my sad obsession with the dearly departed began when I was just 14 & lost a beloved buddy to a murdering punk, in Dallas… and I was so distraught I would run away from home & go camp out at his grave just crying, talking, longing to see him smile one more time. But no amount of tears changed a thing, and I decided that if mom N dad ever found out I was doing that at Randy’s grave, they might think I needed big time help. And really, I did. But I suffered in silence & became a little rebellious…. Well, that was years ago but seems like only this summer. My life being filled with loss has caused me to seek out the nature of criminal minds & maybe one day doon, I’ll write a damn good book….
    I better get started.
    Again, thx so much. Your story tonight was awesome. Now I need to leave this dark, winding, Santa Susanna Pass & next time park up the hill on Iverson at the church up there, on a day trip. Tonight is Black Friday…. hmmm, shopping just not in the cards. More like camping under the stars reading another true crime book about something in Santa Barbara, which by the way is where I’m going tomorrow for a splendid job interview – yes, on Saturday… it’s ok. I need this, and I’m extremely determined.
    Happy holidays.
    Valerie

  5. Hi Michael,
    Funny I’m sitting here in my car directly in front of Spahn Ranch. Why is it always nighttime when I arrive here? This is my 3rd time in 1 yr…. never knew you could walk about the place… thought it was No Trespassing. Well now that you’ve been so generous with your info, I will go early one morning & check it out. I’ve been to Sharon Tate’s house too, b4 it was demolished. Never could go on property. But sure wasn’t for lack of desire… wow the investigator in me won’t stop. I also went to Death Valley, but could no way get into Barker Ranch Territory… Always alone but never afraid. I’ve been entranced with Sharon Tate since I heard about her murder as a 10 yr old in Dallas Texas… Throughout the years I’ve made it my destiny to find out about true crime & literally search the places out. If I go to a library & read a cool true crime book, next thing I know, I’m there… in the territory feeling out the sense of what went down. Went to Graceland too, of course. Another obsession – Elvis. And Marilyn Monroe. Climbed the wall at her house, but did not leap, as it is private property with a resident. Oh how I wanted to go to the door, and sense Marilyn everywhere. Ask her, Darlin what went down that night?
    There are so many more. I just left Antelope Valley & Lake Los Angeles in the deep Mojave Desert, checking out the area where a huge manhunt went down for a cop killer. The book I just read was DESERT RECKONING… well that caught my eye! I’m a writer. Well, I want to write a book. I’ve got so much to tell. I don’t know where to begin. Wish I had a mentor to convince me it’s simple. Perhaps my sad obsession with the dearly departed began when I was just 14 & lost a beloved buddy to a murdering punk, in Dallas… and I was so distraught I would run away from home & go camp out at his grave just crying, talking, longing to see him smile one more time. But no amount of tears changed a thing, and I decided that if mom N dad ever found out I was doing that at Randy’s grave, they might think I needed big time help. And really, I did. But I suffered in silence & became a little rebellious…. Well, that was years ago but seems like only this summer. My life being filled with loss has caused me to seek out the nature of criminal minds & maybe one day soon, I’ll write a damn good book….
    I better get started.
    Again, thx so much. Your story tonight was awesome. Now I need to leave this dark, winding, Santa Susanna Pass & next time park up the hill on Iverson at the church up there, on a day trip. Tonight is Black Friday…. hmmm, shopping just not in the cards. More like camping under the stars reading another true crime book about something in Santa Barbara, which by the way is where I’m going tomorrow for a splendid job interview – I need this, and I’m extremely determined….
    Happy holidays.
    Thx for sharing!
    Valerie

  6. HI, your article needs one edit.

    It is ILLEGAL to park in the church parking lot and they are aggressive. Shocked you got away with it. They will have you arrested for trespassing and they try to scare people away from Spahn.

    The legal place to park is actually on the right side(facing away from ranch) of Iverson Road.

  7. I had tears in my eyes seeing Thelma Todd’s Garage photo on your site, and ice up my spine as you said your first stop in CA was Cielo Dr….mine too. Of course my brother and I went to the Rockingham OJ Home(Demolished), the restaurant where Ron Goldman worked and Nicole Brown Simpson had her last meal….Great Job to you!

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