What was it really like, back in the days of cattle and sheep ranching, of stagecoaches and saloons, of cowboys and Indians? Is the icon of the Old West created by movies and television an accurate portrayal of the way it was?
Within a few hours, you can be another age away, watching a simulated shoot-out on an old movie set or walking the streets of a Western mining town. If you would like to experience some of that colorful period's living history, you can visit the past at one or more of the following sites.
Paramount Ranch, 2813 Cornell Road, Agoura, (818) 888-3770. Open daily, dawn to dusk. Free. Paramount Studios owned almost 4,000 acres in this area from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, and the ranch was the setting for many of Paramount's films. Part of the old Rancho Las Virgenes, the land encompassed a variety of scenery needed for filming, from rolling meadows, oak and walnut groves, streams and canyons to long stretches of flats that look like prairies. In 1946, the ranch was subdivided, and in 1952 a portion sold to William Hertz, who created the setting of a Western mining town. The "Western Town" became the setting for television shows, such as "The Cisco Kid," "Bat Masterson," and "Have Gun, Will Travel." Today, free periodic ranger-guided programs are offered, examining the movie history of the ranch.
Will Rogers State Historic Park 14253 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (213) 454-8212. Open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parking $3 per car, $2 for seniors over 62. Known as the "cowboy philosopher," the late Will Rogers was a movie star, stage performer, columnist and commentator. In 1922, he bought a parcel of land above Sunset Boulevard that overlooked West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the Pacific. He finished building a 31-room ranch for his family on the property in 1928 and today, it is maintained as it was when they lived there. In addition to the ranch house (which closes at 5 p.m.), visitors can see and enjoy the Visitor's Center, Nature Center, bookstore and stables. You can also view a film on Rogers' life, take an audio-guided tour of the grounds and hike the trails that cover the 186 acres.
Old Town State Historic Park, near the intersection of Interstate 5 and Interstate 8, San Diego, (619) 237-6770. Open daily without charge, but some sites charge a small admission. Old Town is a six-block area of museums, shops and adobe buildings, both original and restored, depicting early California. Established as a state historic park in 1968, Old Town San Diego is one of the oldest communities of the state. In 1872, a disastrous fire destroyed six original buildings, and great care was taken to restore and preserve as many of the original structures as possible. The most famous of these is La Casa de Estudillo, a grand adobe known as "Ramona's Marriage Place," which has a 50-cent admission. The ticket also admits visitors to Seeley Stables, once the starting point for a 24-hour stagecoach journey to Los Angeles, which houses a collection of horse-drawn vehicles and Western memorabilia. La Casa de Machado y Silvas served a family home, a boarding house, a saloon, an art studio, a museum and a church. Bazaar del Mundo has about a dozen shops around a garden courtyard and the Casa de Pico restaurant. Docents offer walking tours of Old Town at 2 p.m. daily, and special living-history programs are scheduled every weekend.
Calico Ghost Town, Ghost Town Road, off Interstate 15, Yermo, (619) 254-2122. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission, parking $3. Nestled in a quiet canyon of the Calico Mountains 10 miles north of Barstow, Calico Ghost Town is an 1880s silver mining boomtown come to life once more. It was designated a California historic monument in 1973 and is now a San Bernardino County regional park. The colorful past of this fully restored 60-acre townsite is etched in the weathered porches that line Main Street, where you can browse through 16 shops.One of the town's original buildings houses Lil's Saloon, still in operation. Attractions include the Maggie Mine Tour, a Tram Ride, the Calico-Odessa Railroad, the Museum, a Mystery Shack, the Calico Playhouse and the Shooting Gallery.
Movieland Frontier Town, 1349 W. Valley Blvd., Colton, (714) 825-2530. Hours noon to 5 p.m. Free admission. Colton is Earp country; Virgil was its first sheriff and Wyatt's parents and brother, Morgan Earp are buried in Hermosa cemetery just behind Movieland Frontier Town. The Old West is re-lived daily in the shops and restaurants that front Frontier Town's compound and on the movie lot in back, which is used for filming and Western shows. The nostalgic back lot features an authentic Western street with a saloon, general store, blacksmith shop, newspaper office, post office and sheriff's station, complete with jail. On Saturdays and Sundays, Frontier Town presents stunt shows, simulated shoot-outs and live country and Western music.