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June 19, 2008|Pauline OConnor

ABOUT 35 miles northwest of downtown L.A., encircled by the Santa Susana, San Gabriel and Sierra Pelona mountains, lies Los Angeles County's fourth-largest city, Santa Clarita.

Rather than follow the typical pattern of spreading outward from a central starting point, Santa Clarita was incorporated in 1987 as the union of several existing, separate communities, all of which had been part of the former Rancho San Francisco. These include the towns of Canyon Country, an equestrian haven; Newhall, where many silent films were shot; Saugus, site of an infamous train robbery in 1929; and Valencia, a planned community developed in the 1960s.

Rated by the FBI as the sixth-safest city with a population over 100,000 and by Money magazine as one of the top 100 places to live in the U.S., this boom 'burb is known more for its family-friendliness -- Magic Mountain is the area's most recognizable attraction -- than for its night life, dining or shopping options.

Critics of suburban sprawl and boring architecture bemoan the countless housing tracts that have spread like the wildfires that also plague the region. But against Santa Clarita's preponderance of cookie-cutter chains and big-box stores, one-of-a-kind gems like the ones below stand out.


Established in 1961 by Walt and Roy Disney, the California Institute of the Arts ( admits students solely on the basis of artistic ability. To foster a collaborative and experimental environment, almost all of its facilities are housed in a single 500,000-square-foot building. When school's in, the students' galleries are worth wandering among.


Vasquez Rocks Park (10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce, [661] 268-0840), pictured above right, is the only park in the U.S. named after an outlaw (its namesake, Tiburcio Vasquez, was a notorious bandit who used the spot as a hide-out in the 1870s). Four times a year, the 25 million-year-old geological formation -- which has been featured in countless movies, TV shows and ads -- is the site of star parties conducted by the Local Group Astronomy Club (


All Corked Up (26340 Diamond Place, Santa Clarita [661] 799-7979), below, has a wine bar and restaurant, cooking classes, tasting events and a 12,000-square-foot storage facility with lockers where clients can stash their valuable vintages.


So called because the cafe is said to be situated "halfway" between L.A. and Palmdale, the Half Way House Cafe (15564 Sierra Highway, Santa Clarita, [661] 251-0102) has been serving up straightforward roadside diner fare since 1931.


Formerly the mansion of a silent-film pioneer, the William S. Hart Museum and Ranch (24151 Newhall Ave., Newhall; www.hart is filled with Western art and early Hollywood memorabilia. Its surrounding grounds are home to a herd of American bison.





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