If you’re looking to spend a fun day on the town somewhere, why not spend it in Santa Clarita, which actually comprises four towns — Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus and Valencia.
Four for the price of one! Where can you beat that deal?
While Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is Santa Clarita’s biggest draw, and employer, too, don’t let it distract you from many of the city’s other charms and attractions, including 70 miles of hiking trails, 25 parks, a rich film history reaching back to Hollywood’s cinematic infancy, and geologic jewels like Vasquez Rocks just outside the city’s limits.
There’s no better way to start your Santa Clarita expedition than with a hearty breakfast at the Saugus Café, Los Angeles County’s oldest restaurant. When it first opened its doors in 1887, Grover Cleveland was president. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison stopped in during his whistle-stop re-election campaign, and President Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed a New York steak dinner here in 1903.
With the growth of the film industry, and the Western film genre, in particular, Hollywood luminaries like D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Harry Carey, Douglas Fairbanks, Hoot Gibson, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Tom Mix, saddled up to the cafe’s counter. Marlene Dietrich filmed “Seven Sinners” behind the restaurant in 1938.
Located at 25861 Railroad Ave., the restaurant is almost as long as a train, with the bar serving as the caboose. If you prefer yuppified cuisine, keep on driving, but if you like downhome food, take a seat at the counter or wrangle a booth.
The Café’s chalkboard listed loads of intriguing offerings, including chocolate chip pancakes. I kept it simple ordering two eggs over easy with hash browns, which I liberally salted, peppered and enjoyed while gazing up at black and white photos of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and a galaxy of other film stars, who probably never ate here.
From the Saugus Café, head south on Railroad to historic Newhall and the William S. Hart Museum and Park. While not as grand or grandiose as Hearst Castle, it’s far closer and cheaper. In fact, it’s free, the actor’s gift in perpetuity to Angelenos and the world.
During the docent-led tour of Hart’s 22-room, 10,000-square-foot custom-built hilltop mansion, you’ll learn that the Shakespeare-trained actor didn’t start his Hollywood career until he was 49, after which he went on to make more than 65 silent movies in 11 years, the last being “Tumbleweeds” in 1925.
For roughly a 20-year period (1927-46), the cowboy actor filled his retirement ranch house with western art, Native American artifacts and early Hollywood memorabilia. Hart, who lived in the house with his sister, Mary Ellen, didn’t exactly rough it. For its time, the home featured state-of-the-art conveniences like an electric refrigerator, French warmer, dumbwaiter and in-house phone system.
But it’s the personal touches that make the mansion so endearing, like the entryway with its towering wagon-wheel ceiling. In the adjoining dining room, you’ll relish the wall-mounted horseshoes of Fritz, Hart’s favorite horse who starred in about half of his silent movies, and an enormous oil portrait of the famous duo that appears so lifelike you expect horse and rider to leap off the canvas.
Unlike Hearst Castle, Hart’s home has a real, lived-in quality. The proof is underfoot, where you’ll find redwood flooring consisting of two-inch blocks, locked in place without nails, glue or mortar. After the floor was completed, the architect flooded the floor, swelling and sealing the blocks into place.
“What you see down there is 87 years of dirt,” said Rachel, our tour guide.
Upstairs is the 1,200 square-foot Great Room, which includes an in-house movie theater. Also hard to miss is a giant bearskin rug, a gift from lifelong friend Will Rogers, who wasn’t a hunter. “We suspect, Rogers re-gifted the rug,” Rachel said.
The last room on the tour is usually mistaken for an office or a sitting room, when, in fact, it’s just one more bedroom — the dogs’ bedroom, where Hart’s Great Danes, Prince and Gal, slept in custom-made beds. The doggy suite includes an ironclad safe, where the dog treats were stored.
“Every night before Prince and Gal went to bed, Bill gave each dog a piece of See’s candy,” Rachel said.
Hart treated both humans and animal friends equally well. Existing the upstairs, you notice photographs of Hart’s two best pals, Will Rogers and artist Charles Russell.
“Poor Bill actually watched both leave this world,” Rachel said. “Russell died relatively young at the age of 60 of a heart attack and, of course, Will Rogers died in a plane crash.”
His friends’ legacy, however, lives on, as does Hart’s, with the generous gift of his house and ranch to the County of Los Angeles upon his death in 1946.
For the third and last leg of your Santa Clarita exploration — for one day, anyway — return to the I-5 south before connecting to the Antelope Freeway (SR-14) and heading east to Agua Dulce Winery. You can turn this short trip into a two-fer because your journey will take you right by the entrance to Vasquez Rocks on the way to the winery.
The Agua Dulce winery is intriguing, if for no other reason than it is situated so close to one of the earth’s harshest and most unforgiving regions, the Mojave Desert.
Yet after a relatively short trek, it appears like a mirage of sweet water along the Old Sierra Highway in the Sierra Pelona Valley.
The sweet water, of course, is wine, sold by the bottle or case – a surprising bounty produced by a perfect combination of granite and red clay soils and favorable late-afternoon breezes. A tasting costs $7 during which you can sample a delightfully fruity chardonnay, a smoky zinfandel, an oaky cabernet and other well-structured offerings.
However long you wish to linger at the winery is up to you. There are ample grounds to host an impromptu picnic, catch a wink or drink up the valley’s alluring beauty.
When the time is finally right to jump back in the car for the ride home, you’ll agree that all of Santa Clarita is full of intriguing valleys and canyons, and, yes, Magical Mountains.