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Santa Clarita

With theme parks, movie history, and thousands of acres of open space, this city 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles is a unique escape

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A popular destination for both filmmakers and theme park thrill-seekers, Santa Clarita is where movie magic meets Magic Mountain. Set in the hills northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Clarita is best known as the home of Six Flags Magic Mountain. The theme park earned its title as the “Thrill Capital of the World” thanks to 18 roller coasters—including Full Throttle, the tallest and fastest looping roller coaster on the planet. Things are plenty wet and wild next door at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, a water park with giant slides that will send you plunging and racing for hundreds of feet. But fear not: Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor also have plenty of rides and attractions suitable for younger kids and anyone looking for mellower fun.

While there’s no song called “Hooray for Santa Clarita,” entertainment industry insiders know that the area has long been a major location for film and television production. Moviemaking began here in 1915 and now 10 movie ranches and 20 soundstages operate in Santa Clarita. For early film history, visit the William S. Hart Museum in the Spanish Colonial Revival mansion that this silent film star built in 1927. Hart grew up on the frontier and the museum displays his huge collection of Western art, while the adjacent park lets you see a living remnant of the Old West—a herd of American bison.

Santa Clarita celebrates its filmmaking heritage at the Walk of Western Stars, where bronze plaques set in the pavement pay tribute to screen legends, from director John Ford to Academy Award–nominated First Nations actor Graham Greene. Honorees are announced during the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, an annual spring event featuring live bluegrass and Western music, plus chuckwagons serving up plenty of range-style grub.

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With trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on nearly 9,000 acres of open space, Santa Clarita is surrounded by some of Southern California’s most gorgeous (and historic) landscapes. Northeast of Santa Clarita, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and Nature Center has for decades served as the backdrop for numerous western films and television shows, as well as several Star Trek movies. The area is named for 19th-century desperado Tiburcio Vasquez, who hid out from the law among these dramatically tilted sandstone formations.

For all the focus on the 1849 Gold Rush, California’s original gold discovery actually took place in 1842 near Santa Clarita at what is now Placerita Canyon Natural Area. You can even see the famous “Oak of the Golden Dream,” where, according to legend, rancher Francisco Lopez dreamed of gold as he napped, then dug for wild onions and found bits of gold attached to the roots. Trails explore the park’s oak woodlands and follow Placerita Creek, with one side-route leading to a waterfall.

The Santa Clarita area boasts another historic milestone: In 1876, Pico Canyon was the site of the West’s first commercially successful oil well. Mentryville, an oil town in the canyon and once home to 100 families, still has several buildings that date back to the boom times. Ten minutes away, Ed Davis Park in Towsley Canyon may be just off Interstate 5, but follow its trails and you’ll quickly leave the freeway hubbub behind for secluded canyons and panoramic views along a high ridgeline. And Santa Clarita is also notable for an extensive network of bike paths (including the Iron Horse Trailhead with its 1898 railroad trestle) that makes it easy to exercise and get around without a car.

When it’s time to relax, consider a visit to the surprising high desert wine country north of town for tastings of the estate varietals at Agua Dulce Winery and Reyes Winery. Santa Clarita also boasts a lively craft beer scene at such spots as the rustic Newhall Refinery and Brewery Draconum, where the beer garden is perfect for savoring the house-brewed (and locally inspired) Ale of the Golden Dream.

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