That tilted rock formation… now where have I seen that before? On TV and in the movies, most likely. Vasquez Rocks Park, just north of Los Angeles, California, has been a favorite “otherworldly” film location for many decades. This slightly slanted look at Vasquez Rocks promises, as the Gorn from Star Trek’s “Arena” episode once did, to be merciful and quick.
(image via: TrekEarth)
Heading out along the Antelope Valley Freeway north of Los Angeles, motorists can be forgiven for letting their eyes wander off the road if only for a moment. A moment is really all one needs for the distinctive sharp angles and eroded striations of Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park to trigger a flood of movie and TV memories.
Located near Agua Dulce between the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park (to give it its official name) sprawls over 3 square kilometers (905 acres) of rugged – some might even say “tortured” – hardscrabble rocky land that looks to be the ideal hideout for a rustler on the lam or a Mexican bandito pursued by state-commissioned posses.
The latter is true, actually – one Tiburcio Vásquez (for whom the rocks were named) used the jagged formations as one of his many boltholes. Vásquez, who was considered to be California’s most notorious bandit of the late nineteenth century, went on a 20-year-long reign of terror that featured horse rustling, prison breaks, robberies and burglaries.
Vásquez was finally caught in 1874 and was executed by hanging early the next year. To the very end he proclaimed his innocence and constant desire to stand up for the rights of Hispanic Californians. Some say Tiburcio Vásquez was the inspiration for the fictional literary and cinema swordsman Zorro. Besides Vasquez Rocks, his name graces the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center with 6 locations from Union City north to Hayward, CA.
Tiburcio Vásquez’ reign of terror shook the lives of southern Californians, so it’s an appropriate coincidence that Vasquez Rocks are a byproduct of a much older life-shaker, the San Andreas Fault.
(image via: HeroComm)
The inexorable grinding action along the faultline over countless thousands of years has resulted in slabs of 25-million year old striated sedimentary layers at Vasquez Rocks being shifted away from horizontal, in some cases at acute angles.
(image via: Stephen Ponting)
Erosion has been minimal in the region’s arid climate and, if anything, weathering has narrowed the upper reaches of the rock formations making them appear even sharper. Today some of the slabs are inclined at up to 50 degrees and their summits jut more than 150 feet (45 m) high.
Rock & Roll ‘Em!
Have Vasquez Rocks gone Hollywood? Well yes, yes they have! The timeless, otherworldly landscape of Vasquez Rocks – not to mention their convenient nearness – immediately attracted Hollywood’s budding film industry who saw the distinctive terrain as being the perfect stand-in for the surfaces of other planets. Click here to view an exhaustive listing of the many productions that have featured Vasquez Rocks.
Classic Western TV shows like Bonanza would occasionally put Vasquez Rocks at center stage. In one memorable episode from late 1964 titled “Between Heaven and Earth”, Little Joe Cartwright (above) loses his rifle while climbing “Eagles Peak” and finds he has a fear of heights.
Sci-fi films and television shows of the Fifties and Sixties glommed onto Vasquez Rocks like a mongoose on a rattler… or like a Gorn on a certain Federation Starship Captain who does not need to be named. Aw heck, it’s James Tiberius Kirk of course, an actor so intimately associated with Vasquez Rocks the penultimate peak has been dubbed “Kirk’s Rock” in his honor.
Star Trek: The Original Series’ producers may have had their tongues in their cheeks regarding the use – some say, overuse – of Vasquez Rocks as a locale. Maybe they were just trying to stay within budget. In any case, Vasquez Rocks’ unmistakable profile figured prominently in both the “WN.com”>Arena” episode and the Futurama parody of it around 30 years later.
Here’s a video immortalizing what might be the Worst. Fight Scene. EVAR… starring William Shatner, the Gorn, Vasquez Rocks and a large papier-mâché boulder:
When it came time for director J.J. Abrams and production designer Scott Chambliss to select locations for 2009’s prequel film Star Trek, Vasquez Rocks wasn’t forgotten. Far from it, in fact, as the formation is used (albeit CGI-enhanced) in a number of scenes meant to depict sites on Spock’s home world, the planet Vulcan.
(image via: Laurie’s Wild West)
Among many, many other productions of note, 1974’s Blazing Saddles included scenes shot at or near Vasquez Rocks – the 2D fake town of Rock Ridge was built in the valley just below the rock formation.
(image via: Mysterious Island Design)
The repeated incidental injection of Vasquez Rocks into pop culture has endowed the formation with a unique cachet. By virtue of widespread recognition on screens both large and small, Vasquez Rocks seems to have acquired a larger than life prominence.
Much like the actors featured in innumerable scenes with the iconic tilted rock formation, Vasquez Rocks’ familiarity allows the location to be used, reused and reused yet again while “playing” the part of any location the production crew desires. If some day an inanimate object is granted a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, by all rights the honor should go to Vasquez Rocks.