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Hitting the Hollywood Trail

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Time and space are Hollywood’s stock in trade. A good plot may find its way into a play or
a novel, but only a filmmaker is able to jump impossible distances from one scene to the
next. And a screen story often ends right where it = began. It was at the Portofino Hotel
and Yacht Club in Redondo Beach, California, that the 1981 movie Cannonball Run had its
double-twist ending. Gumball Rally, a transcontinental event with close ties to the
original movie, is scheduled to conclude at the same place May 6-8. So it’s a case of life
imitating art. Whether you’re in a gumball state of mind or not, the Portofino is a
wonderful dining spot, and the surrounding area makes for a grand overnight stay. Redondo
Beach has a special quality that attracts filmmakers, beachgoers and boutique-browsers.
Even old utility buildings are made into works of art and put to adaptive reuse. In that
regard, Redondo Beach has much in common with filmmaking and with the movie ranches
acquired by major studios in the silentfilm era. In Southern California near Los Angeles,
most of the great movie ranches were abandoned or sold and absorbed by urban sprawl.
Universal Studios is now known as much for its tours as for movies. Still, there are small
pockets of movieland history that, in early morning hours or near twilight, still hold a
sense of place like no other. Few, if any, visitors are about then, and it’s easy to
imagine the rush of 35mm film stock through the gate of an ancient Mitchell motion-picture
camera, as you work a little movie magic with your own camcorder. In the lean 1940s and
1950s, most ranches were sold for housing tracts. Others, like Corriganville, reinvented
themselves as movie theme parks and managed to hang on for a while, offering work to stunt
doubles and wranglers from the old days. One lucky survivor – with easy access for
motorhomers traveling U.S. Highway 101 – is the Paramount Ranch, just south of Thousand
Oaks. Purchased in 1927 for nearly a half-million dollars, the ranch was auctioned off in
1943 for less than 10 cents on the dollar. Under new ownership, some of the ranch was
preserved and became home to many of the TV Westerns of the day. Where Gary Cooper and
William Boyd had once hung their Stetsons, The Cisco Kid, Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will
Travel were filmed. The 760 acres were purchased later by the National Park Service and
found new use as a location for the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Paramount
Ranch is open from 8 a.m. to sunset. Exit U.S. 101 at Kanan Road and turn south toward the
ocean. At Cornell Road turn left, then veer right and drive about 2½ miles past several
residential properties. The ranch is on the right side of the road. North of Los Angeles,
along State Route 14 between the Agua Dulce Canyon Road and Escondido Canyon Road exits,
the surreal formations of Vasquez Rocks border the northwestern side of the highway.
Literally hundreds of movies and television episodes have been filmed here, along with
commercials for everything from sneakers and peanut butter to motorcycles and RVs. Fans of
the original Star Trek series who recall the “Arena” episode, in which Captain Kirk battles
the Gorn, will recognize this location, as will fans of Flintstones: The Movie. The area is
simply marvelous for hikers. At Lone Pine, 50 miles farther north, both town and highway
are nestled between the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. On a
map, hardly a thumb-length separates Mount Whitney, at 14,497 feet, and Death Valley, with
its floor some 280 feet below sea level. The area is cut through by the San Andreas Fault.
So if you expect Lone Pine to be a place of contrasts, you’re right. It is host to some of
California’s mostphotographed, yet least-known movie locations. Campgrounds dot the area,
from the Boulder Creek RV Park, four miles south of town on U.S. Highway 395, opposite Diaz
Lake, to Lone Pine and Whitney Portal campgrounds, just off Whitney Portal Road on the
approach to the Alabama Hills. And if you’re looking for a good place to eat, the Mt.
Whitney Restaurant serves up equal shares of food and nostalgia. Here, movie stars who once
frequented Lone Pine peer down from every wall. It’s an easy drive through this region, but
much of the beauty here derives from an unparalleled harshness, and it’s best to keep that
in mind. Mount Whitney and Death Valley are as rugged as landforms come, and the weather
can change from blazing hot to wickedly cold, all in the same day. None of that made any
difference to Dave Holland, our enthusiastic guide to the Alabama Hills, who undoubtedly
knows every scene in every film shot there, from B-Westerns with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers
to epic sagas starring Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, a list of
Hollywood’s greats who did not film here would be a short one. Classic television shows
like Bonanza, The Virginian and The Rockford Files also filmed here. There is a special
fascination, a powerful sense of déja vu in the Alabama Hills. Everything has that look
about it, as if you’ve seen it before, and you have – on countless screens since childhood.
Death Valley, just to the east, is our next movie-site destination, so be sure to check
your fuel gauge. Lee’s Frontier, on South Main Street, is a good place to top off, with
lots of maneuvering room plus hospitable service. Heading east, State Route 136 makes a
partial circuit of Owens Lake. That lake was the first northern body of water stolen by the
California Aqueduct to quench the thirst of Southern California lawns and industries. The
movie Chinatown was based in part on that bit of California history. A small community
squats on the northeastern shore, complete with trailered boats, as if somehow the lake may
magically reappear. Once over the first mountain range and into the valley, both Stovepipe
Wells and Furnace Creek offer facilities and RV hookups that are centrally located. On the
west side of State Route 190, just a few minutes south of Furnace Creek, is one of the most
surreal of all Death Valley’s views: Zabriskie Point. Just after sunrise, the brindle
contours take on a golden cast, as mountains in the distance turn from gray to pink. This
location was used in Von Stroheim’s Greed, filmed in 1924, and Antonini’s Zabriskie Point,
produced in 1970. Though generations apart in time and story line, each movie focused on
the false hope of materialistic values. Zabriskie Point makes the visual statement
precisely – alluring in false light, but empty. Continue south along state routes 190 and
127 through Shoshone, then east on State Route 178 into Nevada on State Route 372. Pahrump
is a good place to hole up for the night after a day in Death Valley. There’s a pleasant RV
park operated in conjunction with Saddle West Hotel Casino. The buffet serves good fare as
well. No doubt about it, Las Vegas is easier to navigate in the morning, with a clear head,
and although there are several RV parks along the perimeter, Circus Circus was among the
first to introduce RV spaces. Circusland RV Park is easy to reach from Interstate 15.
Touches of the original pink-and-white circus-tent theme remain, and the hotel is
recognizable in one of the better James Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever. But Circus Circus
is reinventing itself. The second level of the main casino retains its free circus
performances, but has added The Adventuredome, where all the attractions are under glass
and climate-controlled to withstand the heat of desert summers. It’s very accessible and a
treat just to walk through – not to mention a heartstopping ride or two. The months of
October through May are like having much of the West to oneself. Two-lane highways take on
a magical quality with autumn colors, while high-desert blooms can take your breath away in
springtime. Few regions reflect all this more than the Zion/Grand Canyon areas and Monument
Valley. It’s a bit of a pull, from the desert floor around Las Vegas to the Kanab Plateau
at 6,000 feet. Yet nearly every mile brings some new view of the land and the larger
journey we’re all on. Entering the Virgin River Gorge near the Utah border, notice what it
took roadbuilders to bring an interstate through a pass where, even after years of
drilling-and- dynamiting, the sheer rock walls barely allow for the highway. St. George is
the last lowcost fuel stop in this region, so consider topping off. Exit No. 8 from
Interstate 15 leads directly to East St. George Boulevard (Utah Route 34) and several
service stations are only a block or two west. If you are traveling between April and
October, it’s also a good idea to check in with the National Park Service at (435)
772-3256. Shuttle buses operate during that period and things can get crowded. However, if
you are simply driving through Zion National Park to Kanab and beyond, there is no entrance
fee, though coach size limits apply. Continuing northeast on I-15, turn east on State Route
9 for an enchanting drive through Hurricane, La Verkin and Springdale, where the ace of
life visibly slows. It is perfect reparation for a slow-motion passage through the timeless
formations of the park. A number of films were shot in and around Zion, the most
spectacular being The Eiger Sanction. At Carmel Junction, east of Zion, turn southeast onto
U.S. Highway 89. There are lovely picnic spots and shady stopping places along this brief
stretch of road into Kanab, which has legitimate claim to the title Utah’s Little
Hollywood. From Tom Mix tworeelers through major productions such as Sergeants Three and
The Outlaw Josey Wales, plus classic television series, including Wagon Train, Death Valley
Days and Have Gun, Will Travel, Kanab has been near the center of the action. In town,
Parry Lodge has been the traditional headquarters of production companies on location, and
meals there are generous – with easy parking just a block or two east. Continuing south on
U.S. Highway 89A from Kanab, the grade increases a bit. On the north side of the highway is
a small rest stop with an extraordinary view of the Kanab area and the plateau beyond. From
Jacob Lake, continue east on U.S. 89A over an easy downgrade along the magnificent
Vermillion Cliffs, and across a broad valley leading to Navajo Bridge, spanning Marble
Canyon and the Colorado River. An Arizona visitor information center is on the far side,
with spectacular views and ample parking. The land grows rougher along U.S. 89 southbound
and harsher still after a turn west onto U.S. Highway 160, bound for Monument Valley. Tuba
City’s fuel prices are about as good as they’re going to get through here, so stop for
comfort’s sake. At the Kayenta intersection, turn north on U.S. Highway 163 and, if you’ve
not visited Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park before, prepare to be properly amazed. John
Ford, a giant among American directors, returned to this sacred place time and again to
shoot nearly all his great John Wayne films. From the outset, Ford’s vision went straight
to the hearts of movie fans and critics. And the formula was simple: Take a big man on
horseback, photograph him among the awesome monoliths in this valley, and everything comes
into perspective. The base camp for Ford’s production company, and many others, was
Goulding’s Lodge, about halfway up the valley. It’s a place filled with memories and
mementos, with a tiered RV park offering some of the most astonishing views anywhere.
Advance reservations are advised;(435) 727-3231, gouldings.com. Returning south, it’s an
easy run down to Flagstaff on U.S. 89 and then west along Interstate 40 to Williams. For
rail fans, history buffs or those with a soft spot for old Route 66, this town is a compact
wonder. The main drag is split into one-way streets and is easy to navigate. RV
accommodations are quite good, and there are several good restaurants, including Pancho
McGillicuddy’s. Known years earlier as The Cabinet, the restaurant was a prime watering
hole for Williams’ bordello district. More recently, it was featured in the Robert
DeNiro/Charles Grodin send-up of bounty hunters, Midnight Run. Williams is a wonderful
ending point for this brief tour of Hollywood film locations. Be sure to stop at the
visitor center on Railroad Avenue for maps and useful tips.

Tom Snyder is author of the Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion and
Pacific Coast Highway Traveler’s Guide (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press). Lee Barrett is a
researcher and freelance writer.

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