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Recreation : A Rocky Start : A Mexican Bandit Gave His Name to Vasquez Rocks County Park, but Hollywood, Hikers Made It Famous

Times Staff Writer

Let’s go back a few years. It’s 45 million B.C. Volcanoes in what is now Agua Dulce burp lava onto the desert floor, forming sandstone hills. Time flies. Twenty-million years later, an earthquake rips the hills from the earth and flips them over like pancakes, thereby doing a great service for future generations of Western bandits, Hollywood set decorators and assorted rock climbers.

The result of all this geothermal frenzy is Vasquez Rocks County Park, a 745-acre wonderland 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles and a few miles northeast of Canyon Country off the Antelope Valley Freeway. At the center of the park, tilted toward the sky at a 50-degree angle, are massive rock slabs that look like thunderbolts slung to the ground by the gods in charge of bizarre scenery. Sharp outcroppings tower more than 150 feet above the surrounding desert.

The park’s namesake is Tiburcio Vasquez, who lived there during the 1870s. Vasquez was not a missionary or a public servant or anything nearly as respectable. He was a Mexican bandit, probably the only one to get a park named after him. About 2,000 years after small bands of Alliklik Indians called the area home, Vasquez used it as a hide-out. But even the rough-edged gorges and hidden caves couldn’t shelter him forever. On March 19, 1875, he was hanged in San Jose.

During summer months and on most weekends during the year, climbers retrace Vasquez’s footsteps. They walk up the spine of the main rock, easily scrambling within 30 feet of the summit, where toeholds yield to smooth, nearly vertical stone. From various vantage points, Vasquez had a sweeping view of the desert. Easily concealed, he could see for miles and hear amplified voices and footsteps for hundreds of yards.

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A climber sits on a ledge facing west. Below, juniper, sagebrush and yucca provide shade for rattlesnakes and wood rats. A red-tailed hawk floats overhead. Across a chasm is a slanted, irregular rock slab called Frog Mouth for its uncanny resemblance to just that. Then the climber, in the throes of a nature overdose, looks south past a patch of holly leaf cherry and sees . . . a Taco Bell sign?

“Cut! You’re eating the wrong taco!” an English director yells to a young actor.

Set up on the desert, with the rocks forming a moonscape background, a television crew is filming a commercial. A few times a month, producers pay for permits that allow them to use Vasquez Rocks. It has been the setting for dozens of Westerns, including “Bonanza,” and its otherworldly landscape has filled in for distant planets on “Star Trek” episodes.

In the early ‘50s, a Hollywood film company used Vasquez Rocks as a stand-in for Red Rock Canyon in Colorado. There was a problem with the rocks--God made them tan--so the producer ordered them painted red. More than 30 years later, the crimson has faded to light pink, a reminder that man won’t respect nature without constant supervision.

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That’s why Dianne Roark is on the job. A naturalist with the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, which runs Vasquez Rocks, she accompanies production companies using the location. Rules are strict but simple: If you touch it, preserve it. Rapport Films, producing the Taco Bell ad--"make a run for the border"--brought in fake Joshua trees and cactus and built a mini taco stand. But not a blade of grass was disturbed. Production companies that damage the environment are fined and denied future permits.

“See those things over there that look dead?” said producer Randy Stiles, pointing to clumps of dry brush. “The crew has to take care not to destroy them.”

Somehow, Vasquez Rocks has managed to escape the vandalism that mars other parks. Maybe it is because Ranger Mike Sharp lives in a house at the entrance to the park. Or because the high desert heat and absence of water deters teen partying. But there is hardly any litter and no graffiti.

“It’s a wonder there’s none of that,” Roark said. “But visitors are watched closely, and fines are steep.”

Because of its protected status, nothing can be taken from the park, including flora and Indian artifacts.

“The park is protected because it’s so unique,” Roark said. “It has plants and animals that don’t live anywhere else. If they weren’t protected, they’d be gone.”

Summer use is heavy--Japanese tourists, Roark says, are transported in buses and shown the flip side of Hollywood Boulevard. The park is a big attraction for families, mainly because most climbs, despite their appearance, provide an easy challenge for children.

“It looks treacherous from an angle, but it’s not,” Roark said.

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“Some parents get scared seeing their kids on those rocks. I tell them the best way to deal with it is to turn their backs and let the kids play.”

On top of the main rock, Trajan Plesh of Glendale stands on a precipice and looks toward nearby Escondido Canyon. A few minutes before he had been driving on the Antelope Valley Freeway when he saw the strange rock formations and decided to take a detour for an impromptu climb. His trek up the incline had been easy. Now, he realizes, the descent is going to be difficult.

“The rock is sandy,” he says. “You can feel it with your hand. It’s dangerous going downhill. Your shoes don’t always hold and you can slide.”

Inching his way down, often on his seat, Plesh passes Joyce Stern of Redondo Beach and her 2 young boys. They’ll only make it halfway up, much to the boys’ displeasure. “It’s not scary,” insists Russell, 10. But his mother calls a halt to the climb. “I’m a little bit afraid of heights,” she says. “But the kids like it.”


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