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Trekking Through History: In Search of the 'Manson Caves'

A scenic search for the caves of the Santa Susana Mountains that some say were used by the murderous Manson Family reveals spectacular sandstone formations and panoramic vistas.

The Santa Susana Mountains encompass thousands of acres of pristine chaparral habitat, but within their seemingly peacefully rugged beauty and rich history hides a dark past.

Located inside what is now Santa Susana State Historic Park, Spahn Ranch (also known as the Spahn movie ranch) was where Charles Manson and his followers hatched the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969.

Once used as a filming location for various western-themed movies and television shows including the Lone Ranger, Spahn Ranch was named after its owner, George Spahn, who bought it in 1948.

Spahn allowed Manson and his followers to live on his property in 1968 and 1969 in exchange for work and sexual favors from the group’s women, most notably with Manson Family member Lynette Alice "Squeaky" Fromme, according to the book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

Rumor has it that not far from the ranch’s borders, Manson and his followers often congregated in the surrounding caves of the Santa Susana Mountains. The group supposedly would huddle together in the hidden sandstone crevices now commonly called the “Manson Caves,” taking part in drug-induced orgies and plotting the end of the world. However, whether the “Manson Caves” are fact or fiction remains a mystery, though many claim that they have found their mysterious location.

According to the book Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, by Gary Valentine Lachman, Manson was very keen on tunnels and caves, and would actively search for a hole that would lead him and his followers to an underground city were they would sit out Helter Skelter or their version of the Apocalypse.

It is important to note that some say the hole Manson was looking for was located in Death Valley and was nowhere near Chatsworth. However, rumors, myths and urban legends have led many to the hills above the Chatsworth Trail tunnels to seek out the lore and history of the Manson Family.

One of most popular entrances into the area is from Chatsworth Park North. To get there, drive north on Topanga Canyon Boulevard toward the 118 Freeway and make a left on Chatsworth Street. Follow street signs leading to the easy-to-find park. From the parking lot, head across the basketball courts toward the back picnic tables and begin your journey there.

The area is ripe with spectacular sets of rock formations and requires some minor climbing and bouldering to move beyond trail tunnels, which can be accessed relatively easily. Despite the fact that the area has been defaced with graffiti, it’s still beautiful and rich with life.

Moving through laurel sumac, a variety of sages and coyote bush, the path moves past the Chatsworth train tunnels, and signs of urban pollution soon dissipate in the distance.

Golden dry grass is abundant here in summer, but in the spring one can find a plethora of wildflowers in bloom, and in winter, to a lesser degree. When the wind is strong, hillsides tend to ripple in waves of gold and turquoise scattered in between abstract sandstone shapes and hollows.

Upon exploring the area, one will soon discover an abundance of caves—whether any of them were actually used by Manson or his followers may never be known. Regardless, the journey is still worth taking—and remember, there is no actual path, so it helps to carry a compass to keep oriented.

After all, you wouldn’t want to get lost in these hills especially after dark.

Think you have found the actual Manson Caves? Share your photos and stories below.

Handsomish November 30, 2011 at 06:06 AM
The Manson caves were on the west side of Simi Valley. We used to go exploring them and they were actually quite creepy. For reasons beyond the short history of that crazy group. There were tunnels from where the water had eroded the earth that you would slide down into larger rooms. The tunnels were so narrow at some points that you feared getting stuck. There was no way you could climb back up the way you came. There were also many choices of tunnels, so you had to make sure you went down the correct one as well. You had to trust the person who guided you. When you reached the last room, you had to climb a rope of about 30 feet in length to get out of the cave. I only did it once, had no desire to relive that tension. Cement was eventually poured into the entrances, and the exits sealed as well to prevent, we presumed, rescue calls from those stranded inside. But it just as well may have been to prevent the seekers of the macabre.
Joey Terrill November 30, 2011 at 09:22 PM
Our art class field trip to the Spahn ranch in 1968, where we sketched the "Old West" buildings, barn and corral with Squeaky, Susan, Pat, Tex and others also had paths that we followed to at least two small caves which we kids thought were cool! There are definitely plenty of caves in the area that could have been used by the Family for any number of activities.
Steve December 01, 2011 at 02:19 AM
Handsomish is right on all counts, except that it's the east end of Simi. The whole deal was pretty sketchy -- outside the caves the property owners had rock salt guns and dogs, and didn't like people on their land. Inside many of the passages were really tight, and people would get semi-stuck and panic. The main open cavern, Stoner's Den, often had, well, stoners, and the occasional new-agers, witches/warlocks or purported Manson followers. And you'd almost always get poison oak. But nobody in those days knew what could have been the greatest risk of all -- all the nuclear waste from the massive reactor meltdown that took place less than a mile away, and nearly directly above gravity-wise, likely washed through and coated the entirety of those caves. They probably still glow.
Katrynas January 20, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Steve, I have lived in Chatsworth most of my life. I don't ever remember hearing about a melt down. But I did hear about possible waste in the creek. Obviously that was at Rocketdyne at the top of Woosley Cyn right.
Jesse William Fuller March 13, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Wikipedia has the details on the meltdown: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Susana_Field_Laboratory But if you look at safecast.org, you'll see our area isn't any more radioactive than anywhere else in LA.
Fresh guy October 05, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Yeah if u check the history on chatsworh u will find there were lots more rivers plus a bridge that u had to cross b4 u got onto chatsworth north park on chatsworth street nd if u hike far enough back you'll find yourself on government land nd dnt forget cali is all about the gold in 1870 there was this family who carved a house in the Santa susana mountains or chatsworth
Fresh guy October 05, 2012 at 12:57 AM
The only enterances in through old houses where the calt assembles at if u dig 15 feet down all u will find is a concret slab were the covered the river???
Katrynas October 05, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Hey Fresh guy, I did not know all of that, is Chatsworth History online or in a book form? I would love to read about it, I have lived here most of life with the exception of about 5 yrs give or take and I'm still finding out new stuff.
Kblue October 07, 2012 at 06:47 AM
I have lived in SImi Valley my whole life & only learned a few years ago about the melt down. Scary stuff, equal to or a little worse than 3 mile Island. I heard the major cover up was do to it being in California.
t taylor January 25, 2013 at 10:43 PM
Asurfrider. I took a tour of the Rocketdyne facility last year with a number of people that worked on the various rockets and on the reactor. Yes there was a leak from the reactor which contaminated the ground and ground water. They have been working for years to clean the area up so the property (2300 or so acres) can be used as a parkland for the public. Where the reactor sat, they dug a large area out and covered it with heavy plastic to catch the water and treat it. They have massive water treatment plants on the property. They also contaminated a canyon where they did target shooting for years. You can visit the facility via bus tour by emailing to santasusanacommunitytours@boeing.com. If anyone knows of some cool other caves around, please post location... Thanks T
Tiny March 13, 2013 at 06:48 PM
So, should I go hiking here or am I going to need to get a Silkwood-type shower afterwards due to nuclear waste contamination???

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