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.
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