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A formerly popular location for filming old West movies and sci-fi extravaganzas, the distinctive Vasquez Rocks outside Los Angeles may be familiar from episodes of Bonanza, Star Trek, and countless old movies. The tilted sandstone slabs look impressively high and steep when you first see them. But that illusion is dispelled when you try climbing them. None rise more than about 150 feet into the air, and there's almost always an easy way up. The best of the rocks are included in the 745-acre Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, part of the Los Angeles County park system. To get there (three hours' drive or more from San Diego, allowing for some slow traffic), travel north on Interstate 5 beyond the San Fernando Valley, go east on Highway 14 (Antelope Valley Freeway) for 15 miles, exit at Agua Dulce Canyon Road, and go north, following signs to the park.

The rocks are west-dipping outcrops of sandstone and fanglomerate belonging to the Vasquez Formation. Here and in the surrounding area, the Vasquez Formation and the overlying Mint Canyon Formation constitute a four-mile-thick sequence of sediments deposited 8 to 15 million years ago. The sandstone developed from fine-grained deposits laid down along gentle streams and shallow ponds. The fanglomerate (which resembles conglomerate rock in that both have a great range of particle sizes) developed from layers of coarse, broken rock deposited on what were probably alluvial fans (fan-shaped piles of debris) at the base of steep mountains. The stack of sedimentary rocks was eventually thrust upward and tilted some 45 degrees due to faulting. Erosion then put on the final touch, producing sheer east-facing dropoffs.

The park is also a botanical "crossroads" of sorts, with a mixture of flora characteristic of nearby regions to the west, south, and east. Here you can find the black sage and California sagebrush common in the Santa Monica Mountains, the chamois of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the juniper of the Mojave Desert rim.

About 150 years ago, the maze-like array of rocks hereabouts was used as a hideout by the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. These same rocks serve equally well today as hiding places for imaginative kids. It's possible for kids, as well as some adults, to become disoriented when venturing out from the parking or picnic areas. If so, scramble up any of the high ridges to get a view that will restore your bearings. Antelope Valley Freeway lies south, the picnic area and park entrance lie north.

South of the picnic area, you can follow a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail down into Escondido Canyon, where water trickles through after rainy periods. A segment of the trail just east and south of here was the last link to be constructed along the trail's 2600-mile route between Mexico and Canada. In June 1993, a "golden spike" ceremony was performed near here to commemorate the grand opening of the trail, which now stretches uninterrupted through California, Oregon, and Washington.

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