Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Other California: A "River" Runs Through It...And So Do Movie Crews

The term "river" and Southern California are rarely used in the same sentence. There are some things in the south part of the state called rivers, but anyone not from SoCal could ever mistake these miserable trickles of water for a real river. And yet...there are canyons in southern California that rival the Grand Canyon in depth. There are any number of impressive gorges that cause one to wonder how they ever came to be in this dry climate.

We discovered one of these canyons during our brief exploration of the Santa Monica Mountains last summer. We first crossed the mountains the previous day over a steep, narrow winding road over a high pass.  But the next morning we crossed the mountains by simply following a canyon all the way across. How did the little stream in Malibu Canyon manage to carve its way across the mountains?

The Santa Monicas are geologically a very young mountain range, having been pushed up only in the last few million years. One would not expect that rivers would be able to effectively carve deep canyons in such a short period of time, but that doesn't take into account several other factors: the increased precipitation during the ice ages, almost yearly flash floods, and the effect of rare but astonishing "atmospheric river" storms.
Malibu Creek, which has carved the deep canyon in the photos above, was in its present path before the Santa Monica Mountains began rising. As the mountains were pushed up, erosion by the river was able to keep pace, and Malibu Canyon was the result. Such rivers are called superposed or antecedent streams. It is an impressive (if not overly busy) way to cross the mountain range. Malibu Canyon is particularly deep because it has a much larger watershed than other creeks that don't cross the range.

In the heart of the mountains we encountered Malibu Creek State Park, a strikingly beautiful area of high sandstone cliffs. As we drove through, I had a sense of déjà vu, even though I was sure I had never been here before...
We took a side road above the park to check out some exposures of the Monterey shale. The Monterey is composed of diatomite, shale and chert that was deposited in deep marine basins along the California Borderland during the Miocene epoch. It is a source of much of California's oil reserves.
Along this stretch of the Mulholland Highway, the Monterey Shale is severely folded.
Looking down into the heart of Malibu Creek, I again had that sense of déjà vu. Korea looks like this doesn't it? Or is it the foothills of the Rocky Mountains? Or was it the high prairies? Well, actually those places don't look like this at all, but we think they do because Hollywood has made use of this landscape as a geographical substitute in numerous movies and television shows. The MASH set was in the canyon below the exposures of the Monterey (below). I could almost hear the helicopters...
A short distance down the road we found the Paramount Ranch, a former studio property that is now a part of the federally administered Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Women was filmed here, as were a great many movies including Paleface" (1948) and "Son of Paleface" (1952), "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (1957), "Fancy Pants" (1950), "The Virginian" (1946), "Whispering Smith" (1948), "The Forest Rangers" (1942), "Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944), "The Perils of Pauline" (1947), "Geronimo" (1939), "The Streets of Laredo" (1949), "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1040), "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935)," "Gunsmoke" (1931), "The Plainsman" (1936), "Hopalong Cassidy Returns" (1936), "Wells Fargo" (1937), "Union Pacific" (1938), "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938), "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1938) and "Reds" (1981).
A western-style movie set is still maintained, and the park is still used for film productions. The day we came through, someone was preparing to shoot what the ranger described as a hip-hop video as imagined in the wild west.
We were star-struck! Well, ok, maybe not, but it was fun to imagine the history that infused this place, even if the 'history' was all imagined in the first place. I always wondered why Little House on the Prairie was surrounded by hills and mountains covered in brown grass and oak trees instead of prairie flatlands (Little House was filmed outside the Simi Valley a few miles to the north).

The Other California is my continuing series of the lesser-known geological sites in our beautiful state. Thanks to Mrs. Geotripper for the use of some of the pictures above!
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