Old Hollywood is out to pasture at Sunset Ranch

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On the crest of the hill are huge white letters that spell HOLLYWOOD. Below is the world's movie mecca -- once a semiarid scrub landscape, the setting for many a Western drama -- now transformed through careful cultivation into lush lawns and lavish foliage to surround palatial homes.

But glimpses of the old West are still to be had, and one such outcropping is not far from the famous Hollywood sign.

This is Sunset Ranch, located in Beachwood Canyon, a residential section of sleek ranch homes and romantic stucco villas clinging to the sides of the hills. North Beachwood Drive meanders upward through the cultivated greenery and landscaping that surrounds these elegant dwellings; at its far end, the road takes a rather sharp turn, and the scenery changes abrupfly to the old West, with its characteristic reddish, dry earth and semidesert, meager vegetation. And there it is: Sunset ranch.

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The ranch is not the least bit grand; rather its scrub brush setting suggests that at any moment Gene Autry, astride a steed, might amble into view, singing "Get Along Little Doggie" and kicking up a trail of rust-colored dust behind him.

The ranch consists of several weather-worn wooden structures. Located to the right as you enter, most prominent among these, is the casual old wooden corral, which contains as stock of well cared-for horses of all ages and descriptions. The stable's office is housed in a ramshackle old wooden shack that nestles against the mountainside and is reminiscent of the entrance to an old mine shaft.

Just past the building is a dusty, fairly steep trail cut into the hillside. It leads past another corral and on to the crest of the mountain. Located beyond this ridge is the refreshing expanse of Griffith Park, the largest park ground to be found in any urban area in the nation. Forty-three miles of bridal trails crisscross Griffith Park, leading to various in-park destinations, traversing scrubby old-West countryside. The trails are clearly marked with white posts, and maps of the area and paths are available from ranger stations.

Sunset Ranch is as much a survivor of the olden days as its dusty, slow-paced , and friendly atmosphere would suggest. The ranch was established in 1897; it has had a peacefully prosperous existence ever since. It has been owned by the family of Steven Smith, the current proprietor, since 1945.

The ranch boards about 25 privately owned horses, among them that of actress Margot Kidder. Approximately 40 sturdy steeds are maintained for rental to the riding public at a rate of $5 an hour (the management requires a $20 cash deposit which is refunded when the horse is safely returned). No reservations are taken and horses are rented on a first-come, first-served basis. Of course, every effort is made to match the hired horse to the ability and experience of the rider. Riding lessons are also available, at a fee of $15 per hour.

The steep and winding main trail from the ranch into Griffith Park branches out into a fork just beyond the mountain crest. The lefthand trail winds around the mountain and leads into a blacktop road that continues upward, with the Hollywood sign as its destination.

From the foot of the sign, the view is extraordinary. The era known as Hollywood and much of modern Los Angeles sprawls off into the hazy distance below. This is a curious vantage point: atop a hill, astride a steed, amid the scrub country remainder of a bygone era -- observing this vast product of urban progress.

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