Western Town couldn’t be easier to access by car, yet precious few know that the set of some of the most iconic Western films is just off the 101.
Entering Western Town is an uncanny experience. Its complex of saloons, blacksmiths, and single-cell jails isn’t exactly transportive, but it does feel strangely familiar. Though you may have never been here, you’ve likely seen this place before.
Western Town is the unofficial gateway to a much larger area known as Paramount Ranch. Now a national park, the area received its name when the eponymous studio bought 2,700 acres in the Santa Monica mountains for its chameleonic terrain, which could pass for almost any place on Earth.
The golden age of Hollywood brought just about every star of the era through Paramount Ranch, which acted as locations as far-flung as Morocco in the Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper vehicle of the same name, and ancient Rome, when Cecil B. Demille cast it as the setting of his scandalous epic, The Sign of the Cross.
The studio eventually sold the area, but a portion of it was bought by a father and son team from New Jersey with a love of Westerns. William and Robert Hertz originally constructed Western Town from leftover prop storage sheds and discarded RKO sets with the intention of opening a dude ranch. Its course changed when the two decided to place ads in a few trade publications, advertising its use for filmmaking.
Though ownership changed over the next few decades, filmmaking continued. In 1980, the National Park Service purchased the land, renovating it largely into what visitors see today.
As a sign in the area indicates, Western Town is constantly evolving to suit the needs of productions. In the ’90s, it served as the main setting for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Most recently, it’s hosted the science fiction universe of Westworld.
Despite the area’s illustrious history, perhaps what’s most surprising about Western Town is just how easy it is to explore. The opportunity to traverse a truly surreal town square in the footsteps of countless film industry legends is not to be missed.
Update: The ranch burned down on November 11, 2018, and is temporarily closed, although certain aspects can be still viewed. There are plans to reopen in 2020.