By Susan Friedland
Nestled in a desert canyon at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains lies Sunset Ranch, an equestrian center as iconic as the Hollywood sign perching atop the golden hills nearby. The ranch has been around since Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo were making movies in the 1920s, and its main red barn exudes a cowboy exterior: handsome in spite of being a little worn by the elements.
An old porcelain bathtub serves as a water trough, while cactus and scrub brush cling to the dry slopes framing the ranch. It’s hard to conceive there are tourists just several bustling blocks away, snapping photos of stars in the sidewalk and visiting a wax museum.
West Meets Old West
My husband and I decided to take a Sunset Ranch afternoon trail ride to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. We opted for the two-hour route, which boasts a lookout point featuring panoramic views of Los Angeles and the surrounding valleys.
Two years earlier, I took the sunset dinner ride, which combined five hours in the saddle with a jaunt past the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. We even dismounted at a Mexican restaurant and dined while our horses were tied to a hitching post. I learned that day that five hours in the saddle at a walk are five long hours, even with the sparkling lights of Tinseltown smiling up at me from the valley below.
To get to the ranch, we drove to Hollywood and turned onto Beachwood, a gradually ascending residential street flanked by apartments that gave way to stately properties closer to the foothills. I mused that the apartments housed aspiring actors and the grand homes with impeccable landscaping near the street’s end belonged to the stars who’ve become household names. At the end of the street, a guard stood sentinel. We told him we were there for the trail ride, and he waved us through to what seemed a portal to the Old West.
Several shiny horses in varying hues milled about in the main corral. Some sported Western saddles and were tied up along a fence, awaiting their riders (Sunset Ranch accepts walk-ins). After signing the waiver paperwork and listening to a five-minute spiel on how to ride, we were given a pair of sturdy Paints. I rode a palomino with a blond mane that would be the envy of many a budding starlet, and my husband rode a chestnut who pinned his ears if he sensed the other horses encroaching on his space.
Sites and Celebrity Sightings
In addition to our guide, Joanie, and a boarder who rode his own horse along with us, there were three other trail riders beside ourselves. Joanie was friendly and the real deal in cowboy hat, snap shirt, and bandana; she grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado.
My husband and I chatted with her for almost the whole two hours. He asked what wild animals she encounters on the trail, whereas I asked about celebrity sightings.
We learned deer and coyotes make frequent appearances on the trail, occasionally rattlesnakes and once they spotted actor Vince Vaughn — he was on a hike. She added that Victoria and David Beckham hosted a birthday party trail ride for one of their children and David was a friendly guy.
In 2013, Esquire magazine did a photo shoot of the soccer star at the ranch, and Glamour used the barn for a photo shoot with Zooey Deschanel. There’s even a rumor Jack Black took riding lessons at Sunset Ranch when he lived in the neighborhood.
A different kind of celebrity once spotted on the trail was P-22, the mountain lion made famous with his impressive cover shot on the December 2013 issue of National Geographic. The big cat’s picture was snapped by a remote infrared camera as he strode past the Hollywood sign at night. The famous mountain lion apparently just walked past the group of trail riders (giving them a thrill, I’m sure).
Sunset Ranch frequently receives calls from the nearby movie studios requesting a certain color of horse for filming and some of the ranch staff are also actors who get recruited for film or television scenes involving horses.
The appeal of this trail ride is the chance to see world-renowned landmarks such as the Griffith Observatory (famous from movies like The Terminator and Rebel Without a Cause) and the Hollywood sign, to the downtown L.A. skyline. We also saw the Los Angeles Zoo, Autry Museum, Greek Theatre, and the runways of Bob Hope Airport. On a clear day they say you can see the Pacific Ocean from atop the plateau where our group of six riders paused to drink in the view. Catalina Island is on the horizon, too. There’s no other vista point like this in Los Angeles.
For someone already comfortable in the saddle, the trail is straightforward and not a significant challenge — unless, like me, you have a fear of heights. Even though the mountain path is more like a wide dirt road, the horses prefer to walk at the very edge, where path joins precipice. Our guide claimed that the horses hug the edge so they have a better view of potential predators. Whatever the reason, I ruled out the future possibility of riding the Grand Canyon trail on mules like the Brady Bunch did on vacation circa 1975.
My husband and I had a wonderful anniversary, celebrated old-school Hollywood style, and it’s a memory we won’t soon forget. Next time you’re looking for a unique California diversion, skip the beach and ride into the sunset at Sunset Ranch.
Recommendations for the Sunset Trail: Peruse the Sunset Ranch website ride options and email ahead of time to reserve your spot; don’t try using GPS to find Sunset Ranch as you will get turned around but instead use the website’s directions; wear sunscreen; they won’t let you take a water bottle on the trail but you can take a Camelbak; wear your own riding helmet to avoid a loaner helmet of unknown age and origin; be prepared to tip your guide; use the hashtag #SunsetRanch on Instagram and Twitter to see and share photos from the trail. For more information, visit www.sunsetranchhollywood.com.
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a California history teacher living in North Tustin, has been horse-crazy since girlhood. Susan’s love-of-her-life was a tall, dark, and handsome Kentucky Thoroughbred who was her show partner and faithful companion for 16 years through the ups and downs of dating as she searched for “the one.” Susan finally found her man, married, and months later lost her horse to colic. Now after a three-year horse hiatus, with husband-turned-budding equestrian in tow, she’s again hunting for “the one”: equine version. Join the adventure by following her blog Saddle Seeks Horse at www.susanfriedlandsmith.com and on Twitter @susanwordlover
Photos courtesy of Susan Friedland-Smith