Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
Unraveling the Mystery of the Mesa
Nondescript mid-point along Vasquez Canyon Road is more famous than you might think.
War of the Worlds
Three decades after he drove a truck off of it for "Duel," Steven Spielberg returned to Mystery Mesa and blew it up for "War of the Worlds." Paramount & Dreamworks publicity photo, 2005. | Click image to enlarge

What we have right here in our own backyard in the SCV never ceases to amaze me. E.J. Stephens demonstrated another example of this during his exciting and colorful "Newhallywood" movie class tour in January.

After an interesting visit to Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, where we learned about some of the filmmaking history at the Rocks, a caravan of movie history buffs drove down Sierra Highway to the historic Half Way House Cafe. The Cafe has been a popular filming location since the 1930s. There we met up with William Fix, property manager of S.O.S. Filmworks. Fix led us on a magical safari to an isolated plateau in the mountains southwest of Agua Dulce called Mystery Mesa.

Located off of Vasquez Canyon Road, the 380-acre property happens to be one of the major locations for feature film and television productions in the Los Angeles area. It is located within the entertainment industry's "30 Mile Zone," an area within 30 miles of the intersection of West Beverly Boulevard and North La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles in which TV and film productions can pay lower "studio rates" to their employees, thereby holding down the costs of their artistic endeavors.

Fix unlocked a chain-link fence along Vasquez Canyon Road, allowing us to traverse a steep, winding dirt road leading up to a gateway with a sign simply stating, "Mystery Mesa Sanctuary."

Before us lay a nondescript, grassy plain embedded within the surrounding mountains. It has been the setting for countless movies and television shows over the years.

According to Michael Ballard, author of the Santa Clarita Geology Page, Mystery Mesa — aka Cruzan Mesa — is an ancient remnant of the Santa Clarita Valley that has survived millions of years of uplift and erosion. The Cruzan Mesa contains vernal pools that are one of the last remaining habitats of the fairy shrimp — a fact that has saved this plain from proposed housing development in the area.

One-sheet movie poster for Spielberg's "Duel" (1971, with Dennis Weaver) shows the climax as the big-rig flies over the side of Mystery Mesa. | Click image to enlarge

As a remote location with no neighbor closer than 500 feet away, Mystery Mesa is a popular site for productions requiring loud and fiery explosions. As related by Fix, one explosion during the production of Steven Spielberg's 2005 film, "War of the Worlds," was so large that it was seen from the 14 Freeway and resulted in numerous 911 calls to the authorities.

The valley war sequence in "War of the Worlds" with actor Tom Cruise was also filmed at the mesa. More recently, a scene from the 2010 film, "Iron Man 2" with Robert Downey Jr., was filmed at the mesa; it involved huge pyrotechnics as 40 cars were unceremoniously blown up.

For aficionados of vehicles driving off of cliffs with fiery crashes in the depths below, Mystery Mesa has been the location of one of the more famous crashes in Hollywood history. In Spielberg's made-for-TV film "Duel" (1971), the final scene featured the movie's star — a killer tractor-trailer — driving off a Mystery Mesa cliff.

That same cliff, which is actually only 120 feet tall, was used in a recent commercial promoting Conan O'Brien's new show. According to E.J. Stephens, in the promo, a Dodge Dart filled with explosives, illegal fireworks and un-popped popcorn is driven off a "900 foot" cliff to a fiery inferno below. O'Brien emerges from the flames, looks at the camera and exclaims, "That was expensive!"

Stephens adds that the mesa "was later used as the desert airport in 'The Aviator,' and around the same time it doubled for ancient Egypt in 'The Scorpion King.' More recently, the mesa became the island of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific for Clint Eastwood's 'Letters From Iwo Jima.'"

In earlier days, in the 1920s, Mystery Mesa was used for Christian tent revivals. Famous silent movie actor and later Newhall resident William S. Hart used the mesa for location shoots in some of his films.

Alan Pollack, M.D., is president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
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