To Safely Go…
During the current COVID pandemic, it’s difficult to find activities that are relatively low-risk for COVID transmission. My wife is fully immunized, but I’ve only had my first COVID-19 vaccination shot, so I’m not quite there yet. That in mind, we were looking for something safe to do during my teacher wife’s Spring Break. My longtime friend Jeri, who is not a Star Trek fan, sent me a pic from a trip she and her husband took to Vasquez Rocks in the town of Agua Dulce (“Sweet Water”) California, north of Santa Clarita. My wife and I live about an hour and a half by freeway from Agua Dulce, and of course, I very much am a Star Trek fan, so I made the pitch to my wife. She thought it was a great idea, so at 8 am on the morning of March 23rd, we took off at warp speed for the rustic desert community of Agua Dulce. Engage!
Driving through our local mountains with some morning drizzle, the sun came out through the haze and we starting seeing some beautiful geological formations from the freeway; lots of sharp peaks, jagged rocks and wild scrub brush. Geologically speaking, we were certainly in the right place. Arriving at a ranch-style gate, we learned that the visitor center was closed, due to both COVID and construction (understandable), but we didn’t need to use the visitor center anyway. The main gate was closed to traffic, which I found unusual, since my friend Jeri’s photos showed cars parked at the familiar locale. At any rate, I was glad the gate was closed, because I didn’t want cars or large SUVs to get in my shots—not to mention that fewer people reduces coronavirus concerns. The gate’s closure meant that we had about a quarter mile or so walk ahead of us to see the famed Rocks. Since I’d been taking long walks around my neighborhood to stay limber through quarantine, I was up for it. However, my teacher wife has been remote-teaching at home for over a year, so it was a bit of a hike for her. We took the walking trail carefully, so my wife was okay with it.
Before you get too deep into the main trail, you will see a side trail of interest for geologists, as well as a handy sign telling visitors about the many films and television shows filmed there. I glanced at the sign and noted a few glaring omissions, such as “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits,” “Alien Nation” and “Free Enterprise.” Instead, the sign showcased more mainstream movies and TV shows such as “The Flintstones Movie,” “24,” “Wild, Wild West,” and “Roswell.” There have also been an incalculable number of old westerns, B-movie serials and even silent movies shot there as well; a century of TV and films, in fact. To call the desert location of Vasquez Rocks iconic is an understatement.
Note: I learned, post de facto, that Vasquez Rocks used to be an infamous hideout for outlaw bandits in the Old West of the late 19th century; the site was named for Tiburcio Vasquez, one of the most notorious of the bunch. This colorful bit of backstory gave the place even more character than it already had as a famed shooting location.
Past the signs and the visitor information, the path gets a bit more remote. Yes, there was the rare house or two off in the distance, but otherwise the area was somewhat desolate, with lots of desert rock and scrub brush. You could take wide panoramic shots (as I often did) and not see a sign of people if you placed your camera carefully. Despite the bright sunlight and deep blue sky it was a bit chilly that morning, with a stiff breeze. Hardly a frozen tundra, but slightly less than typically warm California weather. Since we were walking, we were burning energy and stayed warm. From a lifetime spent seeing this place only in TV shows and films, it always looked a lot hotter than it was that particular day. Of course, we were seeing it in late March, not late July…
Stepping into “The Arena.”
The trail ends in a large dusty ‘playground’ between the two iconic sets of jagged peaks and a more rounded hillside. This is the place where Captain Kirk (William Shatner) first faced off against the Gorn (Bobby Clark) in TOS Star Trek’s “Arena,” as well as “Shore Leave” (where Sulu met the Samurai and the tiger), “The Alternative Factor” (where actor Robert Browne fell a lot), “Friday’s Child,” (where Spock caused a landslide with his tricorder) and many Treks afterward. Of all the Star Trek episodes shot at Vasquez Rocks, I’d say “Arena” is not only the most iconic of the lot, but it also makes the best use of the arguably limited space—cheating it smartly to feel like a proper alien planetoid. A perfect place for mortal combat between human and lizard-guy. Seen up close, some of its rock formations do indeed look more like Mars than Earth…
Note: The large ‘playground’ area is also an ideal place for film crews to set up makeup/costume trailers, camera and lighting equipment and even a food truck.
The area is not too vast (932 acres of mostly scrub brush and smaller rocks) but it’s certainly large enough to cheat with judicious camera placement—something classic Star Trek fully exploited, of course. At the far end of this playground (my name for it), there are picnic tables, portable chem-toilets, a COVID-safety sign, and some sturdy, heavy-lidded trash cans near a gradual ravine that overlooks a freeway. This was an angle no one wants to film or see, because it’s all for visitor comfort, not its wilderness beauty. I was impressed to see that the place was well-kept for a park ground; no clumps of trash in the bushes, or empty bottles anywhere. Vasquez Rocks looked well-maintained … kudos to its groundskeepers.
Note: We did see a single black flip-flop sandal laying abandoned in the sun.
The most famous jagged peak of the area only looks as sharp as it does on film from specific angles; when you walk around it, you notice that it looks a bit more rounded. I recently rewatched the classic 1963 “Outer Limits” episode, “The Zanti Misfits,” and this was also the exact peak where the large, wasp-like “Zanti” prisoners first set their tiny prison spaceship down on Earth, only to terrify a wayward Bruce Dern when he accidentally makes ‘first contact’. The episode makes extensive use of the location, with various characters running around searching for each other (their voices echoing) to make it seem far larger than it is in reality.
The peaks and hills are relatively easy to climb by the way, but since I’ve got an old body full of arthritis (and lost agility as a result), I didn’t want to risk a broken neck to climb the full height of the peaks. I’ll leave that task to those younger, stronger and braver than myself. I climbed about halfway up before I called it a day on that endeavor. I didn’t feel like doing my own impression of Lazarus from TOS’ “The Alternative Factor.”
While TV always made the main peak itself seem relatively small (on a 25″ screen), it’s a bit larger in person, and its severity gives it a certain awe that one might expect from a location like Devil’s Tower (made famous in the sci-fi classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). The jaggedness of the rock formations, as well as the landscape’s warm coloring and impossibly blue sky reminded me of the 1956 Chesley Bonestell painting “The Exploration of Mars”, which I first saw in a library book when I was a middle-schooler. Bonestell’s paintings fired my imagination at that age. In those pre-Viking days, Bonestell imagined the thin air of Mars to have a dark blue cast. Just a few minutes at Vasquez Rocks (elevation 2,500 feet) felt like a sojourn to the romantic Mars I remembered from those gorgeous Bonestell paintings. Bonestell’s Mars and moonscape paintings often featured such surreal jagged peaks, and Vasquez Rocks felt like a living homage to his work.
Note: Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was one of the most prolific architectural, landscape and space-scape artists of the 20th century. His works hang in the Smithsonian as well as many other venues and textbooks from the 1940s through the 1970s. He also did the occasional matte paintings for films such as “Destination Moon” (1950), “When Worlds Collide” (1951), and “War of the Worlds” (1953). He’s one of those artists whose works you’ve no doubt seen in your lifetime, even if you can’t place the name.
Being an old Star Trek nerd (I am literally as old as The Original Series), I had to bring my TOS bluetooth communicator (one of my favorite birthday gifts ever) and a toy phaser. Once we arrived, I realized I wanted to have a free hand to take lots of photos, so I left the phaser in the car and pocketed the communicator. My wife and I took a few selfies up there and yes, I whipped out my communicator because I’d kick myself if I didn’t. Flipping open the grill, the communicator made its familiar chirping, and it all just felt so… right. Here I was, 54 years old, playing Star Trek at a place I’d watched on TV countless times for most of my life. I still find it odd that I’d never taken a drive out to this place before—somehow it always seemed so much further away than it was, even though it was in my very state! As I’ve always believed, no one is ever ‘too old’ to enjoy geeky things.
Once again, the illusion of Vasquez Rocks’ ‘alien-ness’ is broken a bit when you look far off into the horizon. You start to see occasional houses, freeways, cars, and other telltale signs of human life here and there. That said, the central acreage of the park is relatively unspoiled and certainly won’t disappoint the casual visitor (or Star Trek nerd). While the main ‘playground’ has some guest conveniences, as mentioned before, like portable chem toilets, picnic baskets and heavy trash cans, they are placed well out of sight for photo opportunists seeking the unspoiled landscapes of Star Trek or old western TV shows. Whether this is true when the main gate is open? I can’t say. We were lucky to have gone on a day when the car access gate was closed and we had the park largely to ourselves. I doubt my wife and I will ever be so lucky again on a future visit.
In TOS’ “Arena,” Captain Kirk defeats the reptilian captain of the Gorn ship by rigging together a cannon out of bamboo, potassium nitrate, sulfur and coal, using a raw diamond as a bullet. First off, I hate to disappoint the hardcore faithful, but there is not a trace of bamboo anywhere in the immediate area of Vasquez Rocks, let alone open deposits of sulfur, coal, potassium nitrate, or diamonds. While the local topography and geology are fascinating (much of it was formed by the unstable San Andreas Fault), it’s not exactly “a mineralogist’s dream,” as Kirk characterized it. An interesting field assignment, to be sure, but not chock full of gun powder ingredients, at least not in open quantities lying around…
Kirk’s cannon came back to mind when we first arrived, and I saw curious patches of bright yellow staining on some of the rocks. I wondered if it might’ve been some kind of faded graffiti, or (as my wife deduced) a few hearty patches of lichen, which would certainly have the tenacity to survive in a desert wilderness. The patches were not open deposits of sulfur, ready to be scooped up into a bamboo bucket to make gun powder. Alas, no improvised bamboo cannons on this trip, folks.
Note: A popular episode of the TV series “Mythbusters” tried to replicate Kirk’s improvised cannon, and it didn’t exactly work as planned. The combined elements did produce limited combustible force, but nowhere near the amount needed to drive a diamond into a reptile creature’s thick rubber chest. At best, it created a messy little science project. Myth busted! Sorry, Captain Kirk…
Near the base of the famed peak were a couple of shaded alcoves, which would make perfect napping spots for local wildlife. A bit small for a Gorn, but great hiding places for a few creepy-crawly Zanti misfits, perhaps…?
Star Treks Beyond.
Of course, TOS Star Trek is not the only Star Trek series to film at Vasquez Rocks. The location has a long tradition of use in the 55 years of the franchise, including Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Who Watches the Watchers?”), Star Trek: Voyager (“Initiations”, “Gravity”), Star Trek: Enterprise (“Unexpected”) and most recently in 2019’s latest Trek series, Star Trek: Picard (“Maps and Legends,” “The End is the Beginning”) where for the first time in Star Trek, the location was not doubling as an alien planet (more on that in a little bit…).
Next Generation and Voyager made ample use of Vasquez Rocks as the home to the proto-Vulcan species, the Mintakans, in “Who Watches the Watchers?” (1989). That episode was arguably one of the best episodes of that series, as it dealt squarely and honestly with the Federation’s “Prime Directive” of non-interference with alien cultures. Once again, the 932 acres of Vasquez Rocks were cleverly cheated to avoid any signs of then-20th century humans in its horizon shots, and it is convincingly exotic. This episode is also one of my personal favorites of Star Trek.
In the Star Trek feature films, the location was used twice as the famed planet of Mr. Spock’s birth–the hot, thin-aired fictional world orbiting 40 Eridani A known as Vulcan. In “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986) we see a fleeting shot of Spock (presumably Leonard Nimoy’s stunt double) standing atop the famed jagged peak clad in the white linen robes he wears throughout the movie. It is the only shot of Vasquez Rocks, but it’s well placed and gives the feature an extra bit of production value. The film was shot largely outdoors on locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles (Will Rogers Park doubling for Golden Gate Park) and Monterey Aquarium (doubling for the fictional “Cetacean Institute”). Vasquez Rock’s craggy geology (filmed through a warm orange-sky filter) makes a nice desert contrast to the cooler, wetter Bay Area locations (real & simulated).
“Star Trek” (2009) was the soft-reboot of the original series which took place in an alternate reality which was created when Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is pursued back through time by a vengeful Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana). This accidental time-travel changes the mid-23rd century for Spock and his old shipmates’ younger selves. In this new reality, Vulcan is but one target in the galaxy-spanning wrath of Nero and his crew. Using a large orbiting drill platform, Nero fires a powerful beam into the core of the planet and inserts “red matter,” which causes Vulcan to implode into a mini black hole. When we see the surface of Vulcan in the film, there are establishing shots using a heavily digitized Vasquez Rocks. This CGI-altered version of the location changes the sky’s color and adds many more sharpened peaks to the camera’s field of view. It also appears that some of the jagged peaks are flipped as well, making them face in the opposite direction. This is most evident when Spock’s mother Amanda (Winona Ryder) steps into the backyard of her home and sees Nero’s drill boring into the planet.
Note: Vasquez Rocks’ jagged hills seem to have inspired ST09’s Vulcan architecture as well, with habitats built directly into the planet’s sharp peaks and canyon walls (not too unlike the cities built into the canyon faces on Krypton in 1978’s “Superman”), subtly conveying the planet’s violent geological history as well as its inhabitant’s pointed ears…
The backside of the peaks, which look very Vulcan-like, also reminded me of the craggy rocks surrounding Utah’s Lake Powell, which was used in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes,” as well as its less-surefooted 2001 remake from director Tim Burton. The latter film also used location shooting at Vasquez Rocks to supplement its footage from Lake Powell. A good idea, since the locations have similar topography that can be easily stitched together in editing to present a single fictional location.
The (real) Voyage Home.
The recent 2019 series Star Trek: Picard uses Vasquez Rocks once again, but not as Vulcan, Mintanka III or some other exotic alien vista. For the first time in Trek history, the location is simply Vasquez Rocks—or at least as it will be in the year 2399. The location is identified by name on camera in the episode “The End is the Beginning.” We first see Picard (Patrick Stewart, returning to the role) walk up to the site after being dropped off by a shuttlecraft taxi in the prior episode “Maps and Legends.” Picard, ever the diplomat, tries desperately to convince his former first officer Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd) to join him for one last trip into space to solve a Romulan-android conspiracy.
Raffi is living in a tiny mobile home right at the base of the famed “Arena” peak itself. This is a bit strange, since I can’t imagine any future where Raffi would be allowed to build a mobile home right on the nature preserve itself, but…who knows? In an alternate reality where Star Trek was never a TV show, maybe the location was long forgotten as a tourist attraction. In wide shots of the terrain, you still see the real-life walkway, but some of the other features (such as real-life houses) appear to be wiped clean. Since Star Trek can’t exist within its own fictional universe, I expect that no one in Picard’s fictional era really cared what happened to this little patch of wilderness by the year 2399. Given the place’s fascinating geology and topography, it’s hard to imagine a universe where no one finds Vasquez Rocks as awe-inspiring and beautiful as my wife and I did during our visit.
If anyone’s interested?
Just to be clear; I used no filters or digital augmentation in any of my Vasquez Rocks photos—I wanted to capture it as it was, not some idealization of it, and I want to convey that same feeling to my readers. My handy-dandy iPhone 8 (and my wife’s iPhone 12) did a decent enough job of capturing the location, though I wish the photos were in 3D, if only to convey the scale.
Star Trek is, of course, available to stream on Paramount Plus, with some of the series still streamable on Netflix as well. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 541,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine), but it will take time for herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. If you choose to visit Vasquez Rocks (or any other public park) make sure you bring a mask to wear if others are present. It takes very little effort to be considerate for others’ safety.
Live long and prosper!