18 Reasons to Drive to the Santa Clarita Valley
Just one hour north of LA, an oasis of wineries, historic sites, and nature await.
Once considered a sleepy oil town, the Santa Clarita Valley on the northeast edge of Los Angeles County has blossomed in recent years. Each of its neighborhoods—including Valencia, Canyon Country, Newhall, Saugus, and (depending who you ask) Stevenson Ranch—has a distinctive character stretching back to when the Tatavium people first settled here, and developed more recently by local artisans and business owners. Today, SCV is known both as a hub for the bustling film industry and for its world-famous natural spaces, with an abundance of charming restaurants, wineries, and breweries in between. Even at the thermometer-smashing peak of summer, it’s a gorgeous hot spot (just do not call it “Awesometown”). Here are all the best ways to make sure you get the most out of your visit.
“What a mistake to call them lesser apes,” Jane Goodall said of the remarkable gibbons at Santa Clarita’s Gibbon Conservation Center. Established in 1976 by Alan Mootnick, the GCC offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get face to face with the rarest grouping of apes in the Western Hemisphere. Though the Center has struggled in recent years with nearby fires, growing costs, and the threat of extinction, visitors can still hear dozens of gibbons sing with full-throated bombast on most weekends. Even those who can’t make the trip can always help with a much-needed donation.
Cost: $5-15 per visit.
How to book: Reserve private or group tours on the website.
When Cindy Crawford stopped off at a sleepy roadside diner for a Pepsi commercial in 1992, Santa Clarita was forever changed. The steady thrum of travelers drawn to the Halfway House by the commercial (and the dozens of other productions that have since taken advantage of its Dust Bowl aesthetic) over the last 30 years forced the owners to make much-needed upgrades. These days, two eggs will run you $9.10, a far cry from what they must have cost when the diner first opened in the 1930s. But fear not: just because the Eggs Florentine are Hollywood-level pricey doesn’t mean the cafe’s lost any of its retro charm. There’s no better excuse to snap a few sepia-toned shots than a quick coffee-to-go.
How to order: Takeout and delivery via Postmates.
In 1842, six years before the California Gold Rush, rancher Francisco López y Arbello took a nap under an oak tree and dreamt of discovering gold there, only to do so—literally—when he woke up. Thus, the Oak of the Golden Dream and all of its accompanying lore were born. The gold may be gone now, but Placerita Canyon State Park, where the oak stands to this day, still feels rich. Verdant and thriving thanks to careful preservation against fire and foot traffic, Placerita is also home to some of Santa Clarita’s loveliest trails, the simplest of which leads right to this big, beautiful historical landmark.
How to visit: Head to Placerita Canyon State Park, open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am–7 pm.
Frankly, the California Bear Project is a misnomer: though the name refers to the sculptures modeled on Monarch bears that are scattered around the city, any attempt to find them all inevitably leads to an array of other creature sculptures. The rearing bronco awaits at City Hall, the western tiger swallow at Central Park, and the flocking birds in Bridgeport. There are so many, in fact, that to walk to each destination would take days. Thankfully, the city has designed a beautiful self-guided public art tour that can be easily conquered by car in a single morning—and each piece is entirely free, if you can find it.
How to visit: Public parking available behind Mabel’s Roadhouse at 26328 Bouquet Canyon Rd.
The Saugus Cafe has been in operation since 1886, supposedly longer than any other restaurant in Los Angeles County. Over the years, its booths have sat the world’s biggest movie stars, industrialists, and even two Presidents: Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt, who famously ate a “splendid” New York steak there in 1903. Fans of vintage diners will appreciate Saugus Cafe’s railcar-style appeal, as will those hoping for the cheap breakfast standards (including a charred, buttery New York steak) of yesteryear. Best of all, its outdoor seating is handicap-accessible.
How to order: Takeout and delivery via DoorDash.
Whether or not you know them by name, you certainly know the seismic shapes of Vasquez Rocks. The memorable tan cliffs in this 932-acre park have appeared in innumerable film and TV productions since the 1930s, from Blazing Saddles to The Flintstones to Star Trek. Admission is free, and the trails range from easy to moderate, including a busy section of the Pacific Crest Trail that blooms with golden wildflowers every spring. On a clear day, you can see forever from these craggy peaks.
How to visit: Trails open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am–7 pm with strict COVID guidelines; visit website for details.
Agua Dulce Winery and Reyes Winery together occupy 106 of the most luxuriant acres in the hilly, agrarian community of Agua Dulce. The vineyards abut one another on the winding Sierra Highway, stretching across the bountiful Sierra Pelona Valley Appellation and out towards the high desert. Driving through this painterly community is a pleasure all on its own, but the wines are equally exquisite (and award-winning to boot) thanks to the region’s uniquely mixed climates. Both locations are frequently crowded, so calling ahead before a tasting is as essential as walking the grounds after one.
How to book: Curbside pickup and in-store purchases available; call (661)268-7402 for Agua Dulce Winery reservations; call (661)268-1865 for Reyes Winery tasting room.
It’s been a tough few years for Ellie Laks and Jay Weiner’s The Gentle Barn. Between rising land costs in an increasingly crowded city, forced fire evacuations in 2019, and a major drop-off in visitors from COVID-19, the beloved animal sanctuary seemed to be on the defensive for a long time. But in 2020, the owners’ sea legs returned: they instituted a new drive-thru program that includes a car lunch for visitors and COVID-safe quality time with the animal residents. They’ve also expanded The Gentle Barn’s special seasonal programs, like their popular haunted barnyard. On-site visitation is highly limited during the pandemic, but one hopes that with the continued support of its many long-standing and new patrons, the Barn will remain a staple for Santa Clarita residents and visitors alike.
How to visit: Make reservations for the drive-thru at their website.
Most Santa Claritans remain shamefully unaware that world-class New Orleans cuisine is right under their fingertips. That’s because the SCV Fish Market, the city’s first family-owned “You Buy, We Fry” counter, is wedged unobtrusively into a nondescript strip mall. Don’t let its quiet appearance deceive you, though. The Holy Trinity (celery, bell pepper, and onion) have blessed the house’s proprietary file gumbo, and the seafood here packs the perfect Cajun wallop. Case in point: crispy fried oysters, “jars” of which can pair with the Market’s signature hushpuppies, savory collard greens, and/or the spicy red beans and rice. The parking lot can be treacherous, so call your order in before arriving.
How to order: Takeout only; order by phone or on the website.
When Jon and Helen Han’s Oh Bella switched to outdoor seating and pick-up in early 2020, fans came out in droves to support their family’s superb but under-the-radar gelateria/creperie. Nowadays, there is never not a line outside, and for good reason: you won’t find delicate, hand-crafted sweets like this anywhere else in the valley. On Santa Clarita’s warmest days, nothing hits better than two colossal scoops of their stracciatella gelato; and when it rains, a decadent Strawberry Royale crepe warms the chest.
How to order: Walk-ins welcome for outdoor patio seating; call for pickup or order via DoorDash.
Old Town Newhall
If Old Town Newhall is Santa Clarita Valley’s cultural hub, then the Walk of Western Stars is its indisputable centerpiece. Like the better-known Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Walk of Western Stars is a long-standing tribute to the valley’s favorite entertainers, their names forever inscribed in terrazzo and brass. After all, the legacies of American Westerns and Santa Clarita—where many classic movies were filmed—are forever entwined. And since the walk runs down both sides of Newhall’s increasingly busy Main Street, we suggest putting your name down for dinner before embarking on your stroll.
How to visit: Open to the public.
Storytelling and the power of entertainment are built into the legacy of Santa Clarita. Now the history of the city itself is on view to the public via a series of colossal murals hand-painted around town. At least 15 of these pieces are known to exist, stretching from the ARTree “Community Mosaic” on Magic Mountain Parkway to Traci Colucci Adams’ “Imagination Tree” in Canyon Country’s Jo Anne Darcy Library. Each mural offers a different theme from the valley’s rich and complicated tapestry and all are reminders of its residents’ dedication to art as a public resource.
How to visit: Open to the public.
At the height of its wealth, 100 families lived in Charles Alexander Mentry’s once-flowing oil boomtown, “Mentryville.” Now this off-the-beaten-path destination—as well as its well, Pico No. 4, the first commercially successful well in the western US—are preserved into perpetuity as California State Historical Landmarks. The allure is still evident in the period school and barn, as are the hard remainders of back-breaking labor that carved a town out of little but rugged chaparral and sweeping hills. A visit to Mentryville isn’t just fun—it honors the hands that built our modern Santa Clarita Valley.
How to visit: Open to the public with a $5 parking fee.
“Many things have changed but the old west hasn’t...at least not at Melody Ranch Studios.” In the early years of Melody Ranch, Monogram Studios took advantage of its sprawling antique sets to pump out B-movie Western after B-movie Western. Then its renown grew, as did the caliber of the big stars who shot pictures there: Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and other legends. 105 years and one catastrophic fire later, the 22-acre ranch remains not only the quintessential Western backdrop for the likes of productions like Westworld and Deadwood, but also home to a collection of world-famous memorabilia that can be seen during VIP group tours.
How to book: Schedule VIP group tours and events by calling 661-286-1188.
Old Town Newhall
Just as the sun rises in the east every day, so too do the farmers, foragers, and food artisans of SCV gather to sell the fruits of their labor at the Old Town Newhall Farmers Market each Saturday. Held in the Old Town Newhall Library parking lot, the market is small enough to explore in half an hour. Found here are both everyday household necessities and hyperlocal produce sourced sustainably and safely. Grab some berries and cheese on the way into Old Town just across the street.
How to visit: Open to the public every Saturday from 8:30 am to 1 pm.
Between the world-class collection of Native American and Western art, the opulent Spanish colonial-style mansion furnished with hides and fine furs, and the idyllic wooded ranch house surrounded by greenery, there’s almost too much to see at the museum once owned by Western movie star and local SCV hero William S. Hart. Access inside the buildings is temporarily limited for safety, leaving more time to explore the picturesque surrounding grounds. Hiking trails direct visitors to the alpacas, tortoises, grouse, and even water buffalo that live on the ranch these days. On a sunny day, there is no better place for a picnic and a stroll in the city.
How to visit: William S. Hart Park is open 7 am to 5 pm during the winter. Museum temporarily closed.
The Pioneer Oil Refinery is perhaps the only destination on this list in imminent danger. The refinery was built in 1875 by Star Oil Company (an early predecessor to Standard Oil), and donated by Chevron to the City of Santa Clarita as a historic landmark in 1997. Unfortunately, despite its fame as the oldest existing refinery on earth, preservation efforts have been lax, with active, frequent construction around the site, an increased risk from fires in the area, and no formal physical museum dedicated to its upkeep. All the more reason, then, to see this important facility while it still stands.
How to visit: Open to the public; no parking available.
The November 2018 opening of the Old Town Junction heralded a new era for Santa Clarita dining. This passion project of Executive Chef and Co-owner Daniel Otto—the city’s most venerated foodsmith—arrived at a moment of heightened conscious consumerism and a growing communal demand for the seasonally fluid menus typical of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. Opening a business that adhered to such an expensive standard (and charged its customers comparably) in SCV was a gambit, but the Junction’s success spread a halo of elegance around its neighbors that still has not dissipated. Built into a 106-year-old hotel, it is quite simply SCV’s most beautiful eatery.
How to order: Outdoor seating by reservation; Takeout available by phone; delivery available via partner apps.
Sitting outside Wolf Creek Brewery at sunset is a luxury every person should get to experience. With its sprawling patio, abundant string lights, and cornhole station, it feels almost like the set of a very expensive beer commercial—but it’s real life. Then there are the standard-bearing beers, without which none of that would matter: the spicy, savory Holy Mole Stout; the honeyed and decadent BBB Belgian-style Tripel; and the aggressively tropical “Howlin’ Hefeweizen.” If that sounds overstimulating, be prepared to pace yourself, because Wolf Creek is far from the only exceptional brewery in the area. Pocock, Draconum, and Bravery Brewing Company a little further north all make delicious seasonal experiments, too, if you’re up for a long night.
How to order:Reservations required for weekend patio dining.
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