Offbeat L.A.: Get on Your Pony and Ride – Sunset Ranch in Griffith Park

Entrance to Sunset Ranch (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

Entrance to Sunset Ranch (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

The author at Sunset Ranch, fresh out of Buffalo, half her life ago (photo by Amy Faber)

The author at Sunset Ranch, fresh out of Buffalo, half her life ago (photo by Amy Faber)

One of my very first adventures in sunny Los Angeles after I arrived, half a lifetime ago, from grey-skied Buffalo, NY was a horse ride up in Griffith Park at Sunset Ranch. It was the first time I said the words Los Feliz out loud, and I botched the pronunciation, enunciating it the Spanish way on the phone to the guy at the ranch. The guy said he had never heard of “Lows Fee-lease.” I clearly showed that I was a newcomer to the town that would eventually possess my heart and soul. Although I was green, I reasoned it was much better than my pronunciation of La Cienega or Cahuenga. I fell in love with the craggy Griffith Park hills on the hour-long ride and the expansive views of the entire Los Angeles basin.

The author today, riding a Palomino named Savannah, at Sunset Ranch (photo by Juliet Cesario)

The author today, riding a Palomino named Savannah, at Sunset Ranch (photo by Juliet Cesario)

More than half my life later, I still visit Sunset Ranch to find pleasure and escape in climbing upon a friendly horse and riding the scrubby, dusty trails beneath the Hollywood Sign. I’ve ridden at other stables and equestrian centers, but the history and character of Sunset Ranch will always make it my favorite. The drive up Beachwood Ave., past the original Hollywoodland realty development, towards the mythical sign and the stables at the top, will always feel exciting. The horse ride, led by a guide and done in a group, follows twisty trails carved out in the 1920s. With views of the sign, it can be done in either one or two hour durations. There is also an extra special Friday Night Fiesta Ride which covers over 7-round trip miles of trails, to the Burbank side of the park, in about 5 hours, with a fun stop at the vintage 1962 Mexican restaurant Viva Cantina.

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1924 brochure for the Hollywoodland Riding Club

The history of Sunset Ranch and the stable’s property is pretty much exactly as old as Hollywood itself. Still owned, three generations later, by the family of the original owner, a rodeo cowboy named Jute Smith, it is truly the real deal. The land itself at 3400 Beachwood Drive has been home to horses since 1923 when the Hollywood Riding Club and school was formed as an incentive to lure wealthy home buyers into purchasing houses in the brand new Hollywoodland development. In 1925 the Riding Club began offering Discovery Rides into the Hollywood Hills and into the neighboring park that Griffith J. Griffith, the rich developer of Los Feliz, had donated to the city in 1896. The popularity of these Discovery Rides was obvious when over 400 riders on horseback joined in a trail jaunt in April 1925.

Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Meanwhile, in 1929, across town in what was then faraway Culver City, a 20-year-old rodeo horseman named Julian “Jute” Claude Smith, born in Atlanta and raised in Los Angeles, bought a few acres of undeveloped land near Slauson Avenue and started Sunset Ranch. Jute, a tried and true horseman, was one of the original members of the Professional Rodeo Association and imagined his new ranch as a place for Wild West rodeo shows, barn dances, hay rides and quarter horse racing. He ran Sunset Ranch at this location for almost 25 years and raised his family there. As time moved on, the city became more populated, and in 1952 developers and changing zoning laws forced Jute out of the land he had owned for over two decades. Luckily, the old Hollywood stables, down on their luck when the depression hit, and not so trendy at this point, were available for lease. Jute moved his horses and business to this much more beautiful and historic location, soon buying the property himself.

The haunted barn (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

The haunted barn (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

With history often comes ghosts, and legend has it that Sunset Ranch is haunted by at least one of them. Spooky stories say that those alone at night in the old and creaking-with-character barn have heard eerie echoes of a man hanging himself with a rope. Romantic tales refer to a Romeo and Juliet love affair between a young Mexican stable boy and a Caucasian daughter of a wealthy Hollywoodland family, but the truth of the hanging is almost as weird. The suicide actually seems to trace back to one of Hollywoodland Riding School’s original riding instructors, Robert G. Bakefelt, who had moved to Los Angeles from Washington DC in the early 1920s. According to Hollywoodland historian Mary Mallory in a brilliant 2014 article for The Daily Mirror, “Unfortunately, Bakefelt seems to have been shy and suffered problems with women, feeling most comfortable around horses. On July 13, 1924, Bakefelt committed suicide by hanging himself from the rafters of the stable. There was no suicide note, only letters from and to a “Butterfly” the paper suggested was his wife… Further investigation in the LA Times reveals that on December 28, 1921, 43-year-old Bakefelt obtained a marriage license in Santa Ana to marry 22-year-old Doris Longworth of Nebraska. She declared in the last letter June 27, 1923, that their love was only physical and that she realized she wasn’t made to keep house. His 14-year-old son from a previous marriage discovered him after returning from a walk.”

The author follows the Sunset Ranch guide (photo by Juliet Cesario)

The author follows the Sunset Ranch guide (photo by Juliet Cesario)

Today, over 60 horses are kept for riding at Sunset Ranch and many of those are rescue horses. An additional 20-25 are boarded for other owners. The ranch has been used as a location for many films and TV shows, including a scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The ranch is still owned today by the family of Jute Smith, whose children and grandchildren have stayed active in quarter horse racing and showing. Jute’s son, Steve Smith, ran the ranch from 1970 to 1995 and his grandson, Steve Smith Jr. owns it today.

Sunset Ranch: 3400 Beachwood Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90068; (323) 469-5450.

 

Actress Juliet Cesario and a view of the Los Angeles basin (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

Actress Juliet Cesario and a view of the Los Angeles basin (photo by Nikki Kreuzer)

Nikki Kreuzer

About Nikki Kreuzer

Nikki Kreuzer has been a Los Angeles resident for more than half of her life. When not working her day job in the film & TV industry, she spends her time over many obsessions, mainly music, art and exploring & photographing the oddities of the city she adores. So far she has written 100 Offbeat L.A. articles which are published at the Los Angeles Beat and on the website OffbeatLA.com. As a writer she has also been published in the LA Weekly, Oddee.com, Twist Magazine, Strobe and Not For Hire. Nikki is also a mosaic artist, working actor and published photographer. Her photography has been featured in the print version of LA Weekly and as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Neon Art. In the band Nikki & Candy, she plays bass, sings and is co-writer. Find Nikki & Candy music on iTunes, Amazon or at NikkiandCandy.com. Nikki is currently working on her first novel. Please "like" the Offbeat L.A. Facebook page! For more Offbeat L.A. photos & adventures follow @Lunabeat on Instagram or @Offbeat_LA on Twitter.
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3 Responses to Offbeat L.A.: Get on Your Pony and Ride – Sunset Ranch in Griffith Park

  1. Greg Weatherly says:

    I used to run Sunset Ranch in South Lake Tahoe until it was sold to the TRPA.

  2. Jute Smith was an amazing guy, a graduate of UCLA a man with a profound philosophy of life and, unusual for a cowboy, never wore a hat – at least none that I ever saw. His dream was to train race horses in his own way and create great ones, but I don’t believe he ever had the success he dreamed of. He tolerated me when I was a naive kid, let me keep my horse in exchange for cleaning stalls and gave me my first lessons in real horsemanship. More than fifty years later, I think of him often.

  3. Joan Connor says:

    Dear Edward, I lived next door to the stables for 5 years and feel we might have overlapped. I too, knew and loved Jute, played with his two eldest children, Junior and Sis, and was a 7 year old stable bum for some of the best years of my life. Am 87 now, and because of your posting, am wildly remembering all those people and places of those depression era events which I cherish to this day.Thank you. Joan Connor, née Silton. 2connor247@gmail.com

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