Explore cinematic history in the Santa Monica Mountains

West of downtown Los Angeles, rugged Malibu Creek State Park has stood in for numerous faraway lands in classic TV shows and films.

When most visitors set out to explore movie and TV history around Los Angeles, they head for traffic-clogged Sunset Boulevard, the crowded Hollywood Walk of Fame or a sprawling studio lot offering behind-the-scenes tours. But if your search ends there, you’re missing a fascinating – and decidedly more rugged – slice of southern California’s cinematic past.

About 25 miles west of downtown Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains, the boulder-strewn canyons, tranquil lake and rolling grasslands of Malibu Creek State Park have served as stand-ins for far-flung lands in countless movies and TV shows – including the original Planet of the Apes and MASH.

Malibu Creek State Park encompasses more than 7,000 acres of hiking, biking, camping and rock climbing territory within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. And in November 2014, another 700 acres opened to the public – land once owned by director James Cameron, in fact – creating yet another compelling reason to visit.

The area’s Hollywood ties go way back. The first film shot here – Daddy Long Legs, a silent movie starring Mary Pickford – was made in 1919. Over the ensuing years, more than 100 movies and TV shows made use of the terrain, including Charlie’s Angels and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.

A great place to start a cinematic exploration is the grasslands adjacent to the main parking lot, where scenes from the 1941 movie How Green Was My Valley were filmed. Starring Irish siren Maureen O’Hara, the film won five Academy Awards – more than any other movie shot in Malibu Creek State Park.

Much of the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes was filmed in the park, too. Studio crews constructed Ape Village on the shores of seven-acre Century Lake, near the park’s northern boundary. The studio planted a field for Charlton Heston to run through as malicious apes pursued him on horseback. Today, you can run through the same field, scale a rock wall aptly named Planet of the Apes and stand in the spot where Heston’s character was caged. True fans can make the 4.5-mile round-trip hike or mountain bike ride to the former site of Ape Village on the lake.

Perhaps appropriately for a spot that would become a prominent film set, the lake did not form naturally but was constructed for private use. Founded in 1900 by some of Los Angeles’ elite, Crags Country Club purchased nearly 2,000 acres along Malibu Creek and constructed a 50ft dam to form Century Lake, mainly for fishing and duck hunting. However, steep membership fees and a lack of interest eventually drove the club to close in 1936.

The failed club sold the land to 20th Century Fox Studios in 1946, and over the next 28 years, before the state of California bought the area and set it aside as parkland, the film studio used the location in numerous films and TV shows. Among them: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Elvis’s Love Me Tender (1956), The Seven Year Itch (1955) starring Marilyn Monroe and the 1960s TV show Daniel Boone. Yet even after it was transformed into parkland, Fox and other studios have continued to film in the area.

Century Lake also served as the location for a famous cliff-jumping scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. According to Brian Rooney, a park volunteer and unofficial park historian whose book Three Magical Miles chronicles the region’s movie history, the lake played the part of a wild river. The film crew covered the dam and surrounding foliage to mirror the West’s barren landscape and employed giant outboard motors to create turbulent water that two stuntmen jumped into.

But the parkland might be best known as the location for the 1970s hit TV show MASH. The show’s iconic wooden signpost planted in the characters’ fictional camp located on the frontlines of the Korean War claimed that Burbank was 5,610 miles away. In reality, of course, the show’s cast and crew were often hunkered down right here in the Santa Monica Mountains, where they shot for 11 years.

These days, MASH devotees can hike or mountain bike to a replica of the signpost, as well as original – but now rusted over – vehicles, including a camo-green ambulance. Photo and informational plaques illustrate how sets were once tucked into the landscape.

Of course, many MASH scenes were actually shot in a studio in Century City in west LA. How can you tell? “Pay attention to the eyes,” Rooney said. “If actors are squinting, then they’re really outside in the park. But when they’re not squinting during a supposed daytime shot, the cast is actually in a studio.”

The last major motion picture to be shot in Malibu Creek State Park was the 2002 drama Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater. The area’s use dropped off in part because other states began offering tax breaks to lure film productions away from southern California. What’s more, the area became too recognisable. “So many movies used the park for filming that audiences began to recognise the terrain,” Rooney said. “South America, post-apocalyptic Earth, Wales, the Old West, etc looked similar. They couldn’t fudge the terrain anymore, couldn’t fool audiences any longer.”

In fact, last summer’s plot twist was entirely fitting given the area’s cinematic past. Oscar-winning director James Cameron sold his 703 acres in Puerco Canyon to The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and aside from having several buildings and old roads associated with a decades-old pig farm, the land is undeveloped. Trails link the Cameron Nature Preserve to the adjacent Malibu Creek State Park.

The Malibu Creek State Park visitor’s centre sells park maps and showcases photos of the area’s Hollywood past. More than 60 tent and four RV campsites are available within the park with showers and flush toilets. Rock climbers should snag a copy of Southern California Sport Climbing for a guide to the park’s volcanic pocketed climbing routes.