The beginning of my interest:
Several years ago my friend Andy had the original Manson family documentary. I borrowed it, watched it and thought it was interesting and pretty cool but at the time remembered I hadn’t thought much about it. A few years later I was at Second Time around, a used movie, game and music store in downtown Dayton looking for movies for birthdays or Christmas (can’t remember which). I came across this double documentary DVD called the Boneyard. Being a bit of a true crime buff, it interested me. I briefly glanced at the bottom and saw Charles Manson’s face on the second half of the box and thought, well I’ll watch ‘whatever that is’ later. I watched the Boneyard when I got home and thought it was good, though I barely remember it now. I can’t remember when I did but when I turned on the other documentary ‘something’ happened. This was about Charles Manson, the family and the Helter Skelter murders. It took place in LA and the narrator was also the guide going to all the places and locations associated with the murders and family history. It was called Six Degrees of Helter Skelter and I’d never seen a doc like it before. There was something utterly compelling and fascinating about the information given on the screen, the eerie background music to this day I believe is still one of the most effective things I’ve heard that sets the mood for the show and brings out the emotion of the material and the viewer. There was just something utterly fascinating about Scott Michael’s standing ‘in the exact spot’ where this and that happened, especially at the Spahn and Barker Ranch when he stood in the spot where Charlie was found and ‘breathed his last air as a free man’.
As soon as it was over I was determined to find out as much as possible about the history of Manson and the family, which led to a ‘few’ more viewings, hours on Youtube, movies and the reading of numerous books. Not to mention it blended in with my love and fascination of LA, which started with the early 80’s music scene. When I found out I was going to LA in mid-July, I knew I HAD to see it all for myself.
Regardless of your opinion or POV of Manson, the family, the murders and Helter Skelter, this is a recollection and description of what you’ll see and experience if you ever decide to go to LA and see these things/places in person.
A few of the tours have emailed for feedback and since I took three different and distinct Manson related tours/hikes and a visit to the Museum of Death which features a Manson Family themed room, I promised a few people I’d do a review/write/comparison on them. The first tour I booked was Scott Michael’s Helter Skelter Tour . Mr. Michaels works out of the Dearly Departed Tours which offers a few different tour choices in Hollywood and is also the director/narrator of the Six Degrees of Helter Skelter DVD, a must see for anyone interested in the locations and history of the case. The other tour was the Elite Adventures Personal tour by guide Paul Fleck and the personal sight-seeing hike by local expert Stoner van Houton.
The Helter Skelter Tour is a van lead tour to several locations, murder sites and haunts of the Manson family. Once you arrive at the office your welcome to look around at the vast collection of memorabilia from different celebrities and stars in the display cases and upstarts area. Manson related items include a large piece of the fireplace from the Tate house, several vintage items from Spahn Ranch and Barker Ranch (the family’s final hideout) and you’ll also receive if you want a small piece of the Tate fireplace with a tag of authenticity. There are also tour related shirts, hats and other related memorabilia available. Also a portion of each ticket sold goes to the Doris Tate victims charity .
Michaels said he’s been doing this for over seven years and during the tours duration he relayed tons of info (much I already knew from the DVD and personal research) about the case and as many times as I’m sure he’s done the tour, spoke with interest, enthusiasm, passion, even adding humor where appropriate, especially in describing the utter incompetence of the LA PD in some areas of the case. Honestly so much of the information is still fascinating and obviously, even forty years later still brings people and those who want to see these places in person from tourists to locals.
Some of the locations visited included the former building of Jay Sebring’s hair saloon, the El Coyote restaurant where the victims had their last meal. We passed the bus stop where Winifred Chapman (Tate housekeeper) was dropped off every morning, Mama Cass’s gated former house, which the current owners ironically closed upon our arrival then oddly reopened for us. A house creepy crawled by the family (where Tex Watson acquired his hat) and the Labianca house (now gated).
The current owner actually poked his head outside for a second, looked at us and went back inside. We also went up Ceilo drive to the turn in the road where the killers walked up. We did not go all the way to the gate, instead drove around to the point at Falcon Lair overlooking the road and the houses leading to the gate and the same POV from the part in Six Degrees. Michael’s describes the killer’s route and where the original phone pole was that Tex Watson cut and the spot where Steven Parent met his unfortunate demise.
We also got a good view of the orange mansion that now stands where the Tate house once was. We also saw the house on My Ghost Story that’s supposedly haunted by the spirit of Sharon Tate. Due to traffic we missed a few things (the house they hosed off in after the murders) and were only able to see a fleeting glimpse of the spot where they threw the murder clothes over the cliff and the spot where they threw the gun found by Steven Weiss.
There are a few other cool things to see along with pictures and media on the TV screen related to the case. I didn’t know that Malibu Barbie was inspired by Sharon Tate. One of the highlights found in the tour binder are shots of the actual car used the nights of the murders and there’s also an exact replica of the fork used during the Labianca murders. It’s kinda funny now but I’ll admit when I first contacted Michaels I was shocked and ‘very’ disappointed that the tour didn’t cover Spahn Ranch, the major part of the Manson saga. Then a while later I finally realized how far it was from everything tour related in LA and saw why. The tour doesn’t glorify Manson in anyway but does talk about Helter Skelter from different POV’s and Tex Watson’s involvement.
So, for the time spent and what’s shown it’s a decent priced tour, whether you’re just curious or fascinated by it, I recommend going if you’re in town. As long as it’s still running, when I go back, I’d definitely take it again, just to see the spots/stops we missed. It’s also a unique experience for the uninitiated that’s never been on the roads to see just how treacherous the twists and turns driving in Benedict Canyon are even for an experienced driver and will give an idea of how hard it was to navigate in the late 60’s.
Elite Adventures Private Tours http://eliteadventuretours.com/index.php
This was the first tour company I found that offered personalized tours to Manson related places. Actually the tour company guide will take you ANYWHERE you want to go in LA as its specialized and customized to wherever/whatever the tour seeker wants to see. Mine just happened to be the Spahn Ranch and related areas. Fair warning, it’s a bit pricey and charged per hour but as I found out later, it’s a good thing I took it.
My driver/guide Paul Fleck picked me up in a company van, beverages and snacks were available along with personal photography which no other tour offers as toted on their site. We talked a bit then got started. To his credit he got me psyched up passing the highway signs after a while saying ‘we are now officially in Manson country’ and I have to admit seeing the Simi Valley, Topanga Canyon, Santa Susana, Chatsworth signs for the first time gave me chills and a rush, thinking after all the waiting, I’m ‘finally’ gonna see these places.
Our first stop before we hit the ranch was the Manson Tree (where Charlie was said to sit and play his guitar by himself and to the family). Gotta admit it was a slightly weird feeling/sensation sitting in the same tree where Charles Manson did in the late 60’s. Right below at the creek bed is the tunnel where Spahn Ranch worker Shorty Shea was killed. Legend has it that Barbara Hoyt could hear his screams from the ranch down the road. Manson legend said that he was beheaded and cut into pieces to help spread fear amongst the family but when his body was found after a parole agreement with Steve ‘Clem’ Grogan was made, one of the family members responsible for the murder, his body was found in tact, minus what animals ran away with and a skull fracture. We also went to the spot where authorities found his remains.
Next was the area behind the ranch, as we headed down the trails, there was a certain ambiance and to be honest, regardless of its history, the area of Topanga Canyon/Santa Susana Pass and the landscape of the cliffs, rocks and mountains carry a lot of great scenic beauty. If it wasn’t so remote and the family had never been there, you could almost imagine Spahn Ranch as a place where kids would come, explore and play. Right before the cave, we stopped by a piece of vintage authentic automobile that was stolen by the family. Not condoning that they stole vehicles at all but it was cool to see something from the late sixties that were touched/used by them.
Next up, was the famous/infamous family cave seen in Life Magazine. At first I saw the side view then came around to the full view…then just kinda stood and stared at it with a certain awe. First I thought how they all got in that small space. Then I walked in and turned around. It was weird thinking this was their POV as the camera man pointed and clicked. Just for the fun of it, I ‘tried’ to emulate some of the poses, then stood on the side and on top.
We then took pics by the ‘hammock trees’ as I searched for the nail holes. Then walked over to the cross marker and the infamous Manson rock where Charlie sat and auditioned for Terry Melcher. Sitting down on what was left after the church came and diamond cut his original initials off was a weird experience.
I sat there trying to imagine where Melcher would’ve sat/stood. According to some books Manson went all out and had a feast prepared, going out of his way to make a good impression on Melcher. It was almost surreal walking around the area on the same ground that forty some years ago The Family ran around playing (and doing… whatever) on.
Next up was the main area of the ranch where George Spahn’s house once stood, the buildings, horse ranch etc. I have to admit even with the wind blowing and reminiscence of past parties lying around there was still a serene, surreal, almost haunting feeling to the place, knowing what’d happened here so many years ago. Almost as if the wind, air and ground carried the memories. I tried to remember the ranch layout as scenes from the original documentary and Inside the Manson Gang ran through my head as I imagined where they would’ve stood or walked and tried to figure out what building would’ve been where I was standing. We walked past a large dirt pile (which later, Stoner would inform me was where Spahn’s house was).
I stood looking at the mountain top in front of me that looked over the ranch in all the vintage pics. I think that’s when it really hit me. I’m really here, after all the documentaries, Youtube shows, location videos and books; I’m really standing on Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA.
We then ventured down past the big water tank (which we didn’t know at the time was a water tower and were concerned about potential harmful emissions, lol). After a few minutes of searching we almost gave up but then looked up and saw ‘the truck’. After watching the videos, I really thought the truck frame was somewhere level on the ground. Turns out it’s laying almost sideways planted mid-point on the hillside. There’s a ‘handy’ steel rope that you can pull yourself up with to see it. This, along with the family cave is a vintage location/artifact that Stoner van Houten and Mike from Backporch Tapes (who I unfortunately didn’t get to meet yet) worked hard on digging out, cleaning up and restoring for visitors and preserving for history sake.
Next stop was and the most challenging location to find, The Baby Caves. Again thanks to Stoner’s ‘how to get there’ video we found our way down the road to the spot where you cross over the barricade and ‘slowly/carefully’ climb your way down. As Stoner says in the video ‘it CANNOT be stressed enough how steep the trip down is and how cautious you need to be, wear comfortable, durable shoes. Take your time, go slow and keep your balance/equilibrium!One wrong move and you’re in deep…. After searching the general area we found it and it’s a bit of a chore to get to. There’s very little room for missteps but once your down there and find it, it’s worth it! I don’t know if the lay of the land was very different back then but I still can’t figure out how Sadie (Susan Atkins) got those kids from the ranch to that spot during the police ‘visits’. It is a genuinely creepy cave even without its history. We tried to find the ‘Sadie Rock’ where she carved in her name but apparently someone erased it.
(After I left LA I was very glad I took this tour because if I hadn’t , I never would’ve seen this part as my hike with Stoner was cut a bit short). Also according to Paul, this was the most extensive and detailed Manson tour he’d taken as most people usually just wanted to see the cave and the main part of the ranch. So, the baby caves were a first for both of us and he said he’d remember this area for future tours. (Good luck if someone asks you to go back down there Paul).
That concluded the Spahn Ranch portion of the day as we walked back up to the van, sweat soaked but satisfied. We then went to our last stop, as I attempted to find Gypsies waterfall, on my own as he couldn’t leave the van parked where it was and ended up having a conversation with one of LA’s finest asking why we parked there. He pointed at my descending figure and said ‘he’s on a private tour looking for Gypsies waterfall.’ I’m really not sure how common that is these days, besides tourists, but who knows. I actually ‘did’ find it but was standing on the wrong side to really see where it was. Thank God for Stoners ‘tracking’ skills a few days later.
All in all it was a pretty cool (but very hot) day. I finally got to see Spahn Ranch and related areas for myself and the cool part was, I was gonna see some of it again in a few days. I will say that on both days and both excursions, though I did see some of the same things, were very different experiences and after everything was seen and done I’d actually been to more things than I even imagined I would. Thank you Paul!
The Stoner van Houton Sightseeing Hike.
A few months after scheduling the Elite Tour I was watching some Backporch Tapes Spahn videos and clicked on a video from Spahn Ranch Worker. I saw this guy on there walking around the ranch talking about locations, history and where stuff is. I found another about the Manson cave, watch it and get intrigued. I read that he does donation based hikes of the area and anywhere (within reason) Manson you wanna go. I contact him and over the next several months we talk on Facebook about taking a Manson hike, what I want to see and do and so forth. Just by talking to him I could tell he had a wealth of knowledge on Manson history.
I would be the #4 hike of the season. An interesting side note is that his van broke down, which forced me to face my fear/phobia of driving in LA, which ended up being a cool thing and something I’m not really scared of anymore, (even though LA traffic is in a different universe than the rest of the country, lol). I remember the drive there not being that bad at all. We met and off we went.
First stop is the Munch Box, a hotdog stand that Charlie ate at while waiting for the girls to get off work. I’d only heard about this place in passing so to see it first thing and being more of a ‘rare’ Manson spot was cool. Once at the ranch, he showed me the tree, riddled with bullet holes that the family and the Straight Satan’s used as target practice, something I think Paul and I ‘unknowingly’ walked right past. He also pointed out a vintage tree that could be seen in some old shots of the ranch days. He pointed out a pile of rock and concrete that’d been dumped over the side by bulldozers after the fire that destroyed the ranch.
He also explained that was the reason the truck frame was lopsided on the hill. They just bulldozed all that remained over the hill and forgot about it, trying to erase the history, more or less. We talked history, really wish I’d taken a recorder.
We went to the main part of the ranch. We walked past the dirt mound that I’d passed by a few days ago and he said this is where Spahn’s house was. He also pointed out some vintage rocks, a piece of the concrete foundation from where a fuel tank once sat and one of the last remaining man-made remnants of the ranch days, a telephone poll burned in the fire.
Unfortunately as we looked around for ‘relics’ we were interrupted by a roaming scouter and asked to leave. So I didn’t get to see other things again and wouldn’t have gotten to see them at all if not for coming out both days. However, my day with Stoner was far from over.
(There were other ranch sites unseen, such as the zodiac car, which I’m told is a considerable ways back behind the ranch and the Manson (stoner) caves which I believe are elsewhere.)
We left, headed down the road to the Dune Buggie Graveyard which is a lesser known sight but still cool to see where they ditched some of the vehicles they ‘stole’ and stripped in preparation for Helter Skelter. It’s kinda unrelated but I couldn’t help but notice and take in the incredible natural beauty of driving the twisting roads of Topanga Canyon with scenic mountains, desert land and landscapes on either side, it really does feel like you’re driving in a movie at times. I would’ve loved to have seen it back in the day.
A more detailed trip/hike to Gypsies Waterfall was next and Stoner knew of a legal spot to park on the road. It was a bit of a rough walk, going through a bit of wilderness and off the beaten path and there was no clear cut path but we made it. Seeing it from the other side and a much better angle I could tell what it was and was glad I went the ‘extra mile’ to do it. The waterfall wasn’t running but Stoner showed me the exact spot where the family stood, bathing under the water from Inside the Manson Gang. It was kinda weird putting the scenes through my head of the family hanging out, skinny dipping, bathing and well… you know, here then look up and see the highway bypass in the distance. Actually if anyone had looked to their right driving by at the right spot, they’d of seen us. But it was very cool to finally see it and imagine the lay of the land in Devils Canyon with Robert Hendrickson back then.
A couple exclusive Stoner van Houton stops included one of the actual trash/dumpster areas used frequently by the family for dumpster dives. No… we didn’t get in. Another stop I wasn’t even aware of was The Candy Cat, a strip bar where Sadie and the girls danced at. We didn’t go in,lol.
We then went back to where he was staying and hung out for quite a while. He showed me his personal relic collection and a few truly rare items, that if proven to be what he suspected them to be, could be worth a fortune to a museum or collector. Such as rusted, authentic tools of the time, possibly used by Tex Watson and the remains of a record player that ‘could’ve’ been the one Charlie listened to the Beatles on.
He was very cool giving me some rare and vintage items and one thing he gave me some of I was legitimately stunned by. I left with some really cool and rare things that I’ll always remember from that day and trip to LA. Like Scott Michaels he has a very genuine love and passion for the history of the area and a desire to preserve its history for others to come and see.
I’m glad I found the guy, he really enriched my experience and if I want to see more when I return or see something again, he’s the man for the job. And if anyone goes out to LA and wants a more detailed, customized experience that a commercial tour can’t give, look him up.
I also feel the need to mention that as part of the Manson experience, the Museum of Death has a room dedicated to the Family. I spent quite a bit of time in there, trying to record with my eyes, lol. They have a display case full of Manson books, some of which I’d never seen or heard of. Rare art and memorabilia and a picture of Mike from Backporch tapes with Manson and the highlight of the room, a large quilt complete with dirt stains with a plaque saying ‘made by the Manson family women’.
Fair warning, as fascinating as that room and the museum is, it’s extremely graphic and not for the faint of heart. Though professionally collected and displayed there’s tons of completely uncensored gore and violence, along with some genuine, unique and interesting collections of death techniques, burial procedures and displays of history’s most devious and diabolical death makers. The Black Dahlia room was particularly gruesome but it’s probably the coolest place ever for those into that kinda stuff. Just gotta find a place to where the shirt now.