The first thoughts of Malibu usually involve the beaches: long expanses of sand, the ocean crashing on the shore, the surfers riding a wave … all of the sights for which the Malibu Beach Inn is famous.

But by land area, it’s likely that more of Malibu sits on a ranch than on the ocean. As much as the town may be known for its oceanfront sand, the ranch has been as central to the town’s development as the beach.

The history of the town of Malibu, in fact, starts with a ranch: Spain granted the land that would eventually become Malibu to a former Spanish army official, calling it the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit. From there, Frederick Hastings Ridge bought the land in 1892, moving west and eventually expanding his holdings in modern-day Malibu; one estimate has him adding an extra 4,000 acres before he would pass away in 1905.

It was Ridge’s wife, Mary, who would earn the nickname Queen of Malibu, as she fought to protect the land from outsiders, but it was a losing battle. Courts eventually allowed for the building of the Roosevelt Highway – what’s now known as the Pacific Coast Highway – to be built, and the secret was out.

However, ranch life in Malibu would continue partly thanks to some newcomers that first saw the land by automobile. The Malibu Movie Colony started as land rented by Mary Ridge to raise money, and it attracted Hollywood’s biggest stars, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

Ranch in Malibu

But while the stars lived on the beach, they plied their trade in the hills. Ranch land in the Santa Monica Mountains would end up as locations for thousands of film and television productions, especially in the days before other states started to lure studios to bring their films to “authentic” wild west towns. Any film that required slightly mountainous or treacherous land could find a look in the ranches that matched; Malibu stood in for Korea on “M*A*S*H,” for Nottingham Forest in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” and even for a 19th-century Colorado Springs, Colo., in “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman.”

That space remained open for filming in part because the topography of Malibu made ranchland too expensive to develop into subdivisions. Heading up into the canyons, little of the land is flat enough to build a small neighborhood, which helped keep developers away.


Today, these ranches have become an important part of the outdoor life of Malibu residents, visitors, and Angelenos of all stripes, each with their own strengths. A couple of our favorites:

For hiking enthusiasts, the first Malibu ranch that springs to mind is Circle X Ranch, a former Boy Scout camp now operated by the National Park Service. It’s home to the Grotto Trail, where a brisk walk ends with a boulder scramble, a cave, and a waterfall. Further inland into the ranch is a trail that leads to Sandstone Peak, the highest zenith in the Santa Monica Mountains and one that yields widescreen views of the Pacific Coast and, on a clear day, the Channel Islands.

Those looking for more of a guided tour may enjoy Big Heart Ranch instead. It’s a working animal sanctuary, and visitors get the chance to brush goats, help feed the chickens, and go for a stroll with a mini pony. The suggested donation for the visitation goes towards both taking care of the animals and offering therapeutic services to those dealing with the aftereffects of trauma.

Cow at Big Heart Ranch

Some of those previously mentioned ranch movie sets can also be seen. Though it’s technically in neighboring Agoura Hills, Paramount Ranch got its name while leased by Paramount Pictures and has been seen in productions ranging from “The Adventures of Marco Polo” to “Westworld,” and while some buildings here were lost in a 2018 fire, some famed backdrops remain. Saddlerock Ranch, meanwhile, has become a go-to for reality television shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” along with countless music videos.

No matter how they’re enjoyed, though, the ranches of Malibu make up a significant amount of the charm of the coastal town. Sunsets over the beach are stunning, of course, but don’t miss out on the wilder(ness) charms of Malibu, either.