Spahn Ranch – “The Manson Cave” (Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park)

Spahn Movie Ranch in the 1970s.

Spahn Movie Ranch in the 1970s.


Charles Manson – what can one say about this man that hasn’t already been said? Not a damn thing – since his arrest in 1969 for his involvement in the grisly Tate-Labianca murders, the public has made it very well-known their hatred and fear of this man. But then there are his followers. Yes, you heard me right – Charles Manson still has a strong cult following, larger than what it was in the 1960s while preaching “Helter Skelter,”  and indoctrinating homeless youth in Southern California into his misguided hippie gang.

The new face of Charles Manson is in a California 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization called ATWA, which stands for Air Trees Water Animals. The offical Facebook page of ATWA boasts around 8,000 fans, then there are several offshoot pages, such as The No Surrender Movement (Order of ATWA), Order of ATWA, and a handful of others – combined ATWA is reaching about 10,000 fans on Facebook alone. The organization was founded by Afton Burton, AKA “Star”.  The 26-year-old young woman who is engaged to be married to Manson.

On the official ATWA website, the organization is explained as follows:

ATWA is the acronym for Air Trees Water Animals. It is a name for all life on Earth, and represents the human quest to live in balance with our planet’s life-support systems.

ATWA has its roots in the hills of Kentucky, USA, when people living on the land took a stand against industrial “progress” in the 1930’s. Today that struggle and thought is alive in passionate and committed people throughout the world.

There is a war being waged upon Life.  ATWA is a unified movement to re-direct human efforts of war towards the problem.  War on the problem, war on pollution – not war on life.

Everyone helping with ATWA is doing so on a volunteer basis.

ATWA is a California 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization, and we are increasing our efforts to redeem the planet through tree and seed-planting projects, public outreach and education, and networking with like-minded organizations.

You may be asking yourself – Jim, what does all of this have to do with Spahn Ranch and “The Manson Cave”?  My response is simple – nothing, not a darn thing – I’m just giving you the opportunity to be informed. Manson is still very much alive, and influential despite having spent the better part of 35 years behind bars.

As for my person feeling on ATWA – I like the concept, and the ideals – but I’m sure that is the point of the organization, to paint a better picture on the face of Charles Manson.

Is it working? Possibly, younger generations that were not alive during the horrific aftermath of Manson’s terror – are not so well-informed, nor shaken by the deeds carried out by the gang of murdering hippies. To many he is a rock star, without ever having actually been a rock star.

Onto Spahn Ranch…

Located along the Santa Susana Pass Road, and above the community of Chatsworth – the one time 500-acre ranch was known for the films and television programs that were filmed there. Many of them western themed; such as Bonanza, The Lone Ranger, and Duel in the Sun. Several sci-fi and B-horror films were also filmed at the ranch, including; The Creeping Terror, Satan’s Sadist, and Angels’ Wild Women.

George Spahn, whom the ranch is named after, purchased the ranch from William S. Hart in 1948. Hart was a well-respected silent film actor from 1907 through the mid-1920s.

Spahn was a rancher by trade, having been a dairy farmer in Pennsylvania prior to heading west. Spahn continued the tradition of renting the ranch out for film production, but eventually the western genre fizzled out – and Spahn relied more on his horse rental business.

Manson inspired graffiti.

Manson inspired graffiti.


In the spring of 1968, an 80-year-old George Spahn met Charles Manson. They struck an agreement that would allow Manson and his “family” the ability to live at the ranch at no cost. In exchange for room and board the “family” would perform various chores and tasks around the ranch. It has also been speculated that Manson took over the day-to-day operation of the ranch, having one of his “girls,” Lynette Fromme, take care of the ailing old man (in more than one way, if you catch my drift…earning her nickname “Squeaky”).

This was also the time that the gruesome murders took place, which would later land Manson on the front page of every newspaper in America. After the murders, Manson and the “family” high-tailed it for Death Valley country as they awaited the “race war” that Manson said would be coming.

Manson and “family” settled at the Myers’ Ranch in the Panamint Mountains, before taking over nearby Barker Ranch. Barker Ranch would be the last place of freedom that Manson would ever know, arrested there on October 12th, 1969.


The famous, "Manson Family Cave" picture, from a 1969 issue of Life Magazine.

The famous, “Manson Family Cave” picture, from a 1969 issue of Life Magazine.


Jim poses at the infamous "Manson Family Cave"

Jim poses at the infamous “Manson Family Cave”


The Spahn Ranch movie set burnt down in a forest fire in September of 1970. George Spahn died four years later, almost to the date of the fire that took part of his ranch.

Today the ranch sits within the boundaries of the Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park. There are several hiking trails in the vicinity. During my quick visit, I was most interested in visiting the site that has been dubbed “The Manson Family Cave,” named after an image of the “family” posing in the cave from a 1969 article in Life Magazine.

The cave didn’t take long to find after leaving the pavement of the Santa Susana Pass. A few twists and turns down a well maintained trail, and passing by an extensive amount of Manson inspired graffiti carved into the areas natural stone formations. An engraved stone sits in front of the cave, it simply reads “Manson Family Cave”. I’ve heard that the stone was engraved by a Manson fan-boy that frequents the area regularly. He is known to dig out areas around the Spahn Ranch, and steal the artifacts that he finds. The stone has been removed from the cave by State Park Rangers on several occurrences, only to have it returned almost immediately.

The hammock picture from the same 1969 issue of Life Magazine

The hammock picture from the same 1969 issue of Life Magazine


The hammock trees, from the 1969 Life Magazine issue.

The hammock trees, from the 1969 Life Magazine issue.


The boulder on the right is said to be where Charles Manson would sit and play his guitar. The stone has been cut away by souvenir seekers.

The boulder on the right is said to be where Charles Manson would sit and play his guitar. The stone has been cut away by souvenir seekers.


Near the cave, I found the location of another famous Manson “family” portrait. Two trees on an embankment, an image in the same issue of Life Magazine shows member of the “family” in and around a hammock tied between these same trees.

In the same vicinity a boulder that is said to be where Manson sat, and played his guitar. The stone has been chipped, and cut away by souvenir seekers.

The landscape is all together beautiful, a wooded terrain with extensive stone features. Many call this an evil place, but I found nothing evil, or creepy about it from a location standpoint. Evil by humans can be committed at any time or any place, it doesn’t make the location evil, only the people who carried out the act.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.