Visit to the 1885 Hill Valley Set by Kurt Bergeron
In 1993, Kurt Bergeron visited and photographed the Hill Valley 1885 town set from Back to the Future Part III. This is his story and his photographs of the town before it burned down. For more information on this location visit our main article.
I’d like to first say thank you for doing what you’ve done! I’ve visited a few of these locations and the others I plan to visit in the very near future. That said, I’d like to add my own experiences regarding the 1885 Hill Valley set. In June of 1993 I spent my 14th birthday sitting in the back of my parent’s car as we drove across the country. We zig-zagged through the states and followed the Lewis & Clark trail as we got further out west. At the time, I had only two destinations in my mind. One was the Hill Valley set at Universal Studios, Ca. and the other was the Back to the Future III set, which I knew was located in Sonora, Ca. I knew this from an interview I had read in one of the issues of my Back to the Future Fan Club Magazine.
Getting to the location, as you said is easier said than done, and actually, it’s not even easily said. My father knew that finding these destinations would be a dream come true for me, but finding the BTTF III set took us almost 100 miles out of our way. We had just gone through the west gate of Yosemite National Park and made our way to Sonora. We were equipped with no further information other than the name of the town. Sonora is located around the intersection of the California State Highways 49 and 108.
We drove back and forth through Sonora with our eyes peeled for anything BTTF. There were no signs whatsoever of ANY movie being filmed there all, let along BTTF III. This was surprising as Sonora is such a tiny place (only 3 square miles) and not only had the infamous trilogy filmed there but other westerns including Little House on the Prairie, Bad Girls, Unforgiven, The Mask of Zorro, Randolph Scott films, I mean, you’d think they’d enjoy the publicity! (Of course Bad Girls and Zorro were filmed after our visit). Regardless, my father rightfully assumed that a movie as big as BTTF might have a sign on the road to visit the set as a tourist attraction. This is absolutely not so! Eventually we pulled into a small gas station to ask the local attendant. I ran in. “Excuse me,” I said. “But could you please tell me where the Back to the Future III set is?” “Back to the Future!?” he responded back, “Did they film that here?” Heartbroken is a word you could use to describe my feelings at that moment. With my head hung down and my tail between the legs I wondered back to my family’s car. That was it, we drove 100 miles out of our way for nothing. And that’s when it happened. “Excuse me,” a woman asked. I looked up in surprise. “But are you looking for the Back to the Future set?” She had been inside the gas station and apparently overheard me ask the attendant. “Yes…,” I said excitedly as hope returned to my system. “Well I was actually an extra in the movie. If you want to follow me I’ll show you where it is.” What were the odds of that!!!?? She explained to us who she was in the film and I’ve since watched the movie and picked her out, but based on the fact that this is trespassing, I’ve decided to leave her identity a secret.
We followed her. I don’t recall how far we drove but it wasn’t long at all before she pulled over to the side of the road. I looked around. There was a billboard nearby, a bush and a fence running all along the road, which separated the road from an enormous amount of land. We approached her confused. She told us that the property was private but pointed to a biplane off in the distance. “You see that plane,” she asked my brother and I. “Yes,” we said. “It’s right around there,” she explained to us. “It’s right under that plane.” I responded in sadness, “Well there’s no way in. This is private property and we’re all fenced out.” “Well……” she continued and pointed to the bush. (I was beginning to love this woman) “Behind that bush there’s a hole in the fence if you really want to get in.” I’m not saying she condoned it but she certainly gave us the opportunity to make our own decision. In fact, she actually cautioned us about sticking around. She further explained that the property the set was on is actually split between two towns, although the town below us had been cut out of the proceeds from the film and they are NOT happy about it! In fact, the town’s police force is reportedly notorious for bagging fans.
There was no way in hell my parents were going to give me permission to risk that. How shocked I was when they returned to the car and pulled out a map “pretending” to look busy as my brother and I scurried through the hole. I admit it wasn’t the best plan but it was all we had and the only chance that I had to ever see the set at all. An executive decision was made, and we went for it. (Note: I have no idea if the hole is still there, it might have been repaired by now)
The remains of Marty & Doc’s campfire
To reiterate. You can NOT see Hill Valley from the road, and if you ever DO attempt to cross the property, do NOT expect a simple brisk walk. You are in for a little adventure! Tumbleweed, for a boy from New England is something that you only see in old western films. You don’t expect it to be real until it literally crosses your path, and it did. Snakes were another villain that we were told to beware of. I can’t express the joy I felt when we finally hit the railroad tracks. I have to admit I was shocked to see them. Being someone who works in film, and realizing how movies are made, I was surprised that the tracks were anywhere near the Hill Valley set at all, but a portion of the track IS connected to the Hill Valley of 1885. The first sight I saw was a large grey building, which I instantly recognized from being in the background of the film where Marty and Doc unloaded the car onto the tracks. Beside the tracks there was a circular area of burned away grass and some wood remains. I believe it to be where Marty and Doc had their camp fire beside which Marty woke up alone to find Doc with his whiskey in the saloon. My brother ran ahead but I was the fan who had to take in every aspect of everything I saw in the area. I was in BTTF heaven.
As I closed in on Hill Valley I started to take pictures again. My plan was to take a picture of every part of that town. The individual buildings, the clock tower, I would enter the saloon. All of my dreams were about to come true. As I was entering the town and about to take another picture, my brother came running towards me with no intention of stopping. “Run!” he shouted. I started to follow. (That’s what you do when someone yells “Run!”) I was shocked, confused, heartbroken, and now out of breath. “Why!?” I shouted back, upset that he would take me from this!
Hill Valley 1885 Set
Well, this next part takes a little bit of explaining. When the film’s extra brought us to the set she explained that the set was highly blocked off because individuals had been trespassing (hee hee) and breaking pieces off of the set as souvenirs. While I was starting to enter Hill Valley, my brother had already neared the saloon. Even at 15, that boy could drink! Outside the Saloon, by the hitching posts he found 3 large dobermans who were just as surprised to see HIM, and they were NOT especially happy about it. He ran from the growling dogs. (Another Note: running away from prey is not traditionally viewed as the best way to escape a predator although sometimes it seems like the logical thing to do.) I’ve always assumed that the dogs were chained up. I can’t imagine why they didn’t chase us through the prairie. My brother assures me that they were not however and suggests that there might have been an electrical fence. I never looked back to find out. As were we running back on the tracks we had once again arrived at the point where the Delorean was unloaded. I reached down to that very point and grabbed a rock. That was it. My souvenir. A rock that had sat beneath the Delorean before it took it’s final travel through time. A rock, which fortunately, I still have.
Returning to the car, we concluded that day by heading to dinner in downtown Sonora. We ate at a Mexican restaurant (I believe it was the Main Street Cafe) and I sat in a chair by the window looking out at the street. Downtown Sonora is not so different from the Hill Valley of 1885. Just walking down the streets of that town you can very much feel as though you’re in the west with its wooden sidewalks and “old west shaped” store fronts and buildings. We confided in our waitress that we had just come from the set. She responded by telling us stories of when the film was shot there and how Michael J. Fox pumped gas in the town and how low and behold he actually enjoyed eating at the very restaurant we selected. He reportedly ate there on several occasions during the filming of the movie and his favorite place to sit? Was right at the window where I was seated. What an incredible day! It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was the kind of experience you just can’t plan.
I’m including the pictures that I WAS able to take. I wish I got some closer shots but unfortunately, what I have was all this fan-boy could get before running for my life. I am deeply saddened to hear that the set was burned down but feel fortunate to know that I was one of the few who was able to see it before the fire.