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.
1885 Hill Valley
Hill Valley Town Filming Location from Back to the Future part III
See the end of this article for location and visiting information!
WARNING: WE DO NOT SUGGEST YOU DO THIS LIGHTLY. PLEASE READ: It’s unclear where private and public land stop and begin. Everything you do here may or may not be trespassing – the highway here moves very quick and there is usually a steady flow of traffic, making it somewhat unsafe to backtrack and look around. There are rusty old railroad tracks with nails, spikes, stakes, barbed wire, ruts, etc.. and let’s not forget, PEOPLE WITH GUNS. So I really honestly suggest, and reccomend – THAT NO ONE DO THIS. But since I know you’re going to do it anyway I’ll tell you how we did. But this is strictly for – uh – educational purposes only. Don’t break the law, and be über-cautious out there. Rattlesnakes abound!
In all the years of Back to the Future location hunting, no single trip was as exciting as this. Stuck in Stockton, CA for the weekend, I learned that our hosts had relatives in Jamestown, and that it was not too far away, and of course I was all ears. Five people packed into a tiny Ford 4-door and off we went. Our first stop was at a shooting range. It was the Marine Corps’ birthday, and our hosts’ Grandfather wanted to celebrate it with us… by firing guns! (This, by the way, was a veteran of Chosin Reservoir, if you don’t know about that, look it up!).
Our driver, R, seemed skeptical as we headed south from Jamestown back towards Yosemite Junction, but as vague as my description of this location seemed to be, (If you go, you’ll see for yourself, it’s pretty difficult to give directions to a patch of nowhere…) I had a map in my head and a mission to accomplish.
Now, Yosemite Junction isn’t really a town, and for that matter neither is Keystone. In fact, Keystone isn’t even on most maps. But Yosemite Junction is where the CA-120 splits off of CA-108 and heads east towards Chinese Camp and Yosemite Nat’l Park. If you blink, or sneeze, you will miss both of these towns.
Luckily for the intrepid BTTF tour fan, the very real Railroad tracks which the train ran on in the film run right alongside the road for a stretch of about 1.5 miles as you travel Northbound towards Yosemite Junction. The spot you’ll need to find is where these tracks take a sudden turn eastwards into the hills and away from the road. It’s going to take some serious concentration to find that spot, but there is one landmark that can help! Almost directly across from the point along the tracks you want is the “Keystone Cattle Ranch” – Now, there is a way to get to the location of Hill Valley 1885 on dirt roads, but we DO NOT reccomend you even TRY that way for several reasons, chief among them is that this is PRIVATE PROPERTY, people actually LIVE in those hills (even though you can’t easily see the houses from the highway) and they CAN AND WILL SHOOT YOU.
We realized this from the first, so we had our very patient driver RM pull over inside the Keystone Cattle Ranch driveway, and wait with the car so that we wouldn’t enrage the local cowboys. Of course, this meant that three male punk rockers and a female companion had to run across the highway, which we did – San Diego style. (We suggest you park on the side of the small road across the highway. Remember: This isn’t someone’s lawn in Pasadena, this is the country, and you could get hurt.) Crossing over the weed-choked ditch through tall, dead grass, I couldn’t help but regret the fact that I was wearing shorts. I was a little nervous about ticks, but hey, not every tick has lyme disease, right? So what the hell, I’ll go forward. It wasn’t until we reached the tracks that someone wisely pointed out that we should be on the lookout for Rattlesnakes as well. With that in the back of my mind, we began our northward trek along the rusty and appearently abandoned stretch of track. All of a sudden the sound of automatic gunfire filled the air from the south side of the hills we were traveling alongside. I kid you not, it sounded like a small army. Take warning..
Once we realized that the gunfire wasn’t pointed at or towards us, we continued our journey. You’re gonna have to watch out once you get to the first sign of humanity along the tracks. It’s dozens of rusted, sharp, metal spikes across the tracks, and barbed wire fencing along the side. It’s a tetanus trap nightmare, so be really cautious in getting around it. It looks like it was once meant to keep cattle IN, but then again, it could just as easily have been meant to keep people like us OUT.
The location of Hill Valley 1885 is actually known as Red Hills Ranch. The town itself (minus the clock-tower, of course) had been there long before BTTF III and was created specifically for filming movies. Bonanza, Little House on the Prarie, Pale Rider, and even Unforgiven are just a few of the movies and TV series shot at this location. Since by rail it was only a short trip into this beautiful scenery aboard Railtown 1887’s historic trains, BTTF III was filmed here too.
I have studied the film and the documentaries and behind-the-scenes shots very carefully and memorized the shape and angle of the hills behind the site of HV 1885, so as soon as we rounded the bend, I knew for certain that we had hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, the other people along for the uh.. long hike (make sure you wear sturdy shoes!) weren’t as familiar with the movies and had no idea what we were looking at… because we were looking at nothing!
In 1996 a grass fire burned through the area just west of Chinese Camp, burning it’s way through hundreds of acres of nothing.. unfortunately, the town set used in all these movies happened to be in the middle of those acres of nothing. Along the tracks near the town set the fire becomes evident. Rail ties are nothing but cinders, and a few looked like they had literally exploded from the heat. The only thing even remotely connected to the filming days is a lonely prop windmill, slumped over on the ground. Somehow spared from the fires. On further reflection you notice the stumps of burned trees dotting the hillside.
Not a bad trip at all, not much to see, but for the Back to the Future fan, a MUST see! Numerous other small locations were located on the ranch property as well, including Clara’s home, the location of the switch track, and all the miles of track featured in that horse-chasing, train-racing action footage, but you’re going to need permission to use the back roads and much better shoes than mine, and it’s next to impossible to find those sites unless a local happens to know exactly where they were. They might know, but the only local we encountered was a vagrant family living out of a camper. Man with no shirt, woman with no shoes, and their companions, baby, large dog, and even larger shotgun. So be careful out there… and if you make it to Hill Valley 1885, send us some pictures!
ADDRESS: PRIVATE/PROTECTED RANCH
COORDINATES: 37.86342, -120.500622