Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Bandit Vasquez and Dunsmore Canyon: Just Another Legend?

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

The bandit Tiburcio Vasquez raided all over California from the 1850s into the 1870s. Not only did he make a name for himself, but he also left his name on many important landmarks in the Los Angeles area. Most local communities trace some historical connection to Vasquez as the site of a robbery, hideout or clever escape from the law, and La Crescenta is no different.

Dunsmore Canyon, now Deukmejian Wilderness Park, is mentioned in several histories of the bandit as one of his hideouts.

The original source of this connection comes from San Gabriel Mountains historian Will Thrall, who spent 50 years of his life researching Vasquez and writing on his findings. In an article, “The Haunts and Hideouts of Tiburcio Vasquez,” (Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, June 1948) Thrall wrote:

“The advance post and hideout from which he (Vasquez) raided the San Gabriel Valley and the whole Los Angeles area was in Dunsmore Canyon, north of Montrose on the south slope of Mt. Lukens. About a mile up from the mouth, where this canyon is split into two main branches, was an enormous oak tree so tipped toward the valley that its big top formed a perfect screen from below, almost completely blocking the canyon.

“In back of this natural screen, from which a man or horse could be seen approaching a mile or more away, Vasquez made his camp. From here, by passes to the east, south and west, he could easily watch the whole of Los Angeles County south of the mountains. Back of this camp a faint trail led up and over the ridge to the Dark Canyon/Vasquez Trail, with direct access to both the Arroyo and Big Tujunga and a network of trails spreading across the mountains in all directions.”

Will Thrall was a respected voice in the history of Vasquez and so the story stuck that Vasquez had his main hideout here in La Crescenta. Newspapers eagerly reprinted the story, and local historians repeated it in their own history writings. When the Le Mesnager family tried to sell Dunsmore Canyon to the state as parkland in the ’60s, the Vasquez story provided some celebrity status to the property and the CV Ledger newspaper printed several articles about the bandit’s hideout being in Dunsmore Canyon.

A well meaning group from Glendale even had a bronze plaque placed in front of the Le Mesnager’s old stone barn which stated that “this” was Vasquez’s hideout. Although they may have meant the Canyon, many inferred that the barn, built in 1911, 37 years after Vasquez’s death, was the hideout. When the City of Glendale acquired the property for the park it is today, they did extensive historical research on the Vasquez story and found nothing to support Will Thrall’s original story, and, of course, nothing to disprove it either. The city wisely put the misleading plaque in storage.

Like all good legends, the story of Vasquez’s Dunsmore Canyon hideout still gets repeated today. But I have serious doubts about its validity. The canyon doesn’t really split into two main branches, but just peters out in some nearly vertical box canyons. There is a trail out of the canyon, but it follows the ridgeline, and an escaping bandit wouldn’t leave himself exposed like that. The screening oak Thrall speaks of would perhaps be the McFall Oak? That’s the only big oak up there that could have hidden their camp, as Thrall wrote, but the view from there is not that great looking towards L.A., and they could have been easily snuck up on.

I hate to contradict old Will Thrall, but I tend to think he had his place names wrong. If Vasquez was in the Crescenta Valley at all, and I think he probably was, Pickens Canyon seems a more likely hideout, and it fits Thrall’s description better.

We’ll never know for sure as the march of time puts us further from the truth.