The community is located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 14 miles north of the Los Angeles civic center. Generally thought to be a part of the San Fernando Valley, Sunland-Tujunga is actually located in a valley of its own — the Tujunga Valley — which opens into the northern edge of the larger San Fernando Valley.
The Tujunga Valley is about six miles long and two miles wide. Consisting mostly of ranch land and orchards at the turn of the last century, much of the area is now filled with single family residences mixed with pockets of low-rise apartment and condominium buildings, though remnants of the orchards and ranches still stand.
Commercial development consists primarily of smaller retail businesses located along the Foothill Boulevard corridor from the Lowell Avenue city limits on the east to the Foothill Freeway on the west.
Most of the area is located within the northernmost limits of the City of Los Angeles with general services provided by the municipality. Portions of Big Tujunga, Little Tujunga and Kagel canyons are in the unincorporated area served by the County of Los Angeles.
Major geographic features include Big Tujunga Canyon whose waters have spread out at its mouth over the centuries to form the Tujunga Wash, the largest natural flood plain in Southern California and a feature clearly visible from earth orbit. The Wash feeds into Hansen Lake which was created by the construction of Hansen Dam, one of the longest dams in the world when it was built.
The San Gabriel Mountains, with its series of magnificent mountain peaks that separate the Los Angeles basin from the Mojave Desert, forms the north and northeast borders of the valley while the Verdugo Mountains separate the Tujunga Valley from the communities of Glendale, Burbank, and the rest of the Los Angeles metropolitan area to the south.
Sunland-Tujunga as seen from west to east with Camelsback (4227ft/1288m) on the left and Mt. Lukens (5074ft/1538m) on the right. Big Tujunga Canyon and the Pacific Crest of the San Gabriel Mountains are off the photo on the left.
The foothills of the Verdugo Mountains begin just southeast of Hansen Lake and form the western end of the Tujunga Valley. This area, today, is known as Shadow Hills and consists predominantly of small horse ranches (the ranches are small, not the horses — well, usually). The hunting lodge once owned by actor Clark Gable still stands in Shadow Hills overlooking the lake.
Another equestrian area also served by Verdugo Hills High School is La Tuna Canyon which runs through the Verdugo Mountains parallel to, and south of, the Tujunga Valley. Additional ranches dot the Tujunga Valley along the north and east edges in areas such as Riverwood Ranch and Haines Canyon.
ET, the Extraterrestrial was one of many movies to be filmed in the community. In the past, Ben Hur raced his chariot in Big Tujunga Canyon and Lancaster Lake (now long since gone) adjacent to Sunland Park was home to Tarzan in the jungle hunk's first silver screen epics. Even the White House was briefly relocated to Sunland Park for an early film about Abraham Lincoln.
But, no matter how memorable,the movies can't compete with the community's real-life history, first as the home to one of the largest Indian villages in the Southland, later as fertile ground for Spanish missionaries. The area eventually became part of a Mexican land grant owned by the two Lopez brothers, one of whom had a dream that ignited the California Gold Rush.
The last grizzly bears south of the Tehachapi Mountains also lived here alongside the hideouts for the robbers and banditos who preyed on the early settlements of Los Angeles.
At the turn of the last century, the region became a resort destination for well-heeled hunters and, later, the source of famous olives served at the real White House in Washington, DC.
The Tujunga Valley looking west with Sunland-Tujunga in the foreground. The Tujunga Wash floodplain is on the center right. Shadow Hills, Hansen Lake and Lake View Terrace are located across the mouth of the Tujunga Valley and the larger San Fernando Valley opens up behind. On the horizon are the Simi Hills about 23 miles (37km) away.
Later settlers came from the East after being enticed to relocate to "paradise" by national advertisements sponsored by property developers, the chamber of commerce, and the railroads hungry for passengers on their new rail lines.
Visions of the area as a paradise were reinforced by John Steven McGroarty, a local resident and Congressman as well as California's poet laureate, who created the Millionaire's Club of Happiness and Contentment which would meet for regular retreats in the area. They professed to be millionaires not by virtue of their holdings, but because of the opportunity they had to share in the beautiful surroundings and climate of the Sunland-Tujunga area.
Others were also drawn to the area from around the country by the climate but, for them, it was as a curative for tuberculosis and asthma. In fact, the Sunaire Home for Asthmatic Children was a prime destination for ailing youngsters well into the 1970's.
Today, the area is home to a diverse group of people from all walks of life. Many area residents are professional and technical people involved in films and the media, quite a few of whom have or have had their children (or grandchildren) attend Verdugo Hills high School.
Some of the more notable area residents, past and present, include Cecil B. DeMille, Clark Gable, Richard Arlen (who was honorary major of Sunland and also sponsored a local girls softball team), Robert Alda who lived here with his not-yet-famous son, Alan, while the latter attended elementary school in La Tuna Canyon, Bill Scott and Jay Ward of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame, comedian and perennial presidential candidate Pat Paulsen, Dick Gauthier ("Get Smart"), Herve Villechaize ("Fantasy Island"), David Carradine and Patrick Swayze.