To be sure, Los Angeles has more than its fair share of red carpet and palm trees, tinsel and concrete, and larger-than-life (but very slender) glamorous people. What many visitors don’t know, though, is that it also boasts the most expansive urban wilderness park in the whole United States. That’s right: L.A.’s Griffith Park is even bigger than New York’s celebrated Central Park. So why is it that we don’t think of Griffith Park when we think of L.A.? There are two reasons for that: 1) because you catch a tourist in much the same way you catch a raccoon, and 2) we actually do think of Griffith Park, we just don’t realize we’re thinking of it. You know that ubiquitous, more-famous-than-Central-Park Hollywood sign? Well, guess where it’s located.
Covering a whopping 4,210 acres right smack in the middle of the City of Angels, Griffith Park includes both municipal park areas with manicured lawns and tree-shaded picnic areas, and a natural Southern California wilderness area where the deer and the antelope still roam. All right, there aren’t any antelope, but there are definitely deer, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and a mountain lion or two. In addition to more than fifty miles of walking, hiking, and equestrian trails, Griffith Park is home to the Los Angeles Zoo, the Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theater, the Autry National Center Museum of the American West, the Travel Town Museum, the Ferndell Nature Museum, a bird sanctuary, two golf courses, a public swimming pool, pony rides, horse and bike rentals, the Griffith Park and Southern Railroad, and a mind-boggling number of other attractions.
As you can probably imagine, a thorough experience of Griffith Park would require multiple trips; however, it is possible in a single visit to get a good sampling of the park’s attractions. The following itinerary would work well for either an adult only group or for a group with children. Because the plan does require quite a bit of walking, much of it outside, make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes and sun protection. Though buses and shuttles do run in the park, it will be easier to stick to the itinerary if you have a car. Due to road closures, the distance between the various activities can be up to five miles, and sometimes will require leaving the park to get to the next destination.
Information regarding location, hours, and attractions is available on the City of Los Angeles website at www.lacity.org, keyword “Griffith Park.” It is a good idea to print a map from the site as maps do not seem to be readily available at the park itself. The park has a number of entrances. For the purpose of following this itinerary, enter the park through the Vermont Canyon Entrance off of Los Feliz Boulevard. If you visit on a weekday, keep in mind that the park’s location makes traffic inevitable, so plan accordingly. Soon after entering the park, you will pass by the Greek Theater on your left. The road then curves up to the left towards the Griffith Observatory. Follow it to the point where the road splits. Unless there is a sign or an employee instructing you to do otherwise, drive to the right through the tunnel. On the other side, go straight ahead towards the closed gate (as opposed to turning left). Usually there is room to park on the dirt shoulder of the road right before the closed gate; if not, there are various other parking places in the immediate area. Beyond the gate is Mount Hollywood Drive, a paved road that is closed to traffic. This is where your adventure begins.
8:00 – 9:45 AM Mount Hollywood Hike
Easily the most popular hike in Griffith Park is the one to Mount Hollywood. This is a relatively kid-friendly three mile walk primarily on a paved road. Though the walk is not strenuous, it does involve about six hundred feet of gain and is almost entirely unshaded. Getting an early start will allow you to avoid the heat of the day, which during the summer can often reach the 90s. At a leisurely pace with lots of stops, your group could complete the hike, including plenty of time at the top, in about an hour and a half.
Be warned that the signage leaves a lot to be desired–as of the publication of this article, there is no road sign for Mount Hollywood Road and while there are trail markers, they do not have any words on them. Although the hike is pretty straightforward, it is certainly possible to miss the turn onto the fire road if you are not paying attention. Essentially, you walk about a mile to a shaded picnic area at a bend in the road. At this point, you are just about even with the Hollywood sign. On the right, at the head of a dirt road, is a green trail marker with a very faint number 37 on it, and probably a pile of rocks on top. Follow this road in a general up direction, and you will eventually hit the summit. You will know you have arrived when you see metal hitching posts and a picnic area, and if it is a clear day, spectacular 360 degree views including the Pacific Ocean, Catalina Island, the entire L.A. Basin, the Santa Monica Mountain range, and the San Gabriel Valley and Mountains.
Note that this hike does not go directly to the Hollywood sign, but the sign, which is actually on Mount Lee, is visible almost the entire way. The closest you can get on any hike is near the radio towers behind it. Direct access is blocked by a fence, so unfortunately, if you are determined to climb on the letters or spray paint a Graucho Marx nose and glasses on the Os, you will probably have to abandon the remainder of this itinerary and contact your attorney.
10:00 AM – 12:30 PM Los Angeles Zoo
The next stop on the itinerary is the Los Angeles Zoo, located on Zoo Drive off Crystal Springs Road on the other side of the park. To get there, you will leave the park the way you came in. Logically, it does seem that you should be able to get from one side of the park to the other by going through the park, but due to restoration efforts following the fires, this does not appear to be possible. After exiting the park, turn left on Los Feliz Boulevard, then left again on Crystal Springs Road. You will drive three or four miles along Crystal Springs Road, which will give you a visual sampling of many of the park’s attractions. You will then come upon the zoo on your left hand side. Signs in this area are abundant and clear, so you should not have any difficulty.
The Los Angeles Zoo opened in 1966, but there was an earlier incarnation dating back to 1925 at another site in Griffith Park. The current zoo has upwards of 2000 animal residents representing 500 different species. Notably, the L.A. Zoo has been instrumental in protecting and breeding the endangered California Condor. Zoo hours are 10 AM to 5 PM everyday except Christmas. Adult admission (13 and up) is $12, child admission is $7, senior admission is $9, and children under two are free. Parking is also free. For further information, go to www.lazoo.org.
12:30 PM Lunch
At this point in the day, you will be famished. There are a few options for lunch. The zoo itself has seven restaurants. Across the street, the Museum of the American West also has the Golden Spur Café, which seems to be a little less crowed than the restaurants at the zoo. Or, you could pack a lunch ahead of time, and take advantage of one of the many peaceful, shaded picnic areas in the immediate vicinity of the zoo. You could even take this opportunity to have a nice siesta under a tree or, in the L.A. tradition, do a little yoga on the grass as rejuvenation for the second half of your excursion.
1:30 – 3:30 PM Autry National Center Museum of the American West
Once you’ve extricated yourself from Crane Pose and struck one more Downward Facing Dog for good measure, you can head on over to the Autry National Center Museum of the American West, directly across the street from the zoo. At present, the Autry Center has the Cowboys and Presidents exhibit, a show that travels nationwide. If you have been driving around L.A. at all, you have probably seen the Cowboys and Presidents posters of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat. The cowboy on the other poster is Gene Autry, a familiar face to older generations. The Autry Museum explores the history and experience of the American West through the eyes of all the cultures that have converged here.
Museum hours are 10 AM to 5 PM Tuesday through Sunday; it is closed on Mondays. Adult admission is $9; student, senior, and adult student with I.D. is $5; child admission is $3, and children under three are free.
3:45 PM Griffith Park and Southern Railroad
The Griffith Park and Southern Railroad is located near the intersection of Los Feliz and Riverside, back in the direction you came from after hiking to Mount Hollywood. A fixture in the park since 1948, the GP & S Railroad has two trains: the Colonel Griffith and the Freedom Train. For those of you old enough to be familiar with The Jerk, maybe you will recall the scene in which Steve Martin meets Bernadette Peters on the miniature train. You may want to use your memory of that scene as an example of how not to behave on your own ride. The track is about a mile long and runs through a Native American village, an Old West settlement, a meadow, and the pony rides, which the children in your group may become determined to surmount as well. Train fares are $2.50 general admission and $2.00 for seniors, and they run 10 AM to 5:00 PM weekdays and 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM during the summer, and 10 AM to 4:30 PM weekdays and 10 AM to 5:00 PM weekends during the winter.
4:30 PM Griffith Observatory and Planetarium
With Mount Hollywood, the L.A. Zoo, the Autry National Center, and the GP & S Railroad all securely under your belt, the final frontier of your excursion is the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium, a most appropriate way to conclude an action and information packed day. The building, perched on the south slope of Mount Hollywood above the L.A. Basin, is a recognizable landmark in itself, and has been featured in a number of movies, but probably most prominently in Rebel without a Cause. To get to the Observatory, enter the park the same way you did in the morning. You will either drive through the tunnel again or up the road to the left to the Observatory parking lot. Signs and probably traffic control personnel will point you in the right direction. There can be traffic complications, especially during the Greek Theater’s concert season–check out the Observatory website at www.griffithobservatory.org for tips on parking and for thorough information about exhibits, features, and public programs.
The newly expanded and renovated Griffith Observatory is open Tuesday through Friday from noon until 10 PM, and Saturday and Sunday from 10 AM to 10 PM; it is always closed on Monday. Admission to the Observatory is free, but the Planetarium is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and $3 for children between five and twelve years old; children under five are free, but there are restrictions for their admission. The Planetarium is popular and there is no advance ticket purchase. Still, if at all possible, you do not want to miss the show. As soon as you arrive, purchase tickets from the ticket counter or from a kiosk. You can peruse the exhibits while waiting for your show time-they are fascinating albeit slightly difficult to comprehend for those of us who never went beyond physical science in high school.
The Samuel Oschin Planetarium offers two programs: Centered in the Universe, which is scheduled all throughout the day and into the evening, and Water is Life, which is only presented twice daily. Water is Life takes the audience on a quest for water in space. On the other hand, Centered in the Universe takes a more philosophical approach by transporting viewers back in time, through space, and asking the really tough questions: How does the universe work? What are our origins and what is our place in all of this? And, most pressingly, where can we get a reasonably priced meal around here?
As evening descends, enjoy one last gaze across L.A. from your spot on the edge of Mount Hollywood. Contemplate not only the wonders of the day and the universe, but the perplexing yet somehow comforting nature of your role in all of it. Then drive out the Vermont Canyon Entrance, cross Los Feliz Boulevard, and go get yourself some grub.