Nestled in the mountains between the trendy neighborhood of Los Feliz and the San Fernando Valley communities of Glendale and Burbank lies Griffith Park, a Los Angeles wonder. At more than 4,000 acres, it is one of the largest city parks in the country (more than five times the size of Central Park in New York, for example), a mixture of attractions, green spaces, and mountainous trails. But what inspired the creation of Griffith Park? And more importantly, what are the best things to do there? Here is all you need to know!
A successful mining investor named – of all things – Griffith J. Griffith purchased Rancho Los Feliz in 1882 to start – of all things – an ostrich farm for feathers to be used in women’s hats and coats. Apparently tiring of this, in 1896 he donated more than 3,000 acres of his rancho to the city of Los Angeles, who quickly turned it into an urban park.
Over the decades, Griffith Park has seen a lot of transformation. It has held an aerodrome and a detention center for Japanese Americans during World War Two. It has been built on – the Greek Theatre in 1930 and Griffith Observatory in 1935 still stand – and built around, as an expansion of the park in 1944 had it completely surround the Hollywoodland development. (You’ll know Hollywoodland as the original builders of the Hollywood sign, which used to include -land, to attract buyers to their community.)
Today, Griffith Park attracts Angelenos and tourists alike to both its outdoor spaces and attractions. Fifty-three miles of designated hiking trails (some suitable for horses) cross the mountainous terrain, offering some of the best views of the surrounding areas as hikers make their way up the hillsides. Picnickers enjoy the countless green areas and reservable tables, while children flock to the 1926 merry-go-round, said to have inspired Walt Disney to build the carousel at Disneyland.
Any exploration of Griffith Park has to begin at the Observatory, a building that, along with the aforementioned Hollywood Sign, dominates the view of the Hollywood Hills from the city side (as opposed to the valley side). Made famous in James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause and appearing in more than two dozen films, this free museum offers some great exhibits on astronomy, looks through its telescope during special occasions (I saw Haley’s Comet here as a child), and some of the best views of Los Angeles. For those into hiking, the hike up to the Observatory is steep, but fun. Or you can just arrive later in the day, where overflow parking backs up halfway down the hill anyway, forcing visitors to hike up the road.
On the other side of Griffith Park lie the Los Angeles Zoo and neighboring Gene Autry Museum of the American West. The LA Zoo was founded in 1966, and houses close to 300 species of animals, in addition to some truly lovely plants as part of the botanical gardens. However, the highlight of the LA Zoo is what is not on exhibit. In the 1980s, the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos partnered to help save the California Condor, one of the largest flying birds. From a low of just 22, there are now close to 500 of these magnificent creatures, many released back into their native habitats in California and Arizona. The LA Zoo also seems to have an incredible giraffe breeding program, as there seems to be a baby every time I visit! (On a personal note, I spent my high school years as a student docent at the zoo, and my aunt continues to volunteer there to this day.)
For those interested in zoological history, check out the remains of the old Griffith Park Zoo, now a picnic area with some great hiking behind. Dating back to 1912, it is eye opening to say the least, as the remaining enclosures are tiny.
The Autry Museum was founded in 1988, and contains one of the largest collections of artifacts of the American West – and Native American tribes local to the area – in the country. Unsurprisingly, it also holds a huge collection of memorabilia of its namesake, Gene Autry, the cowboy singer and actor, and later Los Angeles and Orange County business magnate, including long-time owner of the then-California (now Los Angeles) Angels of Major League Baseball.
Do you like trains? Of course you do! At the northern edge of Griffith Park is Travel Town, a free outdoor train museum, with 43 original railroad engines and cars, some of which can be climbed on and in, and one of which can be rented out for birthday parties. Most of the items here were used in the American West between the 1880s and 1930s, and any railroad enthusiast will enjoy a stroll along them.
In addition, Griffith Park has a public golf course, athletic fields, the earlier mentioned Greek Theatre (I don’t have a photo since I haven’t been to a concert there since a childhood Peter, Paul, and Mary experience), and my favorite thing, a resident Shakespeare company performing for free during the summer. And its central location makes Griffith Park accessible for pretty much everyone, a lovely meeting spot for Angelenos of all stripes, one of the few places in LA that everyone agrees is a go-to gem.
Griffith Park has come a long way since being an ostrich farm for Griffith Griffith. I am excited to see where it goes over the coming decades!
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