Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California is one of the largest urban parks in the world. It covers over four thousand acres, in the Los Feliz neighborhood with Burbank to the North and Glendale to the East, running along the 5 freeway. It’s even bigger than Central Park in New York. The park is an outdoor oasis at the center of Southern California’s largest and busiest city, and there are a ton of fun things to do there. You might even be surprised to find some Hollywood history hiding between the trees and picnic benches.
The park’s land was donated by Griffith J. Griffith (yes, really) in 1896. He had plans to build an observatory, planetarium, and amphitheater but was unfortunately convicted for killing his wife which in turn tainted his reputation, and the city refused to take his money. It wasn’t until after he died that they started working on his plans. Eventually the Griffith Observatory and Greek Theater were built with the help of the WPA in the 1930s. More land was donated over time bringing the total acreage to 4,310.
The park is at once wild and nostalgic. The art deco architecture of its most iconic buildings adds a historic flair that fits right in with old Los Angeles and Hollywood. The open park space is great for picnicking, birthday parties, or just chilling on a blanket with some friends or a good book. Contained within Griffith Park is a treasure trove of things to do, most of which are free or low cost – perfect for the thrifty traveler, or local. Read on for my list of Griffith Park must sees!
The Griffith Observatory is one of my favorite places, not just in Griffith Park but in Los Angeles. Griffith J. Griffith wanted to build an observatory/planetarium that was accessible to everyone, feeling that most observatories were on an obscure mountain only accessible to scientists. Well, he got his wish. With free admission, iconic architecture, and prime location in Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory is one of the most popular destinations in the area. Parking is a little tricky, especially right before sunset and especially on nights they host star parties so be sure to get there earlier, or be prepared to sit in a lot of traffic and walk a far distance.
The Observatory has two telescopes on either end of the building. A Zeiss refracting telescope and a coelostat (solar telescope). There are also usually two smaller, modern, but still very powerful telescopes set up on the lawn in front of the Observatory in the evenings. Once a month the Observatory hosts what is known as a ‘star party’ where amatur astronomers from local clubs bring their own telescopes, each pointing at something different in the night sky.
Inside the building are other cool exhibits including a pendulum and a Tesla Coil on the first floor. Downstairs you’ll find a super rad exhibit describing details about the planets (even Pluto!) and a scale at each exhibit so you can see how much you weigh on every planet. In the space where Earth should be in this display there is a small area with information about Earth including seismometer that detects earthquakes. Two of the drums record local and regional earthquakes and one of the drums records the earthquake you create by jumping up and down in this room. Science is so much fun!
Address: 2800 E Observatory Rd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Hollywood Sign and Bronson Canyon
The massive white block letters that make up the Hollywood Sign are probably the most recognizable landmark in Southern California. Each letter is 44-feet tall, making the sign clearly visible from its post atop Mount Lee. Griffith Observatory is a perfect viewing location for the sign, as well as the rest of the Hollywood basin, but did you know you can hike up to the sign itself? The sign has been fenced off to keep people from climbing on it but you can hike up to Mount Lee from Bronson Canyon to a point behind the sign, which also gives you a really great view of Los Angeles that stretches all the way out to downtown. Since that famous LA smog is prevalent most of the time, and some days worse than others, it’s best to go on a clear day. Your best chance of predicting this kind of clarity is to go right after a heavy rain. Just take extra precautions since the trail could still be muddy.
This hike is one of the most popular hikes in Los Angeles – you will never get lost or need to fear what might happen if you hike alone because there will be several hundred other people there to follow or ask for help. However, this is not the easiest hike despite its popularity. It’s mostly straight up the side of the mountain with short periods of flat trail. Also, having basically no shade, be sure to come prepared – bring lots of water, sunscreen, a hat, etc. and start as early as possible to get cooler temperatures and less of a crowd.
As a bonus, before heading up the trail, follow the access road that curves off to the right from Canyon Drive to check out the Bronson Caves. These caves have been used in a bunch of movies and tv shows, probably most famously as the entrance to the Batcave in the Adam West Batman series.
Parking Location: 3200 Canyon Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90068
Old Los Angeles Zoo
Speaking of hiking, there’s another super secret, but super popular, hike at the site of the original Griffith Park Zoo. Open from 1912 the small zoo proved to be quite popular. After the Los Angeles Zoo was built in 1966, the now ‘old’ zoo was abandoned and a few picnic tables were installed.
The site is easy to get to, the hike only being uphill for the first portion. The old enclosures are still standing, albeit somewhat overgrown and covered in graffiti. The creepiness of an abandoned zoo is mingled with the rebelliousness of urban exploring, making the Old Los Angeles Zoo a really cool place for exploration, hiking, or photography. And it’s dog friendly!
Parking Location: Upper parking lot, off Fire Road GPS info: 4730 Crystal Springs Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90027 (address for Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round)
Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round
For some reason carousels and public parks seem to fit together like peanut butter and jelly. And in this instance, Griffith Park is no different than other parks in the country. The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round is located just below the trail head for the Old Los Angeles Zoo. The Merry-Go-Round was built in 1926, brought to Griffith Park in 1937 and features 68 intricately carved horses all of which are jumping. But this Merry-Go-Round also has a connection with a certain popular attraction over in Orange County that I bet you’ve heard of.
If you’ve ever heard of the origins of how Walt Disney decided to build Disneyland, you know that it came to him while sitting on a bench, watching his two young daughters playing together on a Sunday afternoon. He thought, “wouldn’t it be nice to have a place where daddies and daughters can play together?” Well, wouldn’t you know it? The place his children were playing was the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round.
Address: 4730 Crystal Springs Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Griffith Park & Southern Railroad
In the Southeast corner of the park, you’ll find the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad. This miniature railroad was established in the park in 1947. At 18 ½ inches gauge, the tracks as well as the train itself are a third the size of a standard locomotive. The train travels through open fields, over bridges, and through a Griffith Gulch, a propped up western town. Rides cost $2.75.
Location: 4400 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Los Angeles Live Steamers & Carolwood Barn
The Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum is located at the northwest corner of the park. This railroad is an even smaller scale than the GPS Railroad. It’s an ⅛ th scale of a standard railroad with only 7 ½ inches between rails. Everything from the landscaping to the track to the trains are built and maintained by members of the museum. There are several types of locomotives including electric, steam, and diesel so each time you visit you could be pulled by a different train!
Railroad open Sundays. Tickets are a donation of $3.
Story Time: The first time I visited this museum, my friend Molly and I accidentally broke in. It was closed, but the gate was open, so we went exploring. We walked all around the tracks until getting caught by some of the guys working there, who very kindly asked us to leave. We did get to walk around long enough that we got to see some of the incredible details the members of the museum have put into the tracks that wouldn’t normally be seen from the train.
Within the tracks of the LALS museum are a few historic train cars, and an old barn. The barn is another piece of Disneyland history, as it belonged to the legend himself. Walt Disney was a member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad and would tinker around in his barn working on trains at his home in the Hollywood hills. The barn would have been destroyed if it wasn’t for the interference of Walt’s daughter and the LALS museum. It was dismantled and rebuilt on this spot in Griffith Park. It’s open to the public the 3rd Sunday of the month. I haven’t timed my trips properly yet but hopefully I’ll be able to see the inside soon!
Location: 5202 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90027
There is so much to see and do in Griffith Park, it’s taken me several trips to see everything that I have seen, and there are still things that I haven’t had a chance to see yet, like the Los Angeles Zoo, Greek Theater, or the Autry Museum of the American West.
Griffith Park, specifically the Griffith Observatory, and the streets in the area, has also been used in countless movies and TV shows for decades. I’ve already mentioned the Bronson Caves and their associations with the 1960s Batman, but the Observatory has been famously used in tons of movies from Rebel Without a Cause to La La Land. The tunnel leading to the Observatory if you are heading up Vermont Canyon Road has been used in both Back To The Future II and Roger Rabbit.
Have you ever been to Griffith Park? What’s your favorite thing to do? Let me know in the comments!