Hidden Gem: Ferndell is an Outdoor Oasis in the Middle of the City
While it’s not exactly a secret, Ferndell has remained—almost exclusively—a locals-only walking trail in the middle of Griffith Park where you can always find a swath of green space where your crew can run free, along with lots and lots of cool shade from the forest trees above. (Yes, even on the hottest days of summer.) Hunt crawdads and tadpoles, wonder at the hanging ferns, and play on the bridges. As if this weren’t enough, at the end of the Ferndell Trail and in the shadow of Griffith Observatory, you’ll find one of LA’s greatest secret treasures: The Trails Cafe, where a cool drink and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie await. Read on for the scoop on spending a day at this lovely little nook in the heart of the city.
Cars drive right over this little oasis on the bridge above, and never even know it's there.
Hidden in Plain Sight
You may have driven past Ferndell on your way up to the observatory, through Griffith Park. To find the entrance, enter Griffith Park through the Western Canyon entrance (the entrance is on Fern Dell Dr., off of Los Feliz Blvd.). Several trails run through the general Ferndell area, but you're looking for the actual Ferndell Nature Museum. (No, it's not an actual museum, it's just a walking path with a funny name.) To get there, on the left side of the road, about 250 yards from the entrance, you will see a trailhead with an arch overhead that reads, FERNDELL. From the road, it seems pretty unremarkable, but as soon as you step foot on the walking path that gently meanders alongside a small running creek filled with frogs and crawdads, you'll know you've found something special.
Ferndell, Ferndale, Fern Dell, or the Nature Museum
Ferndell, also commonly referred to as “Ferndale” or “Fern Dell”, is a literal dale of ferns. The ferns, along with the spring-fed creek, create a tropical climate that houses many a critter, both in the trees above and in the water below. More than fifty fern species burst from the pathway and climb the brick walls. It’s a tiny tropical paradise right in the middle of the city. The LA Parks Department created this little oasis over 100 years ago and was expanded during the Depression.
This is the entrance to the Ferndell Trail.
It's a gorgeous quarter of a mile trail that is completely shaded. There never seem to be any crowds, which is one of the perks of being hidden in plain sight. (The tourists flocking to the Observatory never seem to find it.) The air is thick here, and the pathway is moist; I walked the trail with a stroller, sidestepping some mud. It’s a very special little walk, offering a multitude of surprises from Mother Nature—everywhere you look there’s fascinating flora and fauna to take in!
Crawdads scurry along the creek bed.
My kids were particularly curious about the crawdads which were plentiful when we recently visited. You can also find snails, koi, tadpoles, and loads of birds. Walk over bridges, around the mud, and see if you can find the man-made "Fountain of Youth."
At the end of the trail, a few hundred feet across the street, tucked under a verdant overhang, is an aged wooden building that pumps out the most glorious of bakery smells ... Some days, you can literally follow your nose to this delightful little hideaway called The Trails Cafe...
Under the boughs of trees sits the Trails Cafe.
The Trails Cafe
“Trails,” as locals call the cafe, has no website and the last post on their Facebook page is from 2016. I still run into people who live mere miles from this gem and have no idea it’s there! Advertising almost seems contrary to the very essence of why us Angeleno love this place so much—it’s a respite from the hustle and bustle. However, once discovered, folks return again and again, and bring their friends, for playdates, low-key birthday parties, or just an everyday escape for a few hours to commune with nature and a cup of coffee.
Okay, I’ll be honest, sometimes I bypass the trail and head straight to The Trails Cafe for a playdate or to chat with another parent while our kids play tag or climb a tree. It’s truly incredible that this tiny little spot in the woods can pull off such amazing culinary feats. The cafe makes fresh nut milk for lattes, house-made nut butter for the PB&J, incredible pies are baked daily, there is a full espresso bar, addictive strawberry lemonade, and scones you'll dream about.
Behold the beloved Snake Dog! There have been tears when kids have to wait for a fresh batch to bake.
Kids love the ever-popular Snake Dog, which is an all-beef hotdog wrapped in a puff pastry and served with a small side of fresh berries. You simply can’t leave without ordering one of their signature sweets: a perfectly flavored scone, lavender shortbread, or a slice of seasonal pie. The hardest part about visiting here is the realization that you can’t try it all, and I tell you from experience, the only solution to this quandary is to return until you’ve done just that!
Seating is easy and casual: there are several concrete picnic tables under a canopy of trees. There is lots of space around each table so when the kids are done with their Snake Dogs, they can play hide-and-seek.
Nature and structure are side by side at this playground in the forest.
But Wait, There’s More
Across the street from The Trails Cafe, is an open space that’s perfect for bird watching or for active kiddos to scurry up boulders that line a dry riverbed. To the north of this space is a large, new play structure. My kids always end up splitting their time between the human-made structure and the nature-made invitations to play—hanging on trees, “fencing” with sticks, or scrambling across fallen logs. There are also picnic tables here and plenty of space to spread out a blanket.
If you really want to make an afternoon of it and aren't satisfied with sitting at a cafe and eating pie, you can convince the crew to hike to the Griffith Park Observatory.
The upward trails to the observatory start at the playground and end at the iconic white dome that is the Griffith Observatory. There are two trail options here and both land you in the same spot. Be warned that both of these trails, unlike the greater Fernell area, are sparse on shade and though the trails are relatively short (2 miles round trip), they are uphill (about 580 ft of elevation gain) and if the weather is warm, you will want to remember your hats and water bottles.
Playing in the dry riverbed by the playground.
Know Before You Go:
- There is street parking all along the road in Ferndell, but if it’s a busy day, about a block past The Trails Cafe, you will find a parking lot and could walk the Ferndell Pathway in reverse.
- Best to avoid typical peak rush lunch hour! Come early or late to avoid the lines at The Trails Cafe. The weekends are much busier than the weekdays, as a lot of weekend hikers end their trek at the cafe.
- Pack a blanket: If you come at a time when the cafe is busy, you can simply spread a blanket if no tables are available.
- The cafe is closed Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s open from 8am-2pm on all other days.
All photos by the author