Five times the size of New York’s Central Park, Griffith Park was designated as a historic-cultural monument in 2009, protecting it from future development. Angelenos should be thankful to Griffith J. Griffith, a Welsh real estate developer who gifted the land to the city in 1896 as a “place of recreation and rest for the masses.” The result for us has been access to fantastic hiking trails, a home to some of our most iconic museums, and a wealth of other family activities. Lucky Los Feliz and Burbank families can call Griffith Park their local; for the rest of us it's worth setting aside a little time to be surprised by all that Griffith Park has to offer; there are probably one or two items on this list even locals didn't know about!
Most of us know Griffith Park as a place for hiking, picnicking, and birthday parties. We’ve probably been to the Los Angeles Zoo and Travel Town. Many of us have made it to the Observatory, Autry Western Heritage Museum and Greek Theatre. There’s a Halloween Train in October, Christmas lights in December and al fresco Shakespeare in the summer; but there is even more to the park’s 4,218 acres.
1. Birthplace of Disneyland
Have your kids ridden this carousel? Built in 1926 with every horse a jumper and the largest band organ on the west coast, this Merry Go Round also happens to be the very spot where Walt Disney dreamed up his theme park. Like so many dads, young Walt would take his daughter to the carousel and watch her ride. While doing so he got the idea of creating a place with rides for adults: Disneyland. The bench where this deep contemplation took place is still going round there and worth a visit.
2. All Aboard, All Aboard, All Aboard
Griffith Park has not one, not two, but three (count ‘em) trains to ride. Travel Town is no secret, but the Live Steamers just next door may be. A club for train enthusiasts, Live Steamers invites the public to ride its large scale models on Sundays. Finally, the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad (right next to the ponies) travels through a meadow, old west town, and Native American village.
3. Giddy Up
Again, everybody knows about the pony rides in Griffith Park, but what about the horses? There is an abundance of specially marked trails for riders in the park, and while the park itself does not handle rentals, Sunset Ranch offers guided horseback tours in the park, including rides to the Hollywood sign and sunset rides with a stop for dinner.
4. Fly High
If horses and trains are too old school, there is also a flight simulator right by the ponies and trains on Crystal Springs Drive. My son loved doing this with his grandpa.
Photo by Downtowngal/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
5. Griffith Park Observatory
You could easily spend an entire day just at the Observatory—though since admission is free, there is also no shame in making it a quick stop to take in the iconic views (down at the city and up at the Hollywood sign), to see how many movies you can name that use it as a backdrop, and to figure out what keeps that giant pendulum swinging in the lobby.
6. Universal Access Playground
Dedicated to the memory of Shane Williams, who died of spinal muscular atrophy, Shane’s Inspiration in the center of the park near the Merry-Go-Round is one of the city's most famous outdoor play areas, and a fully accessible disabled children’s playground.
7. Fine Dining for Hikers
The Trails Café at the bottom of the Observatory has sandwiches, sweet treats, and something called a snake dog which is a hot dog on a stick wrapped in pastry. Located in a rustic, woodsy part of the park, it’s the perfect stop if you forgot to pack a picnic.
Who knew that Griffith Park has more places to play golf, including a club, than trains to ride? That’s right: four golf courses. Two with 18 holes, two with 9 holes.
9. Sleepaway Camp
Griffith’s Camp Hollywoodland for girls and Griffith Park Boys camp offer our young urbanites a chance to slumber in nature without leaving the city. The camps have been operating since 1925 and were part of Griffith's original vision for the land.
P-22 is Griffith Park's biggest celebrity. Photo courtesy of National Park Service
10. Mountain Lion and Other Wildlife
Griffith Park has been home to a few famed mountain lions through the years, including the park's current biggest feline celebrity, namely the freeway-crossing P22—whom some also suspect of killing the zoo's koala. Needless to say, these beautiful cats are also predators. While a lion encounter could indeed be frightening, pumas are by nature somewhat anti-social and prefer to keep to themselves. It is unlikely that these cats will appear where kids and families congregate, but looking for big pawprints on the trail keeps a family hike lively!
11. Hungry Hippos
Speaking of wildlife, there is more to the LA Zoo than meets the eye (even to P-22). It's worth mentioning that there are a few unusual animal encounters offered at the zoo to get a kid excited. How about getting up close with a baby hippo or mingling with flamingos?
12. Bike Rentals
Local cycle shop Spokes ‘n' Stuff has a concession right next to the ranger station on Crystal Springs Drive. Check the web site or call first as hours are variable, and weekday rentals are cash only.
Sunnyday Scoot's mini-cars turn the whole park into a theme park ride. Photo by Mommy Poppins
For a totally unique way to experience Griffith Park, Sunnyday Scoot offers a thrilling ride that doesn't let anyone switch off in the back seat. Spend an hour exploring several of the park's high points in a vehicle that makes onlookers shout and wave.
14. Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da Batcave!
Like so many locations in our city, show biz is an important part of the history of Griffith Park. The Hollywood sign is within its boundaries. Many films and television shows have been shot here: D.W. Griffith (no relation) filmed parts of Birth of a Nation on the grounds, and the climax of Rebel Without a Cause takes place at the Observatory. But the best-known location without a doubt is The Bronson Cave which is actually a man-made tunnel carved into the rock wall of a former quarry. It served as the entrance to Batman’s lair and was featured prominently in John Ford’s The Searchers, among many others.