Griffith Park, in the middle of Los Angeles, is an A-list natural celebrity.
We like things a little different in the West. A little bigger, a little wilder, a lot less stuffy. Take city parks. New York City has Central Park, a well-mannered rectangle. But in Los Angeles we have Griffith Park, a big, burly recreation area rambling over mountaintops, across freeways, clear to the Los Angeles River.
Unruly and in places untamed, Griffith Park preserves the spirit and trappings of the West, from the miniature railroads that travel its hills and dales to the horseback riders who descend its dusty arroyos. At 4,107 acres, Griffith Park is also among the biggest municipal parks in America—big enough to swallow four Central Parks and still have room for dessert.
Despite such expansiveness, it’s less the Blob That Ate Los Angeles than a friendly, Shreklike giant appealing to all ages. About 10 million people visit annually to enjoy its train museum, pony rides, carousel, equestrian center, zoo, observatory, Greek Theatre, Western history museum, and bird sanctuary, plus the baseball diamond, trails, picnic areas, golf courses, and tennis courts. Visitors to Los Angeles might spend a week discovering its treasures; for some locals, enjoying the park is a lifelong hobby.
That’s exactly what Colonel Griffith J. Griffith intended when, in 1896, he donated 3,015 acres of land to the city for use as a recreational haven. A mining speculator, Griffith also believed in energetic selfpromotion, and his generous gift assured him a golden footnote in local history. Until 1903, that is, when he shot his wife, who, he claimed, was trying to poison him in collusion with the pope.
Although Mrs.Griffith survived, the subsequent trial was the O.J. Simpson case of that time, and the Griffith name became irreparably tainted.
Few parkgoers today are aware of such silent-era melodramas. Now the most familiar name associated with the park is not Griffith J. Griffith but Gene Autry—singing cowboy and founder of the park’s Autry National Center and Museum of the American West.
Dedicated to the historical realities as well as the popular myths of the frontier, the museum’s collections include thought-provoking exhibits about the history of Western expansion as well as exhibits of Western movie costumes, rodeo gear, gambling paraphernalia, and Wild West toys. For everyone who grew up watching high-noon shoot-outs on the big screen, the display of antique pistols and rifles is a real draw. As for Gene Autry himself, the museum has only a small section devoted to his singing and acting career.
Griffith Park boasts not just one but three miniature railroads. Perhaps the very best of them is the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum, run by volunteer train enthusiasts often identifiable by their engineer caps and giddy grins as they take passengers through tunnels, over bridges, and past diminutive towns. Seeing these overgrown kids in action, you will not be surprised to learn that the red barn on the property once belonged to the most famous overgrown kid in Southern California: Walt Disney. In his beloved Carolwood Barn you can now see an exhibit on Walt’s backyard miniature railroad that includes engines and cars as well as the tools he used to maintain them.
Next door, another lilliputian rail line chugs around Travel Town, a train museum that explores the role of the railroad in Southern California’s development. Along with exhibits on the stationmasters, timekeepers, brakemen, and porters who kept the trains running smoothly, it features some 40 historic railcars and a locomotive from the famed Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line. Visitors can peer into, peek beneath, and climb aboard these aging giants, making this a popular place for kids.
Youngsters also love the nearby Los Angeles Zoo. Open-mouthed wonderment is a typical reaction when visitors encounter its menagerie of exotic animals: magical snow leopards, Masai giraffes, Arabian oryx with legs like pogo sticks, divaesque African cranes, and a 16-foot-long python.
Outside the zoo, however, one four-legged animal dominates the landscape. From the painted wooden stallions that circle the merry-go-round to the miniature ponies that take youngsters on their first bumpy rides, horses are everywhere. The Los Angeles Equestrian Center hosts a variety of activities, from rodeos and jumping competitions to Arabian horse shows; it even rents steeds to those who long to ride into a real Hollywood sunset.
Clip-clopping your way to the top of 1,625-foot-high Mount Hollywood, you’ll be joined by camera-laden tourists and rugged hikers, all intent on reaching one of the best views in town. At the summit, you’ll behold the entire city stretched out below, from the Pacific surf to the skyscrapers of downtown. Directly below the peak, the triple-domed Griffith Observatory looks forward to a November reopening after its four-year-long, $93 million renovation and expansion. The observatory now has a huge underground hall, more than 60 new exhibits, and a new planetarium projector to beam constellations onto its broad dome. Old favorites, such as the 12-inch telescope, the Foucault pendulum, and the rotunda murals by Hugo Ballin are still there, carefully preserved.
Finally, to the west, the park’s most-recognized feature—its iconic Hollywood sign—spreads across the face of Mount Lee. In fact, everywhere you turn, you’re confronted by another Griffith Park attraction, natural wonder, or vista. It’s a wild, uncorked, 360-degree experience. Just the way we West Coast folks like it.
Photography courtesy Griffith Observatory/Anthony Cook
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Griffith Park is located in Los Angeles, at the junction of Highway 134 and Interstate 5. For directions and information, contact the Park Ranger Station at (323) 913-4688 or visit www.laparks.org/dos/parks/griffithpk . Area code is 323 unless noted.
AUTRY NATIONAL CENTER, MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST
See the museum’s online calendar for live music events, lectures, and workshops. Autry Center also has the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, six miles from Griffith Park. 667-2000, www.autrynationalcenter.org .
LOS ANGELES ZOO AND BOTANICAL GARDENS
644-4200, www.lazoo.org .
LOS ANGELES EQUESTRIAN CENTER
(818) 840-9063, www.la-equestriancenter.com . Center Box Office sells tickets to the many equestrian events held here. (818) 840-9066, www.horseticket.com . Griffith Park Horse Rentals offers guided horseback rides and a sunset dinner ride. (818) 840-8401.
LOS ANGELES LIVE STEAMERS RAILROAD MUSEUM
Enjoy a free train ride on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 662-8030, www.lals.org .
GRIFFITH PARK OBSERVATORY
Because of the high attendance expected when the observatory reopens in November, admission will be by timed-entry reservation, and shuttles will be the only way to reach the observatory itself. Admission is free, but there is a charge for the shuttle. www.griffithobservatory.org .