Photograph by Dave Lauridsen
Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden
At the right moment—like, say, after a chocolate chip cookie from nearby Diddy Riese—the embrace of UCLA’s Mathias is like no other. It packs a lot into seven acres. You can shade yourself under enormous gum trees, gawk at the Hawaiian greenery, plant yourself in a stamp-size meadow, and walk from the desert into a fern-filled jungle in minutes. All the more soothing for being under-utilized, the thrumming refuge clings to the campus edge like an orchid on a mangrove. » 777 Tiverton Dr., Westwood, 310-825-1260.
A mini waterfall burbles while a stand of trees plays chorus, their leaves riffling in the breeze. The name of this verdant patch at the DoubleTree by Hilton may be aspirational, but three stories above the downtown streets of Little Tokyo, Kyoto Gardens is pure urban fantasy. Especially when you’re strolling the path with a mojito in hand (as the sign says, the space is intended for guests and patrons only). » 120 S. Los Angeles St., downtown, 213-629-1200.
Gardens of the World
The mind wanders as you’re driving up the 101 toward Thousand Oaks. A quick jog off the freeway, and your body can, too. The compact collection of landscape styles trots the globe, from a lush English rose garden to a placid Japanese garden to a truly grand French garden with tumbling fountains. The family behind Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays commissioned the green space, an unexpected (and free) side trip on your way to thither and yon. » 2001 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 805-557-1135.
Rancho Los Alamitos
Sure, the site is saturated with history, from Tongva settlements to a Spanish land grant to the arrival of the Bixbys, whose dealings helped spawn Long Beach. But first impressions are everything, and yours will be of passing a guard shack and traveling through a thicket of beige condos to arrive at a sprawling 7.5-acre park that’s green with ancient cacti, native botanicals, historic roses, and formal gardens conceived by the Olmsted brothers and set designer Florence Yoch. The adobe mansion recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. » 6400 Bixby Hill Rd., Long Beach, 562-431-3541.
Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden
Surrounded by parking lots and a busy thoroughfare, the roomy garden on the Cal State Long Beach campus is a Zen haven for students and those who seek escape from a city too urban for its own good. After traveling to Japan for inspiration, landscape architect Edward Lovell planted a sparse mix of local and Eastern flora in 1981, gambling on an aesthetic payoff 30 years later. It was a bet well placed. » 1250 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, 562-985-2169.
Into the Wild
Griffith has the name recognition and Angeles Crest the lore, but no landmass holds as many mysteries as Elysian Park
By RJ Smith
Ever since I moved to Echo Park 15 years ago, I’ve been living with and utterly failing to come to terms with the huge landmass that is Elysian Park. Most of L.A. only thinks it knows what’s here—cops, Dodgers, parking lots—but the place is sneaky. Truth is, Elysian is home to a parade of oddments and unexpected delights that you have to stumble across as often as you plan to find them. Low-riders flip the switches and promenade down a grand concourse of palm trees in an annual rite that predates the Dodgers. Fascinatingly whiskered young dog walkers are brought to a halt by the remains of mutilated goats. You can see gorgeous red-tailed hawks confused by the fanciful handmade birds an unknown local artist puts up in Elysian’s trees. It is where quinceañeras border guerrilla art openings under the noonday sun while the overgrown hillsides hide the community stables and tennis courts and arboretum planted here.
It seems good to know that Elysian Park is the oldest park in Los Angeles (opened in 1886) and the city’s second largest (604 acres). It seems somehow more important to know that at its birth Elysian Park was considered useless land, named after the spot in ancient Greece where vanquished heroes gathered. A place, in other words, where dead things collect as well as one where they sometimes come to life. Back in 1894, early 20th-century writer and explorer Charles Fletcher Lummis wrote that while “it is no exaggeration to say that this tract is capable of being transformed into the most unique and beautiful park in the United States, if not in the world...even by our own citizens it is as yet little known and appreciated...
Unless you live nearby or are looking for a new way to beat the traffic, you can drive to Dodger Stadium for years without seeing the solemn gates of the police academy or the fire department training facility that began as a naval armory built atop what was once a Jewish cemetery. Griffith Park has the Autry Museum; Elysian has the Barlow Respiratory Hospital, its low wood buildings—built for TB patients a century ago—a rustic Smurf village.
There are layers to Elysian, and unseen pockets engulfed in greenery. In that way Elysian still seems wild and unknowable, even when it’s right in front of me. Like the lime green lizard I saw skitter past on a recent walk. As long as the park has existed, there have been legends that Spanish settlers buried their gold in the hills and ravines of the area. Gold: It’s the quiet green spaces in a city short on them; it’s the connection to a past that is missing in so many other neighborhoods; it’s the Peter Shire monument to a pair of Echo Park activists that looks like a bizarre radio, and it’s among the oldest collection of trees in Los Angeles. Treasure in plain sight.