There are ten million people in Los Angeles County, but on a recent morning, only one (besides me) had the idea to hike up Mount Lee in Griffith Park just after 6 a.m.
A transplant from Michigan, I live on the Eastside, near Dodger Stadium—walking distance to Elysian Park and Echo Park Lake. So when friends rave about Griffith, I tend to ignore them. The park is impressive, sure—4,000-plus acres (about five times the size of New York’s Central Park) and more than 70 miles of hiking trails making up a swath of land donated to the city in 1896 by mining magnate Griffith J. Griffith. But what did I need with a Marvel blockbuster when I had a pair of charming indies right in my own backyard?
Then my editor (hi, Marielle) asked me if I’d spend an entire day there, sunup to sundown, for this assignment, the idea being simply to prove that it can be done (since most sane people see only a fraction of the park for a fraction of time). Which is how I ended up behind the Hollywood sign at dawn totally of my own accord.
The majestic views of a sleepy city doused in pinkish early morning light put a pretty swift end to any blasé feelings I had about Griffith. Afterward, I grabbed an egg-in-a-basket situation from the Trails café before setting of to explore a park that (surprise) turned out to be unlike any other I’ve been to—a strange intersection of wilderness and domestication.
Case in point: One second I’m on a dusty trail with a 60-year-old guy who’s rocking a sweaty bandanna like a young Bruce Springsteen, the next I’m roaming a world-class collection of Native American pottery, leather goods, and weaponry (think Annie Oakley’s pearl-studded guns) at the Autry Museum of the American West. As a docent taught a group of rapt kids how to pan for gold, I couldn’t help but think that the institution, which sits across from the L.A. Zoo, doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves in this city.
Later I swung by the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad, with people chugging along on miniaturized reproductions of classic rail cars. Did I have time to visit the full-size trains at the park’s Travel Town or the teeniest of them all at the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum? Not if I wanted to get to the park’s main attraction, Griffith Observatory, where the Zeiss telescope has had more eyes pressed to it than any other in the world. After admiring the Art Deco architecture, I dipped into the planetarium’s domed theater for an intergalactic documentary (a steal at $7). But that was all I had time for. The day was short, and I was eager to snooze under a sycamore.
I’d heard Griffith offers pony rides. The abandoned animal cages from the city’s original zoo were somewhere, too. Of the many ways I could’ve spent my final hours in the park—crashing some kid’s nearby birthday party being one of them—I decided to end the day the same way I started it: on a peak.
This time it would be Mount Hollywood, one of Griffith’s highest mountains. A fellow hiker pointed me up a steep ridge trail with views of the Greek Theatre nestled in a stand of trees. A museum, a train station, a planetarium, an amphitheater, and acres upon acres of open land—as I rose higher on the trail, Griffith’s singular tangle of motley delights seemed more like the contents of an invisible giant’s toy box.
I will admit—and not just to please my editor—that I felt a certain reverence for the park as the list of things I’d have to do some other time grew. The Bronson Caves, from the original Batman series? Yup. The greenscape of Fern Dell? You bet. The golf course? Eh, maybe not.
I came over a rise and found myself face to face with a lone coyote, which considered me for a couple of beats before vanishing into the underbrush. It was a mystical feeling to be in a place that is as tame as it is wild—enough so to make me forget that I was in the heart of one of the country’s biggest metropolises.
Finally I reached the top. To the west, the Pacific Ocean; to the south, Catalina Island and the dockyards of Long Beach; to the north, the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriels; and all around, a blanket of sparkling city lights. It only took a writing assignment and 18 hours for me to become a Griffith Park convert.
So like any respectable Angeleno, I pulled out my phone to capture a classic L.A. sunset from one of the best perches in town.
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