What is it about a picnic that’s so satisfying? Is it being in the sun? The good company? Or is it something else—perhaps an ancestral hunter-gatherer need to celebrate, in the elements, our hard-earned spoils. Whatever it is, we live in a world-class picnic city (the weather, the views, the food), and while you’ve maybe dined on the grass at The Getty or spread a Pendleton blanket at Palisades Park, the city is blessed with many off-the-beaten-path picnic spots.
Old Zoo, Griffith Park
The Old Zoo closed in 1966, but that doesn’t stop visitors from going there. Instead of macaws and monkeys in the cave enclosures, there are picnic benches and grills. Take the trail that starts near the picnic spot. It leads you to views of the lion’s den and more abandoned cages. Hike to Haunted Table 29, deep within the park. Legend has it a tree fell on the table—still there today—killing two lovers in the act.
Know before you go: Use GPS coordinates to get to the Old Zoo; there are no clearly marked signs. Pass the merry-go-round and go until the parking lot ends, then there’s a pretty obvious path from the lot. It’s a five-minute walk. Best to go on weekdays to avoid crowds. Because of its eerie vibe, the Old Zoo is transformed into a Halloween attraction in October.
Nicolas Pond, Malibu Springs Trail/Nicolas Flat, Malibu
This is a great spot for a short hike and a picnic—if you park at the top of the trail and take the shortcut. After an easy 10-minute walk (make sure to veer left at all forks), you’ll arrive at a little cattail-lined pond. If there has not been much rainfall, it may be completely drained. Bring blankets for sure—there’s only dirt to sit down on if you want to picnic on the edge of the pond. For just yourself or a party of two, you can snag the oak tree-framed bench atop the wooden deck. Most likely, the theme song to your picnic will be “I Think We’re Alone Now”—as in, you’ll be all by yourself. If you want to earn that foie gras and Camembert rolling around your rucksack, it’s roughly 2.9 miles to Nicolas Pond from the Leo Carrillo State Park parking lot off PCH.
Know before you go: The trail can be accessed from Decker School Road via Nicholas Flat Trail. From the PCH, head east on Decker Road. After 2.4 miles make a slight left onto Decker School Road. Continue on the road around a series of turns until the end. Street parking is available. No fee necessary.
Red Rock Canyon Hike, Topanga
How about an intimate tête-à-tête within a hollowed rock? This hike offers several options. As lovers of the written word, we’re partial to the spot with its very own guestbook. Off of Old Topanga Canyon Road, follow Red Rock Road until it ends at a white gate. (Yes, the off-the-grid, pothole-ridden dirt road is all part of the adventure.) Once on the trail, follow the fire road until it comes to a junction. Turn right, walk roughly 5 to 10 minutes and look to the left for an inviting oblong-shaped cave. On the way to Calabasas Peak, it will be the first of many to come. Here, albeit a bit cramped, there is room up for several people to spread out in the shade. Unlike nearby Topanga State Park, you might not see a soul, even on a weekend. Leave your words of wisdom in the cave diary.
Know before you go: Park entrance fee is $5. Hours: Sunrise to Sunset. Driving directions.
Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood
Picnicking before a summer show at the Hollywood Bowl can be the opposite of chill – massive crowds, parking headaches, scarf-down-your-food eating. Kind of makes you wish there was a way to make all the crowds and cars go away, right? Well, one of the most hidden picnic spots in the city is also one of the most well-known. The Hollywood Bowl isn’t just a summer concert venue. It’s a city park—open every day of the year from sunrise to sunset. During the offseason, on-site parking is free, all of the picnic areas are fair game, and the uniquely surreal experience of sitting in the empty 18,000 seat bowl is a reality. Of course, the downside is Suzanne Goin’s street tacos aren’t an option.
Know before you go: There are 14 numbered picnic areas in and around the Hollywood Bowl. Once you’re inside the Bowl grounds, go for Picnic Area 7, right before the entrance to Sections Q-X, for the best city views. Picnicking inside the empty bowl sounds great, but be aware that eating on the benches or in the seats isn’t very user-friendly. Off-season is September 28 through June 19 (dates vary depending on season). Park hours: Dawn to dusk.
Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, Compton
If you’re in the mood for a beautiful garden space, you could drop $25 and go to Huntington Gardens. But one thing you’re not allowed to do there is: picnic. Enter Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, South LA’s lesser-known answer. Located in Compton, the park boasts pecan and avocado trees, a cactus garden, wetlands and a citrus orchard. There is a central picnic area with a number of tables, and if you continue north on the walking path past the amphitheater, near the cannons (yes, this park has an amphitheater AND cannons), you’ll find what you’re looking for—a single, solitary, hidden picnic table. There are three different species of hummingbirds that frequent this section of the park, so you may have a welcoming committee.
Know before you go: Both onsite parking and entrance are free. It’s a dirt lot inside the park, so if you want to keep your car squeaky clean, street parking is available.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley
During his farewell speech at the end of his second term President Reagan said, “All great change begins at the dinner table.” So it should come as no surprise that his Presidential Library offers a well-cultivated eating area open for public use. Located just off of the main parking lot, it’s a spot most first-time visitors don’t know about. The tables have some trees for shade and offer views of purple (OK, maybe not purple) mountain majesties.
Know before you go: Parking and picnicking are free. Though if you want to party like it’s 1989 and check out the Berlin Wall inside the Library. Admission is $21 for adults and $10-$15 for kids.
Sequit Point, Leo Carrillo State Park State Beach, Malibu
Although a popular beach hangout, you can escape the throngs if you stroll south until you can’t any longer. At the bottom of the sandstone boulder that’s blocking the path, there’s a small triangular entrance. Get on your hands and knees and wiggle your way through (roughly a few seconds). Trust us, it’s worth the spelunking. The entrance opens up to a dramatic, high-ceilinged alcove. Make sure you time your picnic during low tide—otherwise it’ll be more like a scene from Titanic rather than Thomas Cole’s The Picnic.
Know before you go: $12 all day parking with plenty of spots in the lot or free parking on PCH; Hours: 8 AM – 10 PM.
Fire Station 109, Encino
If privacy is your primary goal, this spot is it. Park across the street at the Groves Overlook (look for the official signage). Walk across the street and follow a worn, paved road up the hill for roughly a minute. Just beyond the relic LAFD helipad, slightly to your right, a spacious, level dirt patch beckons a blanket and your best baguette and charcuterie combo. Even though the spot is perched above Mulholland, it’s relatively quiet, and cars zipping by aren’t visible. What is in view is a panoramic Valley vista.
Glen Haven Memorial / Sholom Memorial Park, Sylmar
One of LA’s best-kept secrets for nature lovers, Glen Haven Memorial is located high above the San Fernando Valley. On a clear day views include the San Gabriel Mountains and even the ocean. To spot wildlife, like deer, owls and coyotes, best to do a breakfast or brunch picnic. In addition to the natural attractions, there’s the supernatural as well. At the entrance of Sholom Memorial Park is a gravity hill. If you stop your car at the bottom of the dip and put it in neutral, it will roll uphill (here’s a video — it has foul language). And we have heard there is bronze statue in the children’s section that roams the ground at night, and other ghost sightings have been reported.
Know before you go: Open daily. Bring a blanket; there are no tables. Restrooms available inside the visitor’s center from 9 AM – 4:30 PM. Avoid visiting in the summer when the hills are brown—unless you’re into that kind of thing.