Griffith Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the world, holds plenty of surprises for the hiker. Among these surprises is Beacon Hill, which offers grand views of the Los Angeles metropolis today, and a nostalgic look back at the early days of flight.
Long before Los Angeles International Airport was constructed, Glendale's Grand Central Airport was the Southland's main terminal. During the 'teens and '20s, bankers, businessmen, politicians and Hollywood stars (commercial air travel was not for the masses in those days) boarded planes on the runways next to San Fernando Road. Flying to the East Coast was a several-day, many-stop journey.
Atop Beacon Hill was a beacon, illuminated at night to warn approaching aircraft of the high Hollywood Hills near the airport. The beacon is long gone, but you can still get a pilot's eye view of Los Angeles from the summit of Beacon Hill.
Beacon Hill, as well as some of the other wilder Hollywood Hills within Griffith Park, forms the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers the hiker a taste of the range's cliffs and crags. From the park's merry-go-round and picnic grounds, Beacon Hill Trail winds through sweet-smelling chaparral and exotic plants.
What I've dubbed "Beacon Hill Trail" is actually a combination of Fern Canyon Trail, Upper Beacon Trail, Coolidge Trail and Lower Beacon Trail. The route not only climbs Beacon Hill but completely circles it.
This four-mile workout offers a way for downtown workers to unwind; the tranquil trail around the hills is also a healthy way to wait out rush hour. Take off a wee bit early from work, or take advantage of next week's longer daylight hours and head for the Griffith Park hills. From atop Beacon Hill, you can survey your commute route--the Pasadena, Golden State and Ventura freeways.
Directions to trailhead: From the Golden State Freeway (I-5) just north of downtown Los Angeles, exit on Los Feliz Boulevard and head west a short way to Griffith Park's Crystal Springs Drive. Turn right and continue to a junction with the park's ranger station on your right (where you can stop for a map and trail information). From this junction, turn left on the road leading to the park's merry-go-round. Park in the lower lot below the merry-go-round.
The Hike: Walk up the short asphalt road below the parking lot. The first trail on your left that you'll spot, signed, "No Bicycles Allowed" will be your return route from Beacon Hill. Ignore a second trail on your left, the Fern Canyon Nature Trail (a wonderful side trail but not part of this hike) and walk 40 yards along the bridle trail to a three-way junction at a large eucalyptus tree.
Bear left on unsigned Fern Canyon Trail and ascend the wide path into the brushy hills. Clouds of ceanothus accent the sandstone cliffs. You'll soon cross an old stone bridge and climb through a mixture of pine, oak and eucalyptus, which frame clear-day views of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains.
As you climb, you get a good view of Fern Canyon with the city's suburbs beyond and below. It's a woodsy journey, with the wind blowing through an assortment of pines and the chattering birds offering relief from the din of the city.
At a five-way trail junction, take the left-most trail and ascent a short distance along a brushy ridge to the top of Beacon Hill. Nowadays it takes some imagination to realize how Los Angeles must have looked to the pilots of 1920: no freeways, no dramatic skyline. Not much there then.
Today, you'll get great clear-day vistas of downtown L.A., Elysian Park, Silverlake Reservoir, freeways and freight yards, and the big bold "G" etched into the hill above Glendale.
You'll also get a grand view of the Los Angeles River, once a real river before being channelized for flood control in the 1940s. As your eye follows the course of the river, you can contemplate Assemblyman Richard Katz's (D-Sylmar) proposal to convert the riverbed into another freeway. Or you can contemplate the conservationists' notion of creating an urban greenbelt and restoring the river to something like its natural state.
Retrace your steps to the five-way junction and stay left. Follow unsigned Coolidge Trail on a pleasant one-mile descent. Stay left at a fork (the right fork leads down to Coolidge Picnic Area, the train and pony rides) and continue along unsigned Lower Beacon Trail, which parallels Griffith Park Drive.
You'll descend toward the noisy Golden State Freeway and the park's ball fields before the path deposits you back at the trailhead, just opposite the merry-go-round parking area.
BEACON HILL TRAIL: 4-mile loop around Griffith Park's Beacon Hill; 600-foot elevation gain.