Hiking along Griffith Park trails is an especially exultant exercise during the holiday season, when the rich green crown of the toyon bush is aglow with a mass of red berries. At a time when most members of the chaparral community have donned their gray apparel, the toyon--known variously as Christmas berry or California holly--is the most festive of flora.
And this is a particularly joyous time for Griffith Park fans because the park is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith, a Welshman who made a fortune in gold mining and real estate, astonished the city when he presented it with 3,000 acres on Dec. 16, 1896. Some have suggested, however, that Griffith's gift was a tax dodge.
In 1903, Griffith became more infamous when he stood trial for the attempted murder of his wife. Convicted, he served two years in San Quentin Prison, then returned to L.A. to try to prove his civic spirit. He offered the city $100,000 for an observatory, but the city refused. Only after Griffith's death in 1919 did the city take the colonel's money to build the observatory and the Greek Theatre.
These days, hikers know there are really two Griffith Parks. One is the familiar urban park with its landscaped shrubbery, golf courses, picnic areas, train museum and zoo. The other is a wild park--mountain country--with 53 miles of trail to explore. The 4,107-acre park forms the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers the hiker a taste of the range's cliffs and crags.
Clear-day views from atop Mt. Hollywood, the park's high point at 1,625-feet, are awesome: the Santa Monica Mountains marching west to Malibu, the sweep of Santa Monica Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Catalina Island, the Vincent Thomas Bridge and Long Beach. And many San Gabriel Mountains peaks, from Mt. Wilson to Mt. Baldy, and, far in the distance, snowcapped Mt. San Jacinto towering over Palm Springs and mighty Mt. San Gorgonio, the Southland's 11,502-foot high point.
Two-thirds of Griffith Park, one of the nation's largest municipal parks, is rugged, undeveloped terraina hiker's delight. Most hillsides are covered with chaparral--ceanothus, toyon and buckwheat. Poppies, bush lupine and the occasional wild purple onion splash color around the park.
Canyon bottoms are shaded with oak and sycamore. Planted pines and eucalyptus groves are scattered on hill and dale. More than 100 tree species grow in the park; this diversity contributes to a variety of bird life, which also numbers more than 100 species.
I have selected a few hikes for the holidays, a difficult task because I have a dozen favorites.
For ambitious hikers seeking longer outings, or anyone wanting to atone for too much holiday feasting, I'd suggest circling the park by trail. Depending on the pathways chosen, you could visit most of the park's high points and features on a 10- to 12-mile hike.
Fern Dell Trail
To Griffith Park Observatory is 2 1/2 miles round trip with 500-foot gain.
In well-named Fern Dell, a brook bubbles through a woodsy, fern-lined glen. The brook waters a grove of coast redwood that thrives at the bottom of the dell. The redwoods complement the native sycamore and alder, which shade this oasis in the heart of the Hollywood Hills.
Hopefully, your sense of surprise upon discovering ferns and redwoods won't be lessened when you discover that human engineering, not nature, is responsible for the scene. Recycled water from Griffith Observatory's cooling system is released from the top of the hill.
Join the path to the east of Fern Dell Drive. Large sycamores shade the trail, which ascends alongside the moss-covered banks of a brook, past tiny waterfalls, to Fern Dell Picnic Area. As you walk toward the redwoods and past the picnic area, stay to the right (east) side of the brook.
Your trail, officially known as Lower West Observatory Trail (though it is unmarked), lingers for a time alongside the brook, then begins to climb. Gaps in the eucalyptus and chaparral allow good views of the Hollywood sign above and the city below. Three-fourths of a mile from Fern Dell is an unsigned three-way junction. Bear right, continue a quarter-mile to another junction and bear left, then ascend another quarter-mile to the observatory.
Access: This hike begins at the south end of Griffith Park. From Los Feliz Boulevard, turn north on Fern Dell Drive and park along the drive. If parking is scarce, continue farther to the Ferndell Picnic Area.
Mt. Hollywood Trail
To Mt. Hollywood is three miles round trip with 500-foot elevation gain.
Griffith Park's most popular trail is the path from Griffith Observatory to the top of Mt. Hollywood, with its magnificent views, particularly at sunset. On clear days the entire basin is spread out before you, from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Jacinto can be seen.
A brief ascent brings you to the Berlin Forest on your left. Among the trees planted by L.A.'s German sister city officials is a whimsical sign pointing to Berlin.
The trail, a wide fire road, winds up the brushy shoulder of Mt. Hollywood, swinging west, then east. A mile from the trail head, the fire road forks. The left branch loops around the west side of Mt. Hollywood; the right branch around the east side.
The right branch of the Mt. Hollywood Trail climbs to Dante's View. Named for Dante Orgolini, an Italian immigrant, the view is a two-acre retreat of pine, palm and pepper trees.
Continue to the top of Mt. Hollywood, then either return the way you came or descend the western loop of the Mt. Hollywood Trail past Captain's Roost, a shaded rest stop, to a junction with the east loop of the Mt. Hollywood Trail.
Access: From Los Feliz Boulevard, take Vermont Avenue through a residential area into Griffith Park. Follow signs to the observatory and park in the north end of the lot (farthest from the observatory), near the signed Charlie Turner Trail head leading to Mt. Hollywood.
Four-mile loop with 600-foot elevation gain.
Long before Los Angeles International Airport was constructed, Glendale's Grand Central Airport was the Southland's main terminal. Atop nearby 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.
Hike up the short asphalt road below the parking lot located below the merry-go-round. The first trail on your left that you spot will be your return route from Beacon Hill. Ignore a second left-forking trail and continue a short way to a three-way junction.
Bear left on unsigned Fern Canyon Trail and ascend into the brushy hills. Higher up it's a woodsy journey, with the wind blowing through an assortment of pines and the chattering of birds.
At a five-way trail junction, take the left-most trail and ascend a short distance along a brushy ridge to the top of Beacon Hill. You'll get great clear-day vistas of downtown, Elysian Park, freeways and freight yards.
Retrace your steps back 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 and 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 toward the park's ball fields before the path deposits you back at the trail head.
Access: From Los Feliz Boulevard, turn north on Griffith Park's Crystal Springs Drive and continue to a junction with the ranger station on the right. From this junction, turn left on the road leading to the merry-go-round. Park in the lower lot.
One mile round trip.
Earlier this year, Griffith Park officials celebrated the 25th anniversary of the tranquil retreat known as Amir's Garden. The guest of honor was Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh, who began fashioning his namesake's two-acre oasis in 1971, following a severe fire that ravaged the brushy slopes above the Mineral Wells Picnic Area.
Dialameh works "his" garden nearly every day. He terraced the site, installed stairways, and purchased and planted all the flora.
At the unsigned junction of three bridle trails, join the middle trail and ascend a moderate to steep half-mile. You'll find an eclectic collection of pine and pepper trees, asparagus fern and spider plants.
Access: From the south side of the park on Los Feliz Boulevard, turn north on Griffith Park Drive and follow it just past the Harding Golf Course clubhouse and driving range to Mineral Wells Picnic Area. Park in the picnic area and look for a three-way trail junction at the extreme lower end of the picnic ground, close to where the road splits.
Skyline, Mineral Wells, Eckert, Crystal Springs trails; eight-mile loop with 1,000-foot elevation gain.
"A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park."
This was a dictum of cost-conscious movie producers during the 1920s, '30s and '40s, and resulted in many film companies heading for the "wilds" of Griffith Park. The brushy hills, laced with bridle trails, were a particularly popular locale for westerns. It seems fitting that the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum is in Griffith Park.
Walk across the lawn on the south side of the museum toward the Golden State Freeway and bear left (north) on the bridle trail. The trail enters an underpass below the freeway offramp, then curves westward around the zoo parking lot. Next you pass through two more pedestrian/equestrian underpasses and join unsigned Skyline Trail as it begins a westward accent, climbing above the back side of the zoo. About two miles from the trail head, just as you pass the right fork of Rattlesnake Trail, you'll join the left fork and descend a quarter-mile to Griffith Park Drive.
Cross Griffith Park Drive and bear left on the trail paralleling the road. Half a mile's travel takes you to Mineral Wells Picnic Area and a trail junction. Turn right and ascend half a mile to Amir's Garden. Climb again for another half-mile to a junction near water tank No. 112 and bear left onto Mt. Hollywood Trail.
The trail crosses paved Vista Del Valley Drive and soon comes to another junction. Bear left, then soon make another left onto Eckert Trail, which leads back down to Vista Valle Drive. Walk down the paved drive 100 yards or so and rejoin the dirt road on your left.
Begin a long, looping descent. Below are two of the park's golf courses, the museum and the Los Angeles Zoo. Just above Old Zoo Picnic Area, you'll intersect Old Zoo Trail. Either a left or a right on the trail will lead you to Griffith Park Drive; or simply improvise a route through the picnic area, crossing Griffith Park Drive, and make your way to Crystal Springs Drive. On the far (east) side of the drive is Crystal Springs Trail. Follow this trail as it leads north by the golf courses. A bit more than a mile of level walking brings you back to the museum.
Access: From Interstate 5 or California 134, exit on Zoo Drive and follow signs to the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot. Park near the Autry museum.