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Spotlight: Griffith Park

Los Angeles County
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As the largest municipal park in Los Angeles, Griffith Park protects 4,511 acres of mountains and canyons at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a remarkable stretch of rough, hilly wilderness in the heart of an enormous urban area—and it’s also home to a wealth of culture.

Want to hike? Choose from more than 50 miles of trails lacing the chaparral-studded slopes, including one to the top of 1,625-foot Mount Hollywood, the park’s highest point. Another trail takes you to the site of the Old Zoo, where you can explore animal enclosures that have been abandoned and untouched for over 50 years. Unpaved roads also provide access for mountain bikers and trail rides; guided rides out of Sunset Ranch include great views of the Hollywood sign.

Griffith Park has a more refined side, too. Learn about American western art at the Autry Museum of the American West. Leading musicians love to play at the open-air Greek Theatre. Kids can get close-up looks at koalas and Komodo dragons at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. And high on a slope overlooking Los Angeles, the landmark Art Deco-era Griffith Observatory gives you a window to the cosmos.

The sprawling public park is now well known for its cameo in 2016’s smash hit La La Land—actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone begin their epic dance scene twirling on one of Griffith Park’s hilltops as city lights twinkle below (more on this later). But the public park has been around for generations. It was an eccentric mining tycoon, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who in 1896 donated over 3,000 acres of his Rancho Los Felis to the City of Los Angeles. It was a Christmas gift to be used as “a place of rest and relaxation for the masses.” Since Griffith’s original contribution, bits and pieces have been added to the park, which now attracts more than 10 million visitors a year.

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Griffith Observatory

Los Angeles County
Griffith Observatory
Come here to see stars and embrace Hollywood history

Completed in 1935, the Griffith Observatory is almost as iconic as the Hollywood sign. It appeals to anyone who “loves space, science, the stunning view of L.A., and the building’s Art Deco architecture,” says Bonnie Winings, a director for Friends Of The Observatory.

But for movie fans, the observatory in Griffith Park may be recognized most recently as the feature spot in 2016’s magical La La Land dance scene in which actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone waltzed through the air under a star-filled ceiling. Prior to the award-winning film, the Observatory served as the signature location for 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s new-kid-in-town character tries to impress his classmates inside the planetarium, only to get caught up in a knife fight in the parking lot.

In an interesting real-life plot twist, Dean commissioned a bust of himself shortly before his death at age 24. That bust is now on prominent display near the front lawn of the Observatory. A lot of fan photos still get taken by that statue, says Winings, “since the backdrop is also the Hollywood sign.” 

While some simply go to the Observatory for the view (arguably the best in L.A.), there’s much more to see. The Griffith Observatory presents mind-expanding planetarium shows throughout the year, plus films and special events in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, and hosted telescope parties (check the calendar for details). A nice perk: Admission to the Observatory is free.

If you’re eager for a snack before or after your visit—say, a slice of quiche, a crumbly scone, or just a good cup of joe—it’s worth a stop at the nearby Trails Café, a walk-up eatery nestled amongst the trees. There is parking along the road, but intrepid visitors might make the 2-mile hike from the Observatory.

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Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens

Los Angeles County
Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Explore the habitats at this grand zoo in Griffith Park

No time for an African safari or Amazon adventure? Then take a walk on the wild side at the remarkable—and remarkably varied—Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Explore tropical habitats at Rainforest of the Americas, and observe chimps in a natural setting of waterfalls, palm trees, and rock formations in Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains. (World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall praised the chimps’ digs as one of the world’s outstanding zoo habitats.)

The 133-acre L.A. Zoo is home to more than 1,100 animals, including 29 endangered species. Get close-up (but safe) looks at spectacular Sumatran tigers, deadly Komodo dragons, and bright-orange orangutans. The zoo is also a horticultural paradise with more than 7,500 individual plants. And, as you’ll discover in the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, it has played a key role in bringing the iconic California condor back from the brink of extinction.

If visiting during the winter holiday season, stick around until after sunset to see the elaborate holiday lights show, Zoo Lights. With a cup of hot cocoa in hand, you can walk through shimmering light tunnels and a disco-ball forest, watch larger-than-life animal-shaped displays, and meet real reindeer.

Insider tip: Go nose-to-nose with a mama hippo and her baby at the zoo’s Hippo Encounter.

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The Autry Museum of the American West

Los Angeles County
The Autry Museum of the American West
Explore this historic museum founded by Hollywood’s singing cowboy

Gone are the glory days of the Wild West, but you can still get in on the action at the Autry Museum of the American West. Just across from the entrance to the L.A. Zoo in Griffith Park, you’ll find this 36,000-square foot complex with over 500,000 works of art and artifacts from the American frontier.

Co-founded by musical western star Gene Autry in 1988, it’s natural that the museum would dedicate space to cool Western film memorabilia, from the pistols used by Steve McQueen to costumes from 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. There’s even a replica movie set of an Old Western town with storefronts. (Little-known fact: The first-ever feature-length movie filmed in Hollywood was a Western—the 1914 silent film The Squaw Man, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The camera used to film it is here, too.)

A bronze statue of “the singing cowboy” Autry greets you at the entrance, but the museum covers much more than just Hollywood gunslingers—you’ll learn all about the real Old West, too. You’ll find engraved golden pistols given to Annie Oakley by her husband Frank Butler. There’s an extensive saddle display, a mail stage coach from 1855, Smith & Wesson revolvers, pioneer portraits, cowboy hats, buckskin jackets—even a saloon with a mahogany bar and roulette wheel.

Western lore aside, the Autry also celebrates the region’s contemporary artists. Every year, it curates the Masters of the American West, a magnificent exhibition with works from more than 70 Western artists. Yet the real must-see is the annual American Indian Arts Marketplace held in November, where visitors can peruse and purchase paintings, sculpture, basketry, carvings, and other items from roughly 200 artists and artisans representing over 40 different tribes.

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The Greek Theatre

Los Angeles County
The Greek Theatre
Enjoy live music under the stars at this famed Griffith Park concert venue

There aren’t many cities where you can listen to live music under a star-studded sky with majestic canyons as your backdrop. Enter the Greek Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater carved into a hillside of Griffith Park that’s become so iconic for its magical setting and great natural acoustics, it inspired the 2010 film, Get Him to the Greek, starring Russell Brand. (In the movie, a music executive must escort a wayward rock star to—you guessed it—the Greek Theatre, for his first stop on a career-defining concert tour.)

The Greek Theatre has a rich history of its own. Upon his death in 1919, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith left a $1 million trust to the City of Los Angeles with instructions to construct an observatory and an outdoor theater with Greek columns. Though the cornerstone was finally laid in 1928, the venue didn’t host its first act, an operatic concert, until 1931. Over the next few decades, sporadic use caused the Greek Theatre to fall in disrepair. During World War II, it was even converted into military barracks. But renewed interest in the 1970s sparked its resurgence. Since then, the Greek Theatre has hosted a slew of musical legends, including Frank Sinatra and Sir Elton John.

The amphitheater’s event lineup always promises big names—like Harry Styles, Tom Jones, and Pete Townshend—and with an intimate 5,900-person capacity, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The season only runs from spring to mid-fall, but the theater, modeled after a Greek temple, is still worth a look-see in the off-season.

Insider tip: Consider preordering one of the picnic baskets for two, filled with Mediterranean-style noshes like hummus, charcuterie, baguettes, or Greek salad. 

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Horses at Griffith Park

Los Angeles County
Horses at Griffith Park
Ride a classic carousel or friendly live ponies

Griffith Park has a venerable 110-year history and nothing captures its old-timey charm more than the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. It was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company and then moved from San Diego to Griffith Park in 1937. The amusement ride features 68 intricately carved horses with jewel-encrusted bridles, leaping to one of 1,500 tunes played by a Stinson 165 military band organ (reportedly the largest on the West coast). The story goes that Walt Disney, who frequented the carousel on weekends with his young daughters, used it as inspiration for what would later become Disneyland.

If the pretend ponies of a merry-go-round are too tame for your tot, head down the road and for just $5, kids can ride the real deal at Griffith Park Pony Ride. The family-owned business has been operating on the former ranchland since 1948 and, with roughly 100 Shetland and Welsh ponies, it has something for any pint-size wrangler-in-training. Got a first-timer? Your safest bet is the Pony Sweep, a merry-go-round-style ride where ponies walk 8 laps around a fixed carousel. Older kids can walk, or trot, along a separate 1/5-mile track on slow, medium, or big ponies. The catch: Riders must be between the ages of 1 and 13 and cannot weigh more than 100 pounds. Opt for a covered wagon ride and grown-ups can get in on the fun, too.

Or, take one of the traditional, guided horseback rides out of Sunset Ranch, which include great views of the Hollywood sign. Day or evening tours, which last up to four hours, let you explore the park on horseback; you can also book an overnight package that includes a ride, dinner, and a stay in a home once owned by Bette Davis.

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Trains at Griffith Park

Los Angeles County
Trains at Griffith Park
All aboard these family-friendly train experiences in Griffith Park

This massive urban park gives youngsters not one, but three, chances to ride trains. (Well, make that four, if you count the L.A. Zoo’s Choo Choo.) Tucked in Griffith Park’s northwest corner, you’ll find Travel Town, a transport museum focusing on the history of the Western railroad thru the 1930s. With dozens of vintage train cars lining the campus, some dating as far back as 1880, it’s an impressive collection for any locomotive lover.

For $3, guests can ride a miniature train twice around the mostly outdoor museum’s perimeter. With just one tunnel it may not be a long excursion, but the close encounters with real-live steam engines (including one that kids can climb) and a gift shop stocked with train-related items (like Thomas the Tank Engine toys) make the trip worthwhile. Be sure to wander to the back of one of the buildings: There you’ll find an observation window where, on the weekends, your little ones can stand nose-to-glass while rail hobbyists skillfully assemble a teeny-tiny model railroad and its surrounding California landscape.

Next to Travel Town is an independently run facility, L.A. Live Steamers. Only open on Sundays, guests can ride for free (with a suggested donation of $3) on miniature trains, maintained by local train clubs, which snake through tunnels and go by shrunken towns. (Note to parents: These trains are of a smaller scale—riders straddle the seats rather than sit on benches—so there’s a height minimum of 34 inches.)

Don’t miss Walt Disney’s barn, which was transported from the backyard of his Holmby Hills property in 1998. The barn, where the famous rail enthusiast built and maintained his own train collection, is only open on the third Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you’re only in it for the ride, then head straight to Griffith Park & Southern Railroad near the park’s south entrance. Kids can board one of two miniature train reproductions with kitschy names: the Colonel Griffith or the Freedom Train. From there, they’ll wind along a mile of track over bridges, past meadows and grazing ponies, and through an Old Western town. Be sure to look for statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, greeting passersby from outside their cottage.