Day Trekking: Griffith Park Hiking Trails
GRIFFITH PARK—Living on the eastside comes with a huge perk that most other L.A. neighborhoods don’t get—dozens of hiking trails, each with a life of its own.
Griffith Park alone has an expansive network of trails to choose from—53 miles in total—and you could spend months checking each trail off your list and exploring every path.
But, to start you off, here’s one trail from each region of the park that offers something new and different. From sunup to sundown, visitors are invited to bring friends and pets and trek across each one of these trails without spending a dime.
Reader’s note: the Hollyridge Trail and the hike to the Hollywood Sign in the park’s western region will be an entirely separate article, because really, that’s an adventure that warrants its own installment.
EAST: Beacon Hill Trail
The Beacon Hill Trail offers a moderately difficult and lengthy path that’s just shy of three miles. Unless you’re Captain America in Under Armour, you’ll sweat, but you won’t collapse from exhaustion. And, for those who typically hike Runyon Canyon, this path is a more secluded alternative, considering Runyon’s 2-½ mile trail is closed until July.
You’ll want to enter from Crystal Springs Drive, just southeast of the Old Zoo, near the Merry-Go-Round. Directly across from the Merry-Go-Round, you’ll see the opening of a woodsy path leading to the Lower Beacon Trail. It’s a steady incline at first, with slight bends uphill, but once it straightens out, you have a clear, scenic view of the L.A. River and Atwater Village. This portion of the trail wraps along the 5 Freeway in a sort of mirror reflection of the Elysian Valley trails further south. Keep walking, but watch your step: the terrain is rugged. Also, be sure to take notice of the lush greenery, speckled with yellow wildflowers covering the hill’s edge.
Once you’ve got all the vista shots you’ll ever need of Atwater, you’ll come to a fork where you should continue right onto Coolidge Trail. The incline is sharp leading back up the hill, and can take a toll on your calves, but it’s worth it to look out over Los Feliz and the downtown cityscape.
Soon, you’ll reach what’s known as the 5-Points Connection, where five trails meet. You can choose to either: head straight up to the peak of Beacon Hill for a 1,001-foot high, epiphany-inducing view of the east side below; wind through Fern Canyon on your way back towards the Merry-Go-Round; take a short path towards Vista View Point to look out towards Los Feliz; or take a pothole-covered road towards Cedar Grove Trail. I typically go for the last option, since it offers a casual downhill stroll through a picnic area in Cedar Grove—a small spot in the park that feels right out of the movie “E.T.” Here, you’ll find benches perfect for taking a load off, refueling, reading, or having semi-private chats.
CENTRAL: Old Zoo Trail
Like walking through some post-apocalyptic vision of the future, the Old Zoo Trail has it all—rusty cages, abandoned structures, anti-war graffiti, caverns, fallen trees and overgrown brush. The just-under-2-mile hike is a breezy stroll through the middle of Jurassic Pa—I mean, Griffith Park.
All kidding aside, despite it being an easier hike—in terms of physical exertion, length, elevation and terrain—this trail offers a tactile experience of the city’s history, a view of Glendale and a leisurely walk through the park. It’s those ingredients that make it my favorite hike in Griffith. And, even though the Old Zoo appears abandoned, it’s actually all but, considering park rangers and staff are present to ensure visitors’ safety.
To start, you’ll come from Crystal Springs Drive and rather than heading towards the 5 Freeway, walk the opposite direction up the closed-off Griffith Park Road towards the Lower Old Zoo Trail. Immediately, the path cuts through rich green brush and yellow flowers, common throughout the area, accentuated by gnarled dead trees that foreshadow the strangely beautiful dilapidation ahead.
Continue along the path until you pass through a bent, rusty gate. This is your entryway to the Old Zoo.
Founded in 1912, and open until 1965, the Old Los Angeles Zoo harbored lions, bears, goats, monkeys, reptiles, elephants and many other animal species. The structures that housed these animals are all left standing for visitors to explore. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
The path past the opening gate leads to these sightseeing opportunities, beginning with a 4-foot high cage, an empty shed, rows of cages lining the hillside, and eventually, grottos that run alongside a picnic area. Decades ago, these manmade grottos provided a home for the zoo’s bears.
From here, head from the picnic area towards the fenced area marked “goat trail.” You’ll work your way up an incline to the Upper Old Zoo Trail, which will loop back through the hillside towards Griffith Park Drive.
The Old Zoo Trail is perfect for locals or tourists interested in a short, simple hike that offers a fun history lesson.
NORTH: Skyline Trail
The north side of Griffith Park doesn’t get much love, but that’s fine because it means hikers who do venture there are treated to a secluded, gorgeous hike.
To start this 4-mile hike, you’ll enter the north end of the park from Zoo Drive, near Travel Town Transportation Museum. From there, walk up the hill and onto the Skyline Trail, a hard dirt path well trodden by horses. The sharp incline up into the hills offers a strenuous hike at first.
Word of warning, there are horse droppings strewn about this path. That said, once you get to the hilltop, the vistas are worth walking through this veritable minefield.
Continuing up the hill, you’ll soon have a clear view overlooking all of Burbank and Glendale. Along the edge of the Skyline Trail, and down the hillside, are a wider variety of flowers than on the south side of the park—including yellow and orange daisies.
Further along the path are forks where hikers can either turn down Rattlesnake Trail; continue on Skyline Trail, which eventually dead ends in the northeast corner; or turn south on Condor Trail.
Usually, I follow Skyline and double back before turning onto Oak Canyon Trail, which runs parallel to Griffith Park Drive. Not only will this trail lead you right back to where you started, but it also provides plenty of shade in the woods after having hiked up the hill in direct sunlight.
SOUTH: Griffith Observatory Trail
This is the most well-known hike in Griffith Park and possibly all of Los Angeles. At 2 miles, it’s relatively short, but the steep incline and direct sunshine will make you break a sweat.
Enter the park from Los Feliz Boulevard onto Fern Dell Drive at the park’s far southwest corner. Before or after hiking up to the Observatory, be sure to pass through the Fern Dell Nature Museum. This ½ mile shady path traces along a stream, winding its way over bridges and under sycamore trees, tropical plants and ferns of all kinds. It’s about as tranquil a place as you’ll find anywhere.
When it comes to hiking to the Griffith Observatory, you have two options: the West Observatory Trail on your left or the East Observatory Trail on your right. Each trail diverges and reconnects before leading up to the Observatory and both are relatively the same distance and elevation. Either way, you’re going to feel it in your joints and muscles. My preference is to head up the East Trail and down the West Trail for variety.
No matter what time of day, or which day of the week, there will always be people around you on the trail spreading gossip, airing grievances and divulging their deepest, darkest secrets. You know, the way people get to know each other while hiking together.
There’s something about this trail, maybe it’s the air, or maybe the dirt’s infused with black magic, or some old Hollywood gossip columnist haunts the grounds, but everyone uses it as a confessional. My girlfriend affectionately refers to it as “Talk Sh** Mountain.”
Whatever the conversations are going on around you, keep following the trail leading up Mount Hollywood until you reach a sharp bend. Near the edge is a bench perfect for friends, family, lovers, or strangers to rest and talk with all of L.A. sprawled out in front of them. But there’s just the one bench, so you’ll have to wait your turn.
Once you’ve caught your breath, push yourself up one last, 0.2-mile stretch and guess what, you’re at the Observatory. Fall down on the grass, guzzle your water and watch out for children running around. Then, get back up and make your way to the walkway and terraces for a panorama of the city. You’ve climbed to the peak—above you is the vast sky, in front of you is Los Angeles—enjoy it.
Published March 31, 2016 at 6:00 a.m.