Covering almost 4,300 acres, Griffith Park is one of the largest in North America and welcomes 10,000,000 visitors every year - including local Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is one of its most enthusiastic supporters:
"I'm a morning guy, so I'm there every day at 6am and I hike up to the Observatory to see the sunrise, even though it's only there for a second."
Part of the eastern Santa Monica Mountain range, the park is a huge green oasis in located in the Los Feliz neighborhood and has been called the "West Coast's Central Park." Busy from sunrise to sunset - and often late into the evening - it's home to family favorites like the zoo and the observatory, but huge areas have remained untouched so that explorers can find their own peace and quiet.
The story of Griffith Park began back in 1882 when Welsh immigrant and mining magnate Griffith J. Griffith bought Rancho Los Feliz and leased some of the land to an ostrich farm (feathers were used to decorate ladies' hats at the time), though his real aim was to develop his nearby properties. Griffith reveled in the rich lifestyle, assuming the title "Colonel" and winning friends (and enemies), though everyone was delighted when he decided to give a "Christmas gift" to the city and donated 3,015 acres in December 1896 with the words:
"It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered."
Those last words were prophetic, because a few years later he was at the center of a scandal and was convicted of shooting and blinding his wife during a drunken rage. After two years in San Quentin he emerged a changed man and wanted to develop an observatory and amphitheater here, but despite donating more land, the stain of disgrace never really left him. Determined, he established a trust find that saw the opening of the Greek Theatre in 1930 and the Griffith Observatory in 1935, though he never saw either, having died in 1919.
Whether you join the Sierra Club's free weekly walks or accompany LaBonge on one of his regular hikes, there are still many ways you can travel around Griffith Park. Right at the main Crystal Springs Drive entrance is the ranger station and visitor information, so leave the car here and head for the first stop: the Merry-Go-Round. Built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company and brought here in 1937, the Merry-Go-Round boasts 68 colorful and bejeweled horses, all of whom jump happily to the sound of a Stinson 165 Military Band Organ. La Bonge noted that:
"Walt Disney used to bring his daughter Diane to the merry-go-round, and he paid the operator a little more so that she could keep riding for longer. She told me personally that he envisioned Disneyland because of the park."
If the kids want to ride a real equine there are horse and pony track and wagon rides here, and kids (big and small) is also where you can find a steam buff's paradise: a museum and the Griffith Park and Southern Railroad. Their miniature scale steam trains have been giving mile-long rides since 1948 and chuff through an old Western Town and a Native American Village:
"Also in the north west of the park is the Travel Town Museum, which has the biggest collection of steam locomotives in the USA. Probably the world!"
If you prefer two wheels there's a bike rental shop - Spokes 'N Stuff - ("you could see the park on a bicycle made for two!") while another form or transport - trams - can take you round the main attraction here, the Los Angeles Zoo. Check out bears, lions, elephants, meerkats, rhinos and the new attraction, LAIR - living amphibians, invertebrates and reptiles (that's snakes, lizards, frogs and scorpions).
Opposite the Zoo is the Autry National Center and its Southwest Museum of the American Indian. Dedicated to the West, here you can explore the history and stories of people, cultures and events that shaped this region and also relive the myths and thrills of Billy the Kid, buffalo stampedes, wagon trains, western movies and more.
Further north east is one of the most famous landmarks in L.A.: the Griffith Park Observatory (you'll pass the Greek Theatre en route towards it). Movie fans will of course recognize it from Terminator,
Men in Black and the classic
Rebel Without a Cause - there's a bust of star James Dean in the grounds there - and LaBonge calls the park "the back lot for Hollywood. I've even seen hot-air balloons here, when they were shooting a television commercial."
Last year there were 346 days of on-location shooting in the park - the busiest in Los Angeles - and if you don't stumble across a film crew you could see Bronson Caves (used in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and
The Searchers - both 1956) or the old quarry tunnel that was the Batcave entrance in the 1960s television series "Batman".
Inside the Observatory there's the legendary light show in the Planetarium, Foucault's Pendulum and exhibits about life, the universe and everything, so even here you can travel somewhere: all the way to space. Outside, you can look out over the city and see everything from Downtown to the ocean to the Valley:
"The best time to be up here is in the afternoon. The sunset lasts must longer. If you have more time, hike up beyond it for an even more amazing view."
You can also look down to Mount Lee, the place where the legendary Hollywood sign is perched. In 2010 LaBonge was heavily involved with environmentalists and the Trust For Public Land in raising $12.5m to save the surrounding land - known as Cahuenga Peak - from development. They famously covered the sign with a banner saying "SAVE THE PEAK" and after reaching their goal (including $1m from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner), the land was indeed donated to Griffith Park.
Just near the Hollywood sign is the Sunset Ranch, where serious horse riders can saddle up for one or two hour trails through the park or the four hour Sunset Dinner or Lunch Ride, which stops for food (and maybe a margarita) at a Mexican Restaurant.
Before you return to your own car, there are four wheels - albeit smaller ones - to be found if you hire a golf cart and play a round at one of the five golf courses. When you have reached your destination you can picnic, enjoy the flora and fauna or even watch - and perhaps take part - in sports: there's a baseball diamond (LaBonge is hoping to increase this number), soccer fields, basketball court, tennis courts and a summertime swimming pool known as "The Plunge".
If you only have time for one trip into the park though, LaBonge has no hesitation about where you should go:
"In Paris you see the Eiffel Tower, in Sydney there's the Harbor, Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, China has the Great Wall, and here in Hollywood we have the Griffith Observatory."