Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Griffith Park: LA’s Greatest Gift

Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory, in Griffith Park

Visitors to Los Angeles may not know Griffith Park by name (although many do), but you would struggle to find anyone in the world not familiar with its best-known landmark, the Hollywood Sign. Griffith Park’s 4,300-acres make it five times the size of Central Park in New York (it’s not a competition – but if it was, we’d win). On any given day you may see locals and tourists, dog-walkers and fitness enthusiasts, all taking advantage of the fifty plus miles of hiking trails that criss-cross the park’s rugged hilly terrain, and the incredible views of the LA basin and San Fernando Valley that it offers.

Griffith Park is an incredible part of Los Angeles. Indeed, there are so many attractions and the park is so big that one visit is never going to be enough to do more than scratch the surface, and even most Angelenos don’t know it in its entirety. Nevertheless, a trip to Griffith Park is a must if you’re here for any length of time.

In this guide I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of Griffith Park (it’s very interesting, believe me), and then make some recommendations for things to do and historic sites to visit there.

Early History of Griffith Park

The history of Griffith Park mirrors the history of Los Angeles as a whole, as First Americans, Spanish, Mexicans and Americans all feature in its story. Long before the sign was placed on Mount Lee the land the park sits on was home to the Tongva or Gabrielino people.

Their territory covered an area of around four thousand square miles, encompassing the city of LA, the San Gabriel Valley and most of Orange County.. Some of their villages would have been in what’s now Griffith Park. Another well-known local park, Runyon Canyon, served as a seasonal hunting ground. At first the Tongva helped the Spanish learn how to use the land, find potable water, and survive in California. That turned out to be a terrible mistake

In 1781 the Spanish, under the command of Jose Vicente Feliz, founded the Pueblo of Los Angeles in September of that year, with forty-four settlers. As a reward for his work on behalf of the Spanish Crown, Jose Vicente was given 6,677 acres of land by the King.

This was not uncommon at the time, the Spanish rewarding high-profile citizens with massive land grants to create a wealthy, land-owning class. These “ranchos”, as they became known, covered vast swaths of territory and their names are still in use today (La Brea, Sepulveda and Los Feliz to name but three). For Jose Vicente, his land would work its way up the Los Angeles River, from the pueblo and over the hills to the San Fernando Valley on the other side.

Bearing in mind what followed, it’s ironic that los Feliz means “the happy people” in Spanish and that Jose Vicente prospered mightily due to Rancho Los Feliz’s “inexhaustible supplies of lumber, water and game”.

Over the next few decades much would change though. The California Genocide saw the First American population of the state drop from around 340,000 in 1769, to just 16,000 by 1900. By then the Tongva had disappeared as a distinct people, but it wasn’t just them, so had the Spanish. In 1821, the Mexican government would take control of Los Angeles although, in many respects, life in the area would have continued much as it had under the Spanish. 

However, the relatively tranquil life of the pueblo would be shattered by a horrific murder on the “happy ranch” in 1836. Middle-aged Domingo Feliz, Jose Vicente’s grandson had married a young, beautiful, vivacious woman called Maria del Rosario Villa. Some of his friends had warned him of the dangers of such a match, but Domingo wouldn’t listen and soon enough she began an affair with Gervacio Alispaz, a disreputable vaquero (cowboy).

Then, to make matters much worse, she ran off to live with her lover. For the tightly-knit, Catholic community of Los Angeles this was a shocking scandal.

Two years later Domingo saw her at a fiesta at the San Gabriel Mission and took the opportunity to have her arrested and brought back to him at the ranch. Nevertheless, she escaped not long after and went to the mayor to plead her case. He, of course, counseled her to return to her husband – Domingo loved her and to live with another man was a sin.

Seemingly convinced Maria returned to the ranch with her husband. Domestic bliss was in store – just not for Domingo unfortunately.

As they neared home Gervacio jumped out of the bushes and attacked Domingo, urged on by Maria, stabbing him to death. The lovers concealed the dead body in a ravine but, within days, Domingo was discovered and the community was in uproar.

A Junta Defensora (citizen’s commission) was formed and an extraordinary demand made of the authorities:

We demand of you that you execute or deliver to us for immediate execution the assassin Gervacio Alispaz, and the unfaithful Maria del Rosario Villa, his accomplice. Nature trembles at the sight of these venomous reptiles and the soil turns barren in its refusal to support their detestable existence. Let the infernal pair perish! It is the will of the people. We will not lay down our arms until our petition is granted and the murderers are executed.

Unsatisfied with the slow turning of the wheels of justice the Junta Defensora took matters into their own hands, forcibly removing the couple from their cells and executing them by firing squad! Their bodies were dumped in the Plaza. As one historian put it:

And so ended the only instance in the seventy-five years of Spanish and Mexican rule in California, of the people, by popular tribunal, taking the administration of justice out of the hands of the legally constituted authorities.

A New Era for the Happy Ranch

The Rancho Los Feliz then came into the hands of Don Antonio Feliz. He saw the land not only go from Spanish to Mexican, but also from Mexican to American, as he called the rancho home from 1816 until 1863. The unmarried Feliz lived as a bachelor, perhaps not surprisingly bearing in mind Domingo’s example, sharing his house with his sister, Soledad and blind niece, Petranilla. Alas, he fell ill with small-pox and, not wanting his family to catch it, thoughtfully sent them away.

Not long after, two men arrived at his home, Don Antonio Coronel, an old friend and ex-mayor of Los Angeles, and Don Innocante, Coronel’s lawyer. They both went into the ailing Feliz’s house and when they left, a new will had been drafted. Now the property would no longer go to Soledad or Petranilla: instead it was bequeathed to Coronel and Innocante. 

Many stories abound about just how this all happened. Some accounts claim Feliz sold the land out from under his family just before passing away. Other, more scandalous, rumors circulated that claimed Coronal and Innocante had taped a stick to the back of the sick Feliz’s head to control him like a puppet, nodding his head in the affirmative when others asked if the will was genuine. Whatever may have happened the upshot was that Soledad or Petranilla were now out of the will.

Soledad has been described as “docile”, which feels like a very demeaning, nineteenth century, way to describe a woman. However, no one would ever say that about Petranilla. Full of rage at this injustice, she found the two men in a restaurant in Los Angeles, celebrating their good fortune. For the entire room to hear, she laid a terrible curse on them – their cattle and crops would perish, their family names would die out and, most importantly, the “wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell” would fall upon them! 

This left Coronel and Innocante in something of a predicament. Keep the land and risk the wrath of heaven (and vengeance of hell) or relinquish the huge ranch? Coronel decided that he didn’t need a curse hanging over his head and sold his half to Innocante. This appeared to be an incredibly fortuitous turn of events for the not-superstitious Innocante however, soon after, he was shot in a bar and died.

The curse of Petranilla had surely struck!

The next owner was Leon Baldwin, who’d been a successful businessman up until this point. However, that soon changed once he bought the Happy Ranch.

The cattle sickened and died in the fields. The dairy business was a disastrous failure. Fire destroyed the ripening grain and grasshoppers devoured the green crops. The vineyard was stricken with a strange blight and perished.

Major Horace Bell, On The Old West Coast (1930)

Ruined by his failure Baldwin, sold the ranch to Thomas Bell, who soon off-loaded it to a Welsh immigrant known as Colonel Griffith J Griffith. Several years later Baldwin was shot and killed by an outlaw.

Griffith, who bought the ranch in 1884, had made a fortune from offering his expertise in the field to several mining syndicates based in San Francisco (it’s never been clear exactly how he gained this knowledge, or the wealth that it seemed to make him) and he moved to Los Angeles at this time.

Creation of Griffith Park

At first Griffith continued the previous owners’ efforts to create a successful ranch. His main innovation was to try ostrich farming, since their feathers were very popular for making ladies hats at the time and the hilly nature of the ranch’s terrain made other, more traditional farming activities difficult.

However, Griffith was no more successful than the rest and in 1896 he donated 3,015 acres of his property to the City of Los Angeles, to create a park.

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.

Colonel Griffith J Griffith

Bearing in mind the era that he lived in, when concern for regular people amongst the rich wasn’t exactly high, it was a particularly generous gift. He later donated another thousand acres along the Los Angeles River.

For several years Griffith was able to cut quite the dash around town, with his beautiful cane and top hat, even taking to style himself as “Colonel” Griffith, although there’s no evidence that he had ever served in the military. He also married a beautiful heiress the following year, completing his entry into the very top echelons of polite Los Angeles society.

That Time Colonel Griffith Tried to Kill His Wife

Still, the curse of Petranilla clearly hadn’t been lifted from the owners of the Rancho Los Feliz. One morning, while vacationing at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica in 1903, Griffith told his wife, Mary Agnes to kneel on the floor in front of him. He then pulled out a revolver and shot her in the head!

Remarkably she survived (albeit with the loss of an eye), managing to wrestle the colonel to the ground. She then leapt through the window to escape, probably forgetting, which is understandable in the circumstances, that the presidential suite was on the second floor. She fell about twenty feet, breaking her collarbone, before jumping through a window into the room below, whereupon she promptly collapsed (as did many people upon hearing this story).

Nevertheless, just a week later she took the police on a tour of the crime scene and then had lunch in the hotel dining room. Clearly Mary Agnes was made of stern stuff. Hardly surprisingly she sued for divorce shortly afterwards and was granted it on the grounds of cruelty (in the record time of four and a half minutes, it seemed only fair).

The history of Griffith Park is not one of marital harmony for sure!

At the subsequent trial it emerged that Griffith, far from being a teetotaler that he’d proclaimed around town, in fact was an alcoholic. And a paranoid one to boot. He’d become convinced that his wife was conspiring with the Pope to poison him!

Although he gained some sympathy in court and amongst public opinion for his alcoholism, Griffith was found guilty in 1905. He ended up serving only two years at San Quentin though. After which he wrote a book on penal reform, which he toured around the U.S. with readings and public appearances.

Griffith died in 1919, predictably of liver disease, and left a bequest of $1.5 million for the creation of what would become the Observatory and the Greek Theatre (as a second “present” for LA to make up for the attempted murder).

He’s now a resident of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in full view of his beloved park.

Griffith’s Legacy

Precisely because of the controversy that Griffith’s crime had created it took the city a while to figure out what to do with the money, eventually opening the Greek Theatre in 1929, and the Griffith Observatory a few years later.

His legacy is a complicated one, nevertheless, this quote from Mike Eberts, a professor at Glendale Community College and author of Griffith Park: A Centennial History probably sums it up best:

(Griffith) was definitely a flawed man, but I can’t think of anyone who gave the city a bigger gift.

Griffith Park Today

Looking from above like an oasis of green in the middle of Los Angeles, Griffith Park in fact straddles the highest peaks in the Hollywood Hills, to the east of the Cahuenga Pass. Although enormous, funnily enough it isn’t even the biggest park in Los Angeles. That honor goes to Topanga Park, on the other side of the city (double Griffith Park’s size).

Nevertheless, the park counts a large number of attractions within it, including a ton of amazing views, dozens of great hiking trails, a couple of secret gardens, the city zoo, a fantastic museum, the Griffith Observatory AND the Hollywood Sign.

Our Recommendations

So, what are some worthwhile things to do and see in Griffith Park? Which activities would enable you to spend an enjoyable day here? Well, there’s a lot!

1. MOUNT HOLLYWOOD HIKE

Fancy hiking up to one of the highest peaks in the Hollywood Hills, so you can look down over the city of Angels? We have a fantastic tour, the Mount Hollywood Hike, which affords amazing views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign, and which finishes at the Griffith Observatory. In addition to which we’ll show you some hidden gardens and the Bird Sanctuary. It’s an amazing experience.

The tour runs every day, at 3 pm in the winter and 4 pm in the summer, and is the best way to see and learn about the park and Observatory. Tickets are $50pp, which includes a reusable water bottle.

More information here.

The best way to experience Griffith Park

If our hike doesn’t fit with your itinerary, there are plenty of options for doing a personal hike. There are so many trails within Griffith Park that it would be impossible to list them all here, but a good starting point is the Griffith Observatory, from which several trails radiate out and into the park.

Do check the route before starting though! Many trails zig-zag through the park, with 180 degree switchbacks, and it’s easy to lose your bearings and end up going in the opposite direction to the one you wanted.

Keep in mind too that snakes and other wildlife abound in Griffith Park, so you absolutely shouldn’t leave the designated paths (it’s also bad for the plants in the park).

2. GO TO THE ZOO(S)

The Los Angeles Zoo is in the Northeast corner of the park and is well-worth a visit. In addition to seeing and learning about the animals there, it also has regular special events, such as the Beastly Ball and Wine + Dinner evenings and loads of activities for kids.

Not far from the Zoo you can find the Old Zoo, with its man-made caverns and enclosures that make for a sometimes eerie – and very photogenic – experience. There’s also a great vintage carousel nearby (although it appears to be closed at the time of publication).

3. PLAY WITH VAST TRAINSETS

On the back of the park are two interesting museums. The Carolwood Foundation: Walt Disney’s Barn, which is a non-profit that is dedicated to preserving Walt’s model train sets. These train sets are not the average Hornby toy model trains that you might have been given by your grandparents, but up to three-quarter size replicas.

Next-door is the Travel Town Railroad, which has an enormous collection of vintage steam trains, historic locomotives and trams for inspection.

4. LEARN ABOUT THE WILD WEST

The Autry Museum of the American West is across from the Zoo and is a great place to while away a few hours learning about the old West. There are paintings (including First American), exhibitions and a botanic garden, so it’s well worth a visit.

5. HOLLYWOOD SIGN

Erected here in 1923 (nobody knows exactly when, but probably around October or November of that year), the Sign is undoubtedly one of the most iconic structures in the world. Rather like the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Westminster, which are indelibly linked to their home cities, when you see the Sign you know it can only be Los Angeles.

Originally it spelt HOLLYWOODLAND and was designed to publicize a housing development of that name beneath the Sign, but very quickly it came to represent the film business in LA and the very idea of the Dream Factory here.

Rather like the industry, which is notoriously hard to break into, the sign is real and can easily be seen – but you can’t actually touch it. It’s out of reach, behind fencing and protected by cameras and motion detectors surrounding it. The closest you can get is to its rear, on Mount Lee’s summit, from where you can get good photos of of Los Angeles through the Sign.

The easiest way to hike to the Hollywood Sign is to start right below, taking the Brush Canyon Trail past the Bronson Caves (which were used in the 1970’s Batman TV show), up to the sign. However, remember that it is a decent hike (Mount Lee is 1,700 feet above sea-level) and it does get hot – even in the Spring and Fall – so bring plenty of water and sunblock, because there isn’t much shade.

If you’re looking for something dramatic (and strenuous) you can’t go far wrong with the Wonder View Trail, which will take you up to the top of Mount Cahuenga, where sits the Wisdom Tree. From there you can hike, over the top of Mount Lee, to the back of the Hollywood Sign. 

For a detailed guide to hiking to the Hollywood Sign read this, but be sure to take a taxi to the starting point though. Space can be hard to find in the streets surrounding Griffith Park and if you take a taxi you won’t have to return to the same point, meaning you can explore more of the huge park.

6. GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY

Opening in 1935, the Observatory is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Griffith Park. It has a top-quality museum inside, which is a must-do when visiting Griffith Park. Visitors are greeted as they enter by the Foucault Pendulum, which demonstrates the earth’s rotation, and there are some fantastic Hugo Ballin murals in the Central Rotunda too, so don’t forget to look up.

There are six different sections devoted to the cosmos and out place in it and be sure to check in with the statue of Einstein (who was teaching at Caltech while the Observatory was being built), sitting on a bench downstairs. 

During the Second World War the Planetarium was used to teach celestial navigation to U.S. Air Force pilots and in the 1960’s it performed the same function for training astronauts in the NASA Apollo Program. Nowadays there are hourly shows that you can enjoy too. 

The Observatory also has fantastic views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign. In fact it’s one of the best spots on the Westside at any time of day, but especially at sunset.

The best way to get to the Observatory is to take public transport. There’s a Dash bus from Sunset and Vermont Station in Hollywood that takes around 15 minutes to get to the park.

If there’s an event at the Greek Theatre there’s NO free parking at that entrance, and it costs $10 PER HOUR to park near the Observatory (if you’re lucky enough to even find a space).

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on Griffith Park: LA’s Greatest Gift please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Christopher Westbrook (Instagram) and Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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