In the 13 years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve hiked all over the Santa Monicas, San Gabriels, and San Bernardinos, but I’ve rarely hiked within city limits. And it’s not that we Angelenos lack the open space.
With over 4,000 acres of rugged terrain as well as landscaped parkland in the heart of the city, Griffith Park is the country’s largest urban park with preserved wilderness. It boasts miles of hiking trails, horseback riding trails, scrubby woodlands, as well as riparian vegetation and even its own mountain lion. For that kind of creature to take up residence in a park that spans only six square miles is quite unusual!
And it’s even more unusual when you realize that Griffith Park is surrounded on all sides by cities: Burbank to the north, Glendale to the east, Hollywood to the south, and Universal City to the west. That’s a whole lot of suburban sprawl just minutes away from a park that actually hasn’t changed all that much since the Native Americans were inhabiting its slopes.
Named after Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, the land (then known as Rancho Los Feliz) was purchased in 1882 and subsequently became the site of an ostrich farm, aerodrome, amphitheater, observatory, and boys’ and girls’ camps. After his success in nearby property developments, Griffith donated over 3,000 acres of his parcel to the City of Los Angeles, effectively establishing the park in 1896.
Visitors to Hollywood might not give this history a lot of thought, but little do they know that one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, the Hollywood Sign, actually sits on a slope in Griffith Park. The blocky white HOLLYWOOD letters can be seen on the southern face of Mount Lee, an emblem of the hopes and dreams many people come to the city with.
For a lot of tourists, making a pilgrimage to the sign is part of their travel itineraries. But since the sign is in a canyon, one cannot simply drive right up to it for a picture. The official viewing areas for the sign, as sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust, are Griffith Observatory (three miles away) or Hollywood & Highland Center (four miles away).
If you’re flying all the way to Hollywood from, say, Australia, something tells me you won’t be satisfied with simply gazing at the sign from an outdoor mall.
In fact, the Hollywood Sign is the center of controversy in the city. Residents living below the sign in Beachwood Canyon have long complained to the city about tourists parking on their streets and disrupting their neighborhood in an effort to get as close to the sign as possible. Residents have even gone so far as illegally painting their curbs red, posting “No Trespassing” and “Tourists Go Away” warnings, and telling tourists they cannot hike to the sign.
This, of course, is false. The Hollywood Sign was built on public land and while you can’t walk up to it and touch the letters, several Griffith Park trails take you to a paved road right above the sign.
None of this deterred the residents, however, and they successfully lobbied City Councilmember Tom LaBonge to look into the matter. Working closely with Google and Garmin, LaBonge managed to convince the map makers to change the directions to the sign. While Google Maps still shows the exact location of the Hollywood Sign, any starting address that you punch in will only direct you to Griffith Observatory. The first time I tried this, I thought it was a glitch! But no matter where I wanted to start, walking or driving, I was always given directions to the observatory.
“Glitch” aside, the best view of the sign (if you’re looking for the money shot) is actually from a dog park next to the Hollywood Reservoir. Lake Hollywood Park, as it’s called, has nothing standing in the way between you and the sign. It’s a grassy public park filled with dogs and their owners, drones and their pilots. You can pretty much park on the street, walk a few steps, and take a great picture to send home.
But if you want to get even closer, you can bypass all the Hollywood drama and experience the Hollywood Sign a better way: on a day hike, bagging three peaks along the way.