In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
- John Muir
Los Angeles' Griffith Park is many things to many people: An observatory to gaze at the stars; An amphitheater where one can enjoy music under the stars; Riding horses, both real and wooden; Riding miniature-sized trains and climbing on actual-sized ones; Perusing giraffes in the zoo or playing a few rounds of golf. All of which comprises what the park's late 19th-century namesake benefactor, Colonel Griffith Jenkins Griffith, intended when he donated over 3,000 acres to the city of Los Angeles for recreation purposes.
Having grown up just a few miles away, the park has been part of my life since I was an infant. I had pretty much done all of the activities listed above. I thought I knew Griffith Park, yet there was much more left to discover.
One of the biggest attractions of Griffith Park is the 53 miles of hiking trails that the park, on the far eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, offers, a natural, relatively-untouched isthmus of chaparral wilderness surrounded by urbanity.
Since my young adult years, I've only enjoyed but two of those 53 miles, hiking on the very wide, fire-road path from the observatory's parking lot to the top of Mt. Hollywood, rewarded with simultaneous views of the L.A. basin and the San Fernando Valley, the sight of yellow-and-black swallowtail butterflies skimming over the brush, and the nerdy reward of spotting the city's elevation marker, which reads "1619" feet above sea level.
I had done this hike ceremoniously during holidays or on my birthday, thinking it was the ultimate trek in the park.
But there was still -- as the catchphrase goes -- infinitely more.
Seeking both exercise and proximity to nature, I recently started joining the Griffith Park Evening Hikes offered by the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter and Griffith Park Section. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, hikers convene at the north side of the parking lot above the Crystal Springs Merry-Go-Round and split off at about 7 p.m. into groups which go on 2-hour hikes in the park according to skill level (determined by speed and terrain), led by an experienced Sierra Club hike leader.
According to Griffith Park Section chairman Felix Martinez, a 13-year veteran hike leader, described affectionately as the "zen master" by some of the hikers, the Sierra Club has been offering these free group hikes for the past 60-70 years.
I had joined these group hikes quite by accident: Originally intending to join a separate hiking party that met nearby but inadvertently missing them by a few minutes, I went along with the Sierra Club hike with the intent to hike anyway. The result was a 6-mile, breath-catching, heart-racing, sweat-inducing workout that led our group through seemingly obscure footpaths barely more than a foot long, climbing at times up steep angles that required improvised footing, walking carefully along virtually-steep cliffsides, finally reaching Mt. Chapel, in between Mt. Hollywood and the Hollywood-sign-bearing Mt. Lee. That hike kicked my butt, and I loved it.
Subsequent hikes were decidedly not as strenuous, but just as rewarding: Hiking up to the sandstone promontory of Bee Rock, which overlooks the Old Zoo area, with the lights of Glendale shining in the distance below -- bearing true to its nickname as "The Jewel City."
I spotted native golden monkeyflowers in bloom and passed by some of the charred remains of the 2007 Griffith Park wildfire, which incidentally, flared up six years ago to that day. Our group even spotted a stray dog, which barked uncontrollably, until one of us in our group, who happened to run a dog day care center, got it to settle down and eventually find its way back to its owner.
Each hike becomes a learning opportunity among the hikers. On that particular hike, hike leader Emmy Goldknopf taught the hikers how to spot owls perched on trees.
"See the end of the branches? Look for a blob at the top. That's an owl," she said, with hikers staring at the silhouettes of bare tree branches against the purple dusk sky. A tell-tale "Hoo!" call in the distance confirmed it so, to the delight of the group.
On my most recent hike, led by Martinez, a group of around 20 was led up to the Dupoi Rocks, which overlooked the Griffith Park Boys Camp at the center of the park. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge that spanned a dormant waterfall and scaled a steep column of moss-dotted rocks to reach the promontory above. This was not just hiking, I thought. I simultaneously feared and welcomed the challenge.
The hikers, most of whom range in age from their 30s to their 70s, and represent all walks of life, have myriad reasons for joining the evening groups hikes.
Eugenia Mendez, a fashion designer from Santa Clarita, has been joining the Sierra Club hikes for around a decade, twice a week.
"It's so beautiful here, it's good exercise, compared to the gym. The views are spectacular," she said.
Anthony Rubio, a heavy equipment operator who lives in nearby Glendale, has only been doing the Griffith Park hikes for the past month and a half, which he found out about via Meetup.com.
"I'm 48, and just stopped smoking, I've been wanting to get back into shape," he said.
Rubio volunteered as the group's "sweeper," a person who hikes at the end of the pack and makes sure people don't get left behind. Hikers who decide to split from the group for whatever reason usually notify the sweeper.
"This is my backyard," added Rubio, who also grew up nearby in Atwater Village and had memories of visiting the park during his youth. "I get to see my backyard in a whole new way."
What ultimately brings people back time and time again is the social atmosphere
"The best thing is the camaraderie, safety and the social aspect, just the things you learn from the people you walk with," said Gabriela Sosa, an interpreter, producer and actor who lives in nearby Los Feliz. "I just met someone who is a botanist and learned more about the flora in the park that I've walked by a million times."
Just then it hit me, we were all within Los Angeles' largest public space, taking full advantage of Col. Griffith's 116-year old natural wonderland, located right in our own backyard. A uniquely Southern Californian activity that can't be equalled in most cities around the world. Every step leads to discovery, even for the experienced. Mr. Muir was right, you really do get more than what you came looking for. And best of all, it's free.