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Griffith Park's Lesser-Known Wonders

Hugh Hefner Overlook | All photo by Sandi Hemmerlein
Hugh Hefner Overlook | All photo by Sandi Hemmerlein

Our very own Griffith Park is the largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the entire country.

But that means most of us probably get to experience only a limited portion of it, depending on which access point is used -- be it Beachwood or Bronson from the west, Fern Dell or Vermont from the south, Crystal Springs from the east, or Zoo Drive from the north. In fact, the park is so big, traversing its entirety by foot would be an insurmountable task. Its five square miles don't take into account elevation, limited parking options, or traffic on the trails. And because most of the trails are not marked in any easily comprehensible way, locals and tourists alike tend to tread the same well-worn paths -- to Mount Hollywood, to the Observatory -- over and over again.

With all of its wild and wonder (and its very own mascot, P-22 the mountain lion), Griffith Park is experiencing record-breaking numbers of visitors this year. But that doesn't mean all of the park is crowded.

Venture off to some of these hidden gems, where secrets and mysteries abound.

Carolwood Barn
Carolwood Barn

Walt Disney's First Kingdom
You don't have to drive all the way to Anaheim to experience some of the magic and wonder of Walt Disney in Southern California. Legend has it that Walt used to sit on a bench and watch the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round, which ultimately inspired him to create Disneyland. Visit the antique 1926 carousel off Crystal Springs Drive in the "Park Center" area, and then head north on Crystal Springs, past where it turns into Zoo Drive. Just before Travel Town, you'll find Walt's Carolwood Barn, which is considered "The Birthplace of Imagineering" -- where Disney spent hours working on model trains and feeding his passion for railroading. It was moved form its original location in Holmby Hills in 1999 to the L.A. Live Steamers Railroad Museum (which Walt himself helped found), and it is now filled with Disney artifacts and memorabilia and many of Disney's own personal tools.

Hugh Hefner's Gift
When we think of celebrities affiliated with the park, we may think of Walt Disney, James Dean, or even Griffith J. Griffith himself, but we owe a lot of modern-day Griffith Park to Hugh Hefner. In 1978, the adult publishing magnate raised funds to rebuild the Hollywood sign, which had been termite-infested and all but burned down. Some 30 years later, Hefner contributed nearly a million dollars to save Cahuenga Peak -- the land surrounding the sign -- to save it from development and keep it as part of the park. You can now access the Hollywood sign -- and boulders with plaques commemorating Hefner's contribution -- via a trail near Lake Hollywood, making a stop at Cahuenga Peak itself and the Wisdom Tree. End your hike directly above the Hollywood sign letters at the Hugh Hefner Overlook, and go back the way you came to avoid the wrath of the Beachwood Canyon community.

Amir's Garden
Amir's Garden is still an incredible oasis of serenity and beauty, even when hiking groups of 30 or more make their way through it. The best way to experience this rare garden -- located high above the Griffith Park Boys Camp near Mineral Wells -- is to take your time with it, slowly exploring its many ornamental plantings as you navigate through the various walkways lined with jade and jacaranda. It's a rare shady spot in Griffith Park and a popular rest stop for hikers and equestrians alike. Volunteer-run since its inception in 1971, for the last 10 years the garden has been a labor of love for its unpaid caretaker, Kristin Sabo. Because it's so wet despite the drought, it actually serves as a natural firebreak -- something the City of L.A. eventually recognized but didn't quite realize when they granted permission for Amir to build a little garden up on that rocky slope. Nothing else has transformed the landscape of this urban wilderness quite like this space.

Royce's Canyon
Royce's Canyon

Royce's Canyon
Thanks to Tree-People co-founder Royce Neuschatz, there is only one landfill in Griffith Park, Toyon Canyon. The area now known as Royce's Canyon was originally slated to become a sister landfill site until Neuschatz intervened. She was a city parks and recreation commissioner, and banded together hikers and other outdoor and open space enthusiasts to block the proposal. This hidden area of Griffith Park is now called Royce's Canyon in her memory, and its tranquility perseveres despite being squished between the Toyon landfill and the rear boundary of Forest Lawn Memorial Park. There's even a small cave there, but beware of any critters hiding in there. Easiest access to the canyon is from the Griffith Park Composting Facility.

The haunted picnic table
The haunted picnic table

The Haunted Picnic Table
Yes, there's a haunted picnic table in Griffith Park, or so they say. Legend has it that nearly 40 years ago, a young couple were caught in the throes of passion on this very table when a tree fell on top of them, crushing them to death. But the gruesome events didn't stop there -- legend also says that anytime parks workers tried to clear the fallen tree, they got the bejeezus scared out of them, some never to return from duty. Eventually, the park rangers learned their lesson and gave up -- and now the fallen tree can still be found atop the picnic table, which may be haunted by the ghosts of the fallen lovers, or may have already been cursed before that fateful night. Find out for yourself -- if you dare -- near the intersection of Mt. Hollywood Drive and Vista Del Valle Drive.

Hotel Californian sign
Hotel Californian sign

Bonus
For an extra round of treasure hunting, look for the rusted, abandoned sign of the former Hotel Californian at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive. Wander through Cedar Grove for a densely wooded area, when Angeles National Forest is just a bit too far and you've let your Adventure Pass expire. Trek up Henry's Trail (in memory of late Sierra Club hike leader Henry Shamma) to Glendale Peak, which doesn't even appear on most maps. And finally, climb into the former grottos and cages of the Old Zoo, which were deemed inhumane for housing animals.