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100 Years in Stride

Hiking: Los Angeles

Taking to trails of Griffith Park displays city's grand flora, fauna

December 22, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Hiking along Griffith Park trails is an especially exultant exercise during the holiday season, when the rich green crown of the toyon bush is aglow with a mass of red berries. At a time when most members of the chaparral community have donned their gray apparel, the toyon--known variously as Christmas berry or California holly--is the most festive of flora.

And this is a particularly joyous time for Griffith Park fans because the park is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith, a Welshman who made a fortune in gold mining and real estate, astonished the city when he presented it with 3,000 acres on Dec. 16, 1896. Some have suggested, however, that Griffith's gift was a tax dodge.

In 1903, Griffith became more infamous when he stood trial for the attempted murder of his wife. Convicted, he served two years in San Quentin Prison, then returned to L.A. to try to prove his civic spirit. He offered the city $100,000 for an observatory, but the city refused. Only after Griffith's death in 1919 did the city take the colonel's money to build the observatory and the Greek Theatre.

These days, hikers know there are really two Griffith Parks. One is the familiar urban park with its landscaped shrubbery, golf courses, picnic areas, train museum and zoo. The other is a wild park--mountain country--with 53 miles of trail to explore. The 4,107-acre park forms the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains and offers the hiker a taste of the range's cliffs and crags.

Clear-day views from atop Mt. Hollywood, the park's high point at 1,625-feet, are awesome: the Santa Monica Mountains marching west to Malibu, the sweep of Santa Monica Bay, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Catalina Island, the Vincent Thomas Bridge and Long Beach. And many San Gabriel Mountains peaks, from Mt. Wilson to Mt. Baldy, and, far in the distance, snowcapped Mt. San Jacinto towering over Palm Springs and mighty Mt. San Gorgonio, the Southland's 11,502-foot high point.

Two-thirds of Griffith Park, one of the nation's largest municipal parks, is rugged, undeveloped terraina hiker's delight. Most hillsides are covered with chaparral--ceanothus, toyon and buckwheat. Poppies, bush lupine and the occasional wild purple onion splash color around the park.

Canyon bottoms are shaded with oak and sycamore. Planted pines and eucalyptus groves are scattered on hill and dale. More than 100 tree species grow in the park; this diversity contributes to a variety of bird life, which also numbers more than 100 species.

I have selected a few hikes for the holidays, a difficult task because I have a dozen favorites.

For ambitious hikers seeking longer outings, or anyone wanting to atone for too much holiday feasting, I'd suggest circling the park by trail. Depending on the pathways chosen, you could visit most of the park's high points and features on a 10- to 12-mile hike.

Fern Dell Trail

To Griffith Park Observatory is 2 1/2 miles round trip with 500-foot gain.

In well-named Fern Dell, a brook bubbles through a woodsy, fern-lined glen. The brook waters a grove of coast redwood that thrives at the bottom of the dell. The redwoods complement the native sycamore and alder, which shade this oasis in the heart of the Hollywood Hills.

Hopefully, your sense of surprise upon discovering ferns and redwoods won't be lessened when you discover that human engineering, not nature, is responsible for the scene. Recycled water from Griffith Observatory's cooling system is released from the top of the hill.

Join the path to the east of Fern Dell Drive. Large sycamores shade the trail, which ascends alongside the moss-covered banks of a brook, past tiny waterfalls, to Fern Dell Picnic Area. As you walk toward the redwoods and past the picnic area, stay to the right (east) side of the brook.

Your trail, officially known as Lower West Observatory Trail (though it is unmarked), lingers for a time alongside the brook, then begins to climb. Gaps in the eucalyptus and chaparral allow good views of the Hollywood sign above and the city below. Three-fourths of a mile from Fern Dell is an unsigned three-way junction. Bear right, continue a quarter-mile to another junction and bear left, then ascend another quarter-mile to the observatory.

Access: This hike begins at the south end of Griffith Park. From Los Feliz Boulevard, turn north on Fern Dell Drive and park along the drive. If parking is scarce, continue farther to the Ferndell Picnic Area.

Mt. Hollywood Trail

To Mt. Hollywood is three miles round trip with 500-foot elevation gain.

Griffith Park's most popular trail is the path from Griffith Observatory to the top of Mt. Hollywood, with its magnificent views, particularly at sunset. On clear days the entire basin is spread out before you, from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Jacinto can be seen.

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