“No Parking Sunset to Sunrise.” That’s what the sign on Fern Dell Drive says, which means that technically I’m not supposed to be here yet. I get out the car and leash Milo and glance around at the creeping dawn light sneaking through the trees. I check the time on my phone. Close enough I guess.
There are certain walks that I come back to again and again. The short hike from Fern Dell to Griffith Observatory is one of them. The landscaped trail at the base of the canyon is rich with plants and ponds and bridges unlike anything else you’ll find in Griffith Park. And when you arrive at the Observatory you’ll enjoy views that rival any in the whole city. Does it get crowded? Sure, but that’s only because so many people realize what a gem this is, and it’s so incredibly easy to access. My solution? Go early.
My walk begins on the east side of Fern Dell Drive, a treelined runway that leads toward the head of two separate trails, both of which ascend and eventually meet on the way toward Griffith Observatory. The “ferny” part of Fern Dell lies across the street, on the other side of a chain link fence. But we’ll get to that later.
The ground underneath my feet transitions from asphalt to dirt as I move past picnic tables and a dried brook, then further up ahead a playground and restroom facilities. I pause for a moment and read Griffith Park Sign No. 22, which lays out the options and distances to get to Griffith Observatory. I opt for the east route.
As I work my way up the wide trail, the domed structure ahead of me projects this sort of Rebel Base on Yavin 4 kind of vibe. I feel like there should be a sentry on the west terrace holding up a scanner to authenticate the transponder of the Millennium Falcon as it lands. But maybe that’s just me.
I stop for a photo and a gust of warm air pours down my neck. Santa Ana winds, I think to myself. Cool air sweeping in from some far off desert, compressed and heated by the low coastal pressure as it flows over the canyon hillside and out towards the Pacific.
It’s less than a half mile to arrive at the convergence of the East and West Observatory Trails. Sign No. 23 says I’m a quarter mile down the hill from the main objective. I keep right, following the flow of traffic as it bends up and to the left.
As I make the final ascent to the plateau where the Observatory resides, a pair of coyotes trot by along the edge of the trail. I instinctively pull Milo behind me, but they don’t seem much interested at the moment. They disappear into the brush and I exhale. It’s a reminder to always be aware of one’s surroundings. There are things that lived in this place long before we got here, and will be probably be around long after.
Upon reaching my destination I walk over to the Astronomer’s Monument and drink in the edifice of the iconic building. I’m never not stunned by the beauty of this thing, nor the confluence of events that led to its construction.
It was 1896 when the self-dubbed Colonel Griffith J. Griffith donated over 3,000 acres of land from the old Rancho Feliz as a gift to the city on the condition it be made into a public park, and kept free for all. You’d think a gesture of generosity like that would be enough to secure a legacy without contradiction. Then again, it’s not everyday an L.A. benefactor tries to kill their spouse.
In 1903, Griffith committed his most infamous act while vacationing in a hotel room in Santa Monica. The scene, as described in this KCET piece, sounds like something out of a Tarantino film. The Colonel, in the midst of an alcoholic rage, points at gun at his wife Christina and orders her to her knees. He demands she confess the details of a plot by the pope to poison him. Finally, he fires his weapon, nearly point blank, but by some miracle the bullet splits in two and only maims the poor woman. She flees through a window before he can fire again.
Christina was permanently disfigured by the assault. Griffith spent two years in San Quentin. By the time he got out it had been almost a decade since his donation to the city. Apparently reformed and sober, he sought about to reclaim his name, offering more funds for land improvements for the park, including plans to build a planetarium and a concert venue. For obvious reasons, not everyone was eager to accept the money, but eventually the Griffith Observatory was completed in 1933. That was fourteen years after its namesake’s death.
The Observatory’s interior isn’t open yet–it won’t open until 10 a.m. on a Sunday–but groups are still taking advantage of the postcard-like surroundings. A couple poses for pictures on the west terrace. Another stands at the front entrance and does the same. Walkers angle for photos selfies with the Hollywood Sign while others in workout gear use the wide green lawn as an exercise mat. I take in the view of Downtown from the West Terrace (pictured above), which is about as good as you’ll find anywhere in the county.
After a few more photos and a little contemplative time looking at the skyline, I trek back down the hillside, this time opting for the West Observatory Trail. The sun has risen sufficiently above the hills to consume most of the trail, abating much of the earlier shade.
In only minutes I’m back at the trailhead near Sign No. 22. I skirt the playground to the west, go over small a bridge, and then diagonally across Fern Dell Drive to arrive at The Trails cafe. Here you’ll find a a small selection of sandwiches and baked goods, along with all your standard coffee options.
I snap a picture of Trails then cross the street to re-enter the Fern Dell Trail going south. Tree tops shade my steps as I navigate a bridge then pass under a tunnel that leads into a wooded dell. According to the Natural History Museum, the various flora comprising Fern Dell include California natives, such as the lady fern, the western sycamore, and the coast live oak, as well as various international imports. Among them are snail ferns, button ferns, leatherleaf ferns, tree ferns, and large-leafed elephant-ear plants. As I soak in the surroundings, I remind myself that it didn’t always look like this.
In 1914 the L.A. Parks Department, then in charge of the land, set about reshaping the area into a fern-filled garden, covered by trees and carved by walking paths. By the 1920s the additions included faux bridges and terraced pools, instantly making it one of the most popular destinations in the park.
In the decades that followed, Fern Dell slowly fell into disrepair, a victim of city budget cuts and neglect. Attempts were made in the mid-1980s to renovate the area, but those ultimately fell short. By 2012 the once once picturesque setting was a shadow of its former self, marred by broken chain link fences, crumbling retaining walls, and graffiti, according to the L.A. Times.
In 2011, the Friends of Griffith Park established the Griffith Park Historic Fern Dell Preservation Project. By 2015, funds were available to restore the landscaping, remove debris, and repair the bridges. Today the fruits of those efforts have been rewarded with what is, once again, arguably the most idyllic sport in the whole park. And yet, today’s Fern Dell must look quite different than it did for the the peoples that thrived in this area for centuries before Spanish explorers even fathomed an expedition.
For the Gabrielino-Tongva, the year-round flow of the natural spring provided water for nearby communities. In the mouth of the stream-filled canyon, called “Mococahuenga” by the indigenous people, tribal council meetings were held. It must have been a sacred place. I guess, in a way, it still is.
Griffith J. Griffith famously said that public parks are “a safety valve of great cities.” Looking back on the past 23 months, I cherish the value of that release point. A place to go where the trauma and chaos of the world might be held at bay, at least for brief interludes. A place to see people, but still be apart.
As my morning excursion concludes and I get Milo get back into the car my spirit feels, if not restored, then at least reframed. Free parking is nice, but a simple walk in the park is something you just can’t put a price on.
Starting Point: Fern Dell Dr, Los Angeles CA 90027
End Point: Same
Distance 2.93 miles
Miles Until Goal: 993.59