Perched on the slopes of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory is a true Los Angeles landmark. Roads lead up to the impressive structure and so do trails. East Observatory Trail offers an approach from the Vermont Canyon side. For a 2.1-mile round trip hike to Griffith Observatory from Western Canyon, venture up West Observatory Trail from Fern Dell Drive. West Observatory Trail ascends 540 feet and provides a good little workout along with inspiring perspectives of the observatory and the city it serves.
For added Griffith Park fun, stroll up Ferndell Trail before making the ascent for a slightly longer 2.6-mile hike. At the top of the hike, step inside the Griffith Observatory and check out some scientific exhibits. You can exercise your mind and your body on this outing in Griffith Park.
Whether you are the type of hiker that feels cheated when you hike up to a destination that others are driving to, or feel like you’re getting a leg up on the motorists, West Observatory Trail is worth taking, with views beyond those found at Griffith Observatory. Parking at the observatory can be a nightmare (the observatory receives over a million visitors annually), so that is one more reason to hit the trail instead.
Hiking up to Griffith Observatory
Set out from Western Canyon, which is just below Griffith Observatory to the west. Parking is available along Fern Dell Drive and Western Canyon Road, which is one continuous road.
The easiest place to begin is 0.4 miles up from Los Feliz Boulevard, just past an intersection with Red Oak Drive. Walk east across the bottom of the canyon through picnic areas and gardens to find Western Canyon Trail, a wide dirt trail that runs up the canyon (this trail is on your right as your drive up into the park from Los Feliz Boulevard). You will pass Ferndell Trail to the south, a charming quarter-mile long trail through a fenced-in parcel along Fern Dell Drive. You can add Ferndell Trail to your hike to bring the distance up to 2.6 miles with 615 feet of elevation change.
Two branches of West Observatory Trail leave from the east side of the canyon. Lower West Observatory Trail is a tenth of a mile above Ferndell Trail and just past that is Upper West Observatory Trail, located across from a playground. Neither route is marked, but they both lead to the observatory. These direction will take Lower West Observatory Trail up and come down Upper West Observatory Trail. The lower trail provides excellent head-on views of Griffith Observatory while the upper trail has better views of the Hollywood Sign and is 0.2 miles longer.
Walk up the canyon from Ferndell Trail and take the first wide dirt trail on the right to get onto Lower West Observatory Trail. On weekends, you’ll find a steady stream of hikers making their way up the trail. Less than a hundred yards up, pass a bridge on the left that crosses a creek bed to connect to Upper West Observatory Trail.
Rise up from the canyon floor over the next tenth of a mile to a bend to the right that provides excellent views of Griffith Observatory. The large structure is both imposing and elegant, built in an art deco style with influences of moderne, modified Greek, and beaux-arts. The observatory is rarely out of view as you continue up the trail.
In another quarter mile, a steep and rocky path off the right side of the trail goes straight up the mountainside to the next piece of the trail. This route won’t save you much time, but can be used to add more exercise to the ascent. Proceed another hundred yards up the trail to a junction with Upper West Observatory Trail. When the trails meet, turn right on the unified trail and continue up the ridge toward Griffith Observatory.
Pass the top of that steep path after a tenth of a mile. West Observatory Trail curves to the right and keeps climbing to a perch on the ridge south of Griffith Observatory where there is a multi-point junction. The intersection of trails has a bench with stellar views over Los Angeles. You have risen to one thousand feet above sea level, after ascending 400 feet over 0.65 miles from the bottom of Lower West Observatory Trail. Take in the sights before continuing on. The skyline of downtown Los Angeles rises to the southeast. In the opposite direction, you can look in on Griffith Park for a view of the Hollywood Sign to the northwest. While the letters were partially obscured on Lower West Observatory Trail, they are all clearly visible from this vantage.
On the right, a narrower ridge trail descends back toward Western Canyon. Straight ahead, East Observatory Trail descends toward Vermont Canyon Road near the Greek Theater. On the left, one not-as-wide trail takes a level route below the Observatory and can be used to connect down to Upper West Observatory Trail. A wider trail on the left heads north up the ridge straight toward Griffith Observatory. Take this trail to get to the landmark.
As you hike north up Observatory Trail, look over your right shoulder for more views over Los Feliz toward downtown Los Angeles. Later, look to the right between pine trees across the east side of Griffith Park. The trail passes just below the eastern wall of the observatory and then swings left to come up to the corner of the lawn on the north side of Griffith Observatory.
Reach the top after hiking 0.85 miles from the bottom of Lower West Observatory Trail (hiking about 0.95 miles from Fern Dell Drive of 1.2 miles from the start of Ferndell Trail). Walk across the lawn outside the observatory for views looking east toward the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee. You can also look north toward Mount Hollywood, which could be reached by walking across the parking lot to a trail to the summit. Unless you’re just in it for the hike, you can now step inside Griffith Observatory.
Visiting Griffith Observatory
We can thank the redundantly named patron Griffith Griffith for this eponymously named park and observatory. Griffith donated 3,905 acres of land to the City of Los Angeles in 1896 to give the city a great public park and improve the lives of its citizens. A panel inside the Griffith Observatory explains that:
When Colonel Griffith made his offer to Los Angeles in 1896, the city’s population was roughly 100,000. The land he wanted to donate was a sparsely developed area a mile outside the city limits. The Los Angeles City Council worried people would not travel that far and new roads would cost too much. Fortunately, the council voted to accept the gift. Today Griffith Park sits at the center of a busy metropolitan area of 10 million people.
In 1912, Griffith gave the city funding to build an observatory in the park. He believed that the public should have easy access to astronomy, which is why the observatory is free to the public and not located on a remote mountain top that might have better conditions for studying the stars. Griffith died in 1919, before he could see the beautiful realization of his dream. Construction began in 1933, based on initial designs by Russell Porter, and the soon-to-be-iconic observatory opened to the public in 1935. Griffith Observatory has been operated by the City of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation ever since.
Step inside and learn about Earth, neighboring plants, and stars. Inside the lobby, a Foucault pendulum knocks over pegs as it swings back and farther, turned by an effect of the Earth’s rotation. In a room to the left, check out an electrifying Tesla coil and admire old telescopes. To the right, learn more about our closest star, the sun. There is more to see downstairs too, like a series of scales that show what you would weigh on the moon and other plants in the solar system. The observatory has a theater and a planetarium for additional learning.
When you go back outside the observatory, climb steps up either the west or east side of the building and walk across the roof, taking in sweeping views as you pass between the large domes housing the observatory’s telescopes.
Hiking down from Griffith Observatory
Heading back down West Observatory Trail, you have the option to take the other branch of the trail (Upper West Observatory Trail) to add a loop to the bottom of the hike and get new views of the Hollywood Sign, Griffith Observatory, and the city below. Hike 0.2 miles down to the junction by the bench and turn right to continue down West Observatory Trail. In another 0.2 miles, reach the split between the upper and lower sides of the trail. Turning left, you could take the shorter route and return the way you came. Stay to the right to explore Upper West Observatory Trail, which is just 0.2 miles longer.
Upper West Observatory Trail is gradual at first, crossing a saddle on a ridge with views to the northwest across Western Canyon toward the Hollywood Sign. These views of the sign are superior to those from Lower West Observatory Trail and as good as the views from the observatory. Look out over Los Angeles as you continue southwest down the trail. Lower West Observatory Trail is visible cutting up the ridge on the opposite side of the small canyon.
After a quarter mile, the trail turns downhill and drops from the top of the ridge. Go down a switchback to the left and another to the right as the trail gets steeper. As you go, look back up the canyon for nice perspectives of Griffith Observatory and both branches of West Observatory Trail. After another pair of switchbacks, the trail runs parallel to the bottom of Lower West Observatory Trail and comes back to Western Canyon. A bridge on the left connects the two trails, spanning a dry creek bed where there are some fun man-made rock walls. Picnic tables in this area can be used to take a break. Pass a bathroom on the right at the bottom of Upper West Observatory Trail and walk around a playground to return to the road where you started.
If you need to refuel, Griffith Park has the solution. The Trails Cafe can be found just across Western Canyon Road. The rustic little spot is perfect for grabbing a post-hike drink or a bite to eat (like a slice of homemade pie).
Griffith Observatory is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 10 p.m. On weekends, the observatory opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. The Trails Cafe is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission to Griffith Observatory and the rest of Griffith Park (including parking) is and always has been free. You will need to purchase tickets to enjoy planetarium shows and some other presentations inside the observatory. If you decide not to hike, be aware that the parking area up by Griffith Observatory fills up very fast, forcing some visitors to walk a long way up Observatory Road. Parking on Fern Dell Drive and Western Canyon Road has the potential to be crowded too, but spots can usually be found. You might have to walk a little extra up or down the road. Bikes are not allowed on dirt trails in Griffith Park, but dogs are welcome. There are lots of other trails in Griffith Park to explore. No permit is required to hike to Griffith Observatory and visiting Griffith Park is free, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From Interstate 5, take exit 141 for Los Feliz Boulevard. Go west on Los Feliz Boulevard for 2.4 miles. Turn right up Fern Dell Drive and drive 0.4 miles into Griffith Park. Find pull-in roadside parking on the right, just past a Red Oak Drive. Walk east to get to the start of the trail. If you end up parking above The Trails Cafe, you will need to walk back down the canyon to find the trail.
From the 101 Freeway, take exit 8 for Hollywood Boulevard. Drive east for five blocks on Hollywood Boulevard and turn left up Western Avenue. After crossing Franklin Avenue, Western Avenue goes up a steep hill, turns to the right, and becomes Los Feliz Boulevard. Make the first left up Fern Dell Drive, drive 0.4 miles into the park and find a place to park your vehicle.
Trailhead address: Fern Dell Drive, Los Angeles, CA90068
Trailhead coordinates: 34.11325, -118.3075 (34° 06′ 47.7″N 118° 18′ 27″W)
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