Griffith Park’s Life-giving Waters: Ferndell

The Griffith Observatory is one of the rare attractions in Los Angeles that’s equally popular with tourists and locals alike. I’ve yet to meet a person who will say anything bad about the Observatory. Tourists love it for the view of the Hollywood sign. Locals love it for the views of the city. Kids love the big zapping Tesla coil inside. Couples love it for its tranquil setting. History buffs love the building for its architecture. Everyone loves it for the fact that it’s free. Whenever I’m entertaining a first-time visitor to Los Angeles, the Observatory is always one of the first things I show them, because what better way is there to introduce someone to Los Angeles? It’s an icon of the city, it’s a beautiful place in its own right, and the views give the uninitiated a sense of the lay of the land.

Prior to the pandemic, getting to the Observatory by transit was straightforward enough, albeit very slow given the heavy traffic and narrow roads winding up the hill. The DASH Observatory shuttle provided a direct service from the Vermont/Sunset Red Line station which was very popular, with packed buses in the evening when everyone was going up to watch the sunset. Due to the closure of the Observatory during the pandemic, the shuttle is currently only running as far as the Greek Theater before turning around.

But even when the DASH shuttle was running, my preferred option was to hike to the Observatory. It’s a moderately difficult hike, involving some steep climbing towards the end, but the first half is wonderfully shady and very easy. It’s about two miles, taking around an hour to climb to the top, and it takes you through the oasis of Ferndell, the most beautiful section of Griffith Park.

Transit options to the Observatory, with hiking route through Ferndell marked by the dotted line

Firstly, a bit of advice: I don’t recommend doing this hike on a hot day. Ferndell itself is cool and pleasant, but once you’re on the hill you’re not going to have a lot of shade. I recommend saving this for a cooler day or hiking in the morning or as the sun is going down. Regardless of when you go, bring a water bottle and put on some sunscreen (there are water fountains both in Ferndell and at the Observatory, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to refill).

To reach Ferndell, you want to take the Red Line to the Hollywood/Western station. The public art in this station is historical-themed, with depictions of former Hollywood locations. If you look behind you as you take the escalator up from the platform, you’ll see a full-size painting of two Pacific Electric streetcars traveling through a pair of subway tunnels. When you reach the surface, you’ll want to cross Western and make your way north, towards the hills. Be careful when crossing Franklin, because the traffic here is a little intense. By this point, make sure you’re on the west side of Western (across from the station entrance), because it’ll save you from having to cross another busy intersection. Another block further on, past the American Film Institute campus, Western will veer to the right but there will be a staircase leading straight up into Griffith Park. Follow the path along the ridge (houses will be on your left, a sloping lawn on your right) until it ends at a residential street—the entrance to Ferndell will be directly across the street.

The entrance to Ferndell

Ferndell, officially named the Ferndell Nature Museum (the collection of botanical specimens is the “museum”), is fed by a natural spring, which has been flowing as long as there has been mankind here to remember it. The native Tongva people used the canyon—named “Mokawee’nga” in the Tongva language and “Mocahuenga” in Spanish—as the gathering spot for their councils, establishing a village at the mouth of the canyon and making use of the year-round water supply.

Modern Ferndell dates back to 1914, when the city’s parks department began planting a rustic fern garden in this corner of Griffith Park. The land had only recently been turned over to the city, and park planners envisioned a lush, tropical forest fed by irrigation for the entire park. Ferndell was created as a demonstration of what the new parkland could look like with a reliable water source. Wells were dug nearby to supplement the water supply, dams were built to create pools, and rustic bridges and planting beds were constructed in the Picturesque style popular with landscape architects at the time. Besides the dozens of species of fern that give the garden its name, there is also a dense canopy of elephant ear plants, coast live oak, sycamores, California bay, and coastal redwoods, with ivy growing over much of it.

The foliage of Ferndell is so dense that it practically creates its own ecosystem. Where the rest of Griffith Park is sparsely vegetated and heavily exposed to the sun, Ferndell’s tree canopy and running water keeps it cool even on hot days. For the visitor, this makes it a wonderful respite from the heat. For the garden’s resident wildlife, the pools, stream and fauna make for a tranquil home. Within the ponds you will likely see goldfish, koi, and mosquito fish, and maybe the occasional turtle, frog, or crayfish. Dragonflies and butterflies are very common, and you’ll likely hear the rustle of lizards or squirrels in the bushes and the sound of woodpeckers in the trees above.

Ferndell owes its current appearance to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program that employed hundreds of thousands during the Great Depression with conservation jobs. Using style guides created by the National Park Service, the Corpsmen constructed the irregular stonework, faux-log railings, and additional water features, paths, and bridges, extending Ferndell to the north end of the canyon. The work is exemplary, and aside from some occasional restorations, Ferndell has largely remained the same since.

At some point early in Ferndell’s development, word began spreading that the spring waters of the canyon had curative qualities, with its spring dubbed the “fountain of youth.” No one knows how this story began, but its origin coincides with the same time period that Los Angeles was marketed as a health tourism destination, with many flocking here hoping that the region’s mild climate could cure tuberculosis and other ailments. Initially, believers would come with empty jugs to gather water directly from Ferndell’s well. Over the years, this source became contaminated and a deeper well was dug, with piping and faucets installed to make collection easier. Belief in the curative powers of the water eventually faded and the faucets were eventually removed, although you can still spot where they stood by the presence of unusually elaborate stonework and faux boulders in odd locations.

If you walk along the western bank of the stream, you’ll pass by a rocky grotto with a trickle of water spilling into a little pool within. It’s artificial, to be clear. But in such a tranquil setting, so close to the city yet seemingly so far away, it’s almost hard to believe that the water couldn’t be rejuvenating.

It gets wetter as you continue up Ferndell, and it begins to feel more chaotic. The boulders start to become covered in moss and the ivy hangs thick over the trail. There are more ponds and the stream grows closer, but here the ground water begins to intrude upon the path—a trickle of water runs along a channel built into the other side of the path, creating running water on both sides. Small puddles form on the trail, forcing you to watch your step lest you get your shoes wet. The trail narrows, but somehow there’s more people here, forcing you to press on.

And then suddenly, at the canyon’s narrowest, you emerge into a small clearing marked by the scenic archway of a bridge. The path curves to the right, plunging into the darkness of the tunnel. Traffic passes by overhead, a jarring reminder of the outside world, but as you pass underneath the air is cool and damp in the dim light within.

Once you pass under the bridge, you arrive at the other end of Ferndell. The natural spring bubbles out of a rock wall on your right before you pass through a chain link fence and out of Ferndell proper. At this point, the jungle-like atmosphere abruptly fades into a dry wash and a clearing beneath a grove of redwoods and eucalyptus trees. This is the start of the picnic grounds, and as you carry on you’ll reach the trailhead to the Observatory. There are some restrooms and water fountains at the trailhead, and just across the road is a cafe stand, “The Trails Cafe”, which serves some really good sandwiches and pastries and has plenty of shady picnic tables to enjoy your food.

While someone evidently brought a scooter this far up the trail, I don’t necessarily recommend you do the same.

From here, it’s a simple matter of walking up the trail to the Observatory. From the trailhead, you have two options: the East Observatory Trail (on the right) and the West Observatory Trail (on the left). The West Trail has better views of the Hollywood Sign but also a steeper initial climb, so I recommend the East Trail for a more gradual ascent if it’s your first time. As you make your way up the trail, you’ll catch glimpses of the Observatory perched on the hill ahead, and before long you’ll get views of the city’s Westside as well. The trail is steep, and you want to watch your step to avoid the little gullies that form on the trail. But it’s worth it, because as you round the corner directly beneath the Observatory, you’ll be treated to one of the finest views of the city you’ll find anywhere.

At this point, you just need to follow the wide path up towards the Observatory—it’s a busy trail, there’s sure to be lots of other people on the path. Here, you can check out the Observatory, use the restrooms or water fountains, or just take in the views. Or you can continue your trek up the mountain to see Griffith Park’s other magical gardens—but that’s a post for another day.

2 thoughts on “Griffith Park’s Life-giving Waters: Ferndell

  1. Thank you J.P. for another very detailed article about the Observatory!!! Definitely will have to try this walking route someday 🥰😁

    Liked by 1 person

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