In the 1900s, civic leaders began advocating for a new zoo for the people of Los Angeles. The city’s existing zoo at Eastlake Park (later renamed Lincoln Park) was small and cramped, and its animals were clearly suffering. Expansive Griffith Park, which had only recently been turned over to the city, seemed perfect. In fact, Colonel Griffith himself had briefly run an ostrich farm in the park in the 1880s. As a 1907 editorial by the staff of the Los Angeles Times put it,
Griffith Park is an ideal location for a zoological garden; there, most of the animals can live under conditions similar to their native state. Hundreds of acres of rolling land with drags and dens already prepared by nature await the advent of hapless creatures from the marshy, suffocating quarters at Eastlake.
And so city leaders got to work, establishing a grand new zoo in Griffith Park. It would be modern, expansive, and designed with naturalistic exhibits that would take advantage of the natural terrain of the park. And the people of Los Angeles would delight from the fruits of these labors, enjoying their beautiful new zoo…
In 1966, when the current Los Angeles Zoo opened to the public.
For over fifty years in the interim, the tiny Griffith Park Zoo operated just a couple miles south from where the current zoo sits. Far from the expansive, naturalistic zoo that civic leaders had envisioned, the early zoo opened in 1912 with a lack of funding and was plagued with problems from the start: shoddily-built enclosures, cramped cages, and inadequate infrastructure were hallmarks of the new zoo. Within its first few years, it was almost closed down after it was revealed that sewage was draining directly into the Los Angeles River.
A Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s revitalized the zoo somewhat, creating a series of grottoes and caves, which endure as the defining image of the old Griffith Park Zoo. But despite the new features, the zoo limped along for three more decades before the scandal-ridden zoo was finally replaced. And in an unusual move for Los Angeles, the remains of the zoo were largely left in place, creating some of the most famous and picturesque ruins anywhere in the city.
The Old Zoo sits in Spring Canyon on the east side of the park, near the visitor center and the historic merry-go-round. Although it’s tucked out of sight from any road, it’s an easy ten-minute walk from the nearest bus stop at Griffith Park Drive/Crystal Springs Drive. This stop is served by the Metro #96 bus, which runs about once an hour from 7am-7pm between Burbank and Downtown Los Angeles (if you’re going south, it’s the first stop after the zoo, and if you’re going north, it’s the first stop after the park ranger office). The stop was also served by the Griffith Parkline shuttle, which is currently suspended due to the pandemic, but hopefully will be an option to return in the future.
From Crystal Springs Drive, there are several possible approaches to the Old Zoo, but the most straightforward one is to just follow Griffith Park Drive towards the hills. Along the way you’ll pass the expansive lawns of the Park Center and Shane’s Inspiration, an all-inclusive playground designed for children with disabilities. Shortly after the playground, Griffith Park Dr will curve to the right; follow the road that branches to the left instead, which will be lined with parking spots facing a grassy picnic area. Keep following this little road uphill, past the turnaround and the gate that prevents cars from continuing further. A little ways up the road, it will fork; take the left path, which will curve through a grove of trees into the grounds of the Old Zoo.
As you walk uphill, some pieces of decayed infrastructure will be the first signs of the former zoo: blank foundations, chain-link fences, and low cement posts dot the hillsides of the zoo grounds. After you cross a dry creek bed lined with stones, you’ll enter the main part of the Old Zoo, with a grassy lawn on one side and your first set of cages lining the path just ahead.
Right off the bat, this set of dilapidated, iron bar cages gives you a sense of the terrible conditions the animals lived in. Many of these are unlocked, allowing you to walk inside; just be careful to watch your step, since the cement floors are crumbling apart. When visiting during a rainy season, I saw a stream running down the hillside that had cut through the back of one of these cages, creating a tiny waterfall and flooding the cell.
Following this are a set of wire mesh bird cages, which have a passageway behind them that allows you to enter the cages themselves, although there’s only just enough room to stand. Next to these is a simple cinder-block building, with the door likely blocked off, but with a beautiful illustration of a parrot that someone added above the door as a thoughtful reminder of the building’s former inhabitants.
From here we move to the main attraction: the grottoes. The path will split into two, with the right path going uphill behind the grottoes. If you keep to the left along the lawn, you’ll pass by the front, as zoo visitors would have seen them.
The grottoes are surreal, looking like blocky set constructions from a sci-fi film. They actually have been used in a bunch of movies, either simulating a still-functioning zoo or a natural cave (my personal favorite example being an utterly unconvincing Bigfoot den in the bizarre ’80s flick Cry Wilderness, skewered by Mystery Science Theater 3000). The bars that would have separated the animals from the zoogoers have been removed, allowing you to walk into the enclosures. Some of them have picnic tables set up in them now, and you can poke around the back and look up through locked gates into the steep passageways that zookeepers would have used to access the enclosures. Most of these are filled with trash and debris now; one even partially caved in, with a heavy boulder now sitting at the bottom.
However, one of these passageways remains open. If you go to the grotto on the far side, you merely have to crouch under a set of metal bars to step inside. A steep staircase (watch your step) leads to the top, past graffiti-covered walls beneath a long set of metal grates. At the top is a set of small cells, dark and full of debris (a flashlight is recommended here). A small window allows you to peer out onto the path that travels behind the grottoes.
If you circle back and take the uphill path behind the grottoes, you can access the last set of cages. This path was obviously meant for staff only, given that it serves the back of the zoo exhibits. The grottoes are fenced off from the back to keep people from scrambling on top, but you can peek through the windows and doorways to see the remains inside. After the last door, you’ll pass by the foundations of a shed that existed as recently as 2017, when I first visited the Old Zoo. On that day, it was covered in graffiti and some kids had a elaborate camera setup inside while blasting music. Now it’s gone, leaving nothing but a few inconspicuous metal posts sticking out of the ground. But a great view of the Glendale skyline remains.
Follow the path around the curve and you’ll reach the last set of cages, a large iron-bar cage built low to the ground, forcing you to really crouch to get in. This was probably a holding pen, meant to contain animals before they were put on public display. The largest cell is tall enough to stand in, but the two smaller ones attached in the back are so short you practically have to lay on the ground to fit inside.
I’ve been to the Old Zoo several times, and it’s a completely different experience every time. It’s a site caught in flux, ravaged by time and the elements and marked by the ongoing actions of humans. Graffiti will come and go, chain-link fences will get pulled down by urban explorers and reinstalled by park staff. Locks will appear and then vanish. If you visit during the wet season, water will be leaking into the dens, moss will cover the inside of cages, and vines will encroach upon the metal bars. Even the time of day makes a big difference; a visit at dusk—which I highly recommend—makes the ruins seem even more eerie and sinister.
In fact, it is that eerie quality that draws the Old Zoo’s most popular event: the Haunted Hayride. Held every October in the weeks leading up to Halloween, taking advantage of the creepy atmosphere to set up a series of elaborate set pieces to scare the bejesus out of participants. If you visit in late September, you will likely see the crazy sets being set up for the event, and maybe even run into volunteers being trained on how to scare the guests. The drawback of visiting during Haunted Hayride season is that nearly all of the cages are locked by the event staff, but it’s almost worth it for the insane decorations.
Regardless of when you visit, the Old Zoo is always an incredible and evocative experience. It’s one of my favorite places in Los Angeles to show people; in fact, just about anyone who knows me probably saw this post coming, because I’ve lost count how many times I’ve told others about the wonders of the abandoned zoo. In a city where old infrastructure tends to get gobbled up and quickly recycled—if not outright destroyed—the Old Zoo is completely unique in the landscape of Los Angeles, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Top image and all images of grottoes courtesy of Steven Quintero. Historical images are courtesy of the Valley Times Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library (Source 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and the Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, USC Libraries (Source)