Griffith Park’s Hilltop Gardens

Back when this website was still brand new, we paid a visit to Ferndell, arguably the most tranquil spot in Griffith Park. At the time, we promised to return to explore Griffith Park’s other gardens, the hidden ones perched on top of the hills at the heart of the park. Now, nearly two years later, we’re doing just that.

Compared to Ferndell, which was an early, highly coordinated effort at developing Griffith Park, the gardens we’ll be exploring today were scattered, informal enterprises that were the work of passionate individuals who wanted to leave their mark on the world. They’re Griffith Park’s version of the Watts Towers: extremely personal labors of love that were later embraced by the community, all from an era when the powers that be were more willing to turn a blind eye to such alterations to the landscape.

We’re also going to explore the Observatory and what it has to offer in this guide, since a hike to the top of Mt. Hollywood’s gardens is the perfect opportunity to check out one of the city’s most iconic attractions.

Transit options to Griffith Observatory: DASH shuttle or hike through Ferndell

Getting to the gardens on top of Mt. Hollywood requires first getting to the Griffith Observatory, and as explained in our Ferndell guide, there’s two good ways to do that: the easy way is to take the popular DASH Observatory shuttle, which provides a direct service from the Vermont/Sunset Red Line station to the Observatory, while the long (but scenic) way is to hike up through Ferndell from the Hollywood/Western Red Line station (see the Ferndell guide for detailed directions if you decide to hike).

Reaching any of the gardens requires a long and steep hike, and I don’t recommend doing it on a hot day. Once you’re on the hill, you’re not going to have a lot of shade. Start in the morning or save it for a cooler day, and definitely bring a water bottle, some snacks, and put on some sunscreen. There are water fountains at certain points along the way (see our maps below), so you’ll have a chance to refill before you set off uphill.

If you’re visiting on a day when the Observatory is open (currently just Thursday-Sunday, check the website for current hours), it is absolutely worth it to pop inside and check out the exhibits. The Observatory is free, with two floors of science exhibits, great views of the city from the roof and balconies, and planetarium shows (which are the one thing you do have to pay for).

The main entry floor has some of the most famous and exciting exhibits. Suspended from the painted ceiling of the entry rotunda is a gilded Foucault pendulum, a device that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation; the pendulum swings in place, while the building rotates with the Earth. A set of pegs set up along the path are slowly knocked over as the day progresses, and you’ll always see a crowd gathering and hear a big cheer when, after numerous near misses, the pendulum knocks over one of these pegs.

Making a left turn from the entrance and entering the next room, you are presented with two of the Observatory’s most unique attractions: the Camera Obscura and the Tesla Coil. The Tesla Coil sits quietly for most of the day, partially obscured behind glass and a metal cage, until one of the several showings throughout the day when a volunteer comes and gives a presentation, explaining the history and properties of the Coil while turning it on a few times to the delight of the assembled crowd. Lightning arcs from the Coil to the bars of the metal cage, zapping violently while a multi-colored neon sign that spells out “TESLA COIL” lights up. It’s always fun to watch, so make a note of when the next showing is if you can.

The bottom floor is a bit trickier to find. In fact, I visited the Observatory three times before discovering there even was a bottom floor. But if you can find the staircase that takes you down, I do recommend it for some more unique exhibits, like a timeline of the universe made up of hundreds of star-themed pieces of jewelry, a machine that detects cosmic rays passing through it, or the scale models of our solar system.

Back outside, a staircase on the side of the building leads to the Observatory’s roof, where you can not only get a great view of the city, but get a glimpse at the actual observatory. Follow the signs to the telescope, which is held in one of the small domes on the roof. Just be aware that there will often be a long line to get into the viewing area, which is a cramped space tucked to one side of the dome that gives you a view of the telescope.

Trail map to Mt. Hollywood gardens

Once you’ve taken in what the Observatory has to offer, you can begin your hike up Mount Hollywood, which is about a mile and a half uphill. (For clarification, Mt. Hollywood isn’t the mountain with the Hollywood Sign on it—that would be Mount Lee. Mt. Hollywood is the one directly behind the Observatory.) The trailhead is on the other end of the parking lot; to reach it, follow the sidewalk along the edge of the lot facing the Hollywood Sign, passing all the tourists taking selfies with the sign in the background. Once you’ve passed the restrooms, you’ll see the trailhead across the street, leading into a woods topping the ridge.

The woods in question are the Berlin Forest, a grove of pine trees planted by German dignitaries in the 1990s to honor Berlin’s status as one of LA’s sister cities. The grove shades a nice picnic area, with great views of the surroundings and goofy signs pointing how far away Berlin is from this spot. And if you’re wondering if there’s a Los Angeles garden in Berlin, there is: the Los Angeles-Platz, a quiet city square just off the Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s most illustrious boulevards.

Past the Berlin Forest, you’ll top the ridge and walk down towards a bridge that crosses the Observatory road, where it passes through a tunnel. Down below you’ll see the stream of cars slowly snaking its way uphill to the Observatory, while a rusty water tower sits on the hillside across from you. On the other side of the bridge, the trail curves left and starts switch-backing up the hill (you’ll likely see some people scramble up the steep slope straight ahead, but this is a shortcut for maniacs—best to stick to the nice wide trail).

The trail winds across the hill for a ways before coming to an overlook over the Hollywood Sign, complete with stone benches, before the trail makes a sharp U-turn and continues up the ridge. From here you can get some really splendid views of the Observatory with the Downtown skyline in the background, as well as a line of palm trees further up the hill straight ahead, completely alien to the chaparral landscape around you. This marks the spot of Captain’s Roost, the first of Griffith Park’s informal gardens.

Near the top of the hill, you’ll reach a junction where the trail splits into two that wrap around either side of Mt. Hollywood. A sign at the junction points to Captain’s Roost to the left, so take the left path and follow it around the bend until you reach the staircase leading down into the Roost itself.

Captain’s Roost consists of a single path that follows a short ridge down the western slope of Mt. Hollywood. The first feature is an overlook, adorned with a typical park bench, that gives you a chance to sit down and take in the spectacular view of the city. From here, the path heads down two sets of stairs through a little grove of trees and past many flowering bushes before passing between the rows of palm trees towering over the ridge. It’s a truly surreal setting, these alien palms, like a piece of the city below was lifted up and dropped on top of the mountain. If you’re here in the quiet of dusk, when the sun alights with the ocean to the west and the hills glow pink, the place feels almost alive with ghostly energy.

The nameless captain the Roost is named for began planting this garden in the 1940s. Pretty much everything we could find on the history of the garden comes from an essay published by the Friends of Griffith Park, which describes the Captain as “a shirtless, grumpy man in shorts, who wore a captain-type cap.” Whether he was actually a captain or not is unknown to the author, nor does it even really matter. The Captain mostly worked alone, bringing plants and water up to his perch on Mt. Hollywood and tending to his lush garden. After his passing, the garden was left to a series of caretakers who maintained and grew the garden over the decades. A fierce brush fire in 2007 denuded the Roost, leaving nothing but the palm trees standing, but in the 15 years since the garden has slowly recovered.

The next garden, Dante’s View, sits on the opposite side of Mt. Hollywood. The trail loops around the summit of the mountain, so it doesn’t matter which way you go; although continuing around the side facing the Hollywood Sign will take you to the wide trail leading the short distance up to the summit, where you can get a really spectacular panoramic view of Los Angeles to the south, the Hollywood Hills to the west, the San Fernando Valley to the north, and Glendale and the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast. A little makeshift bird bath of rocks and dishes sits just past the railing at the top, a sort of miniature version of the park’s volunteer-created gardens, and you’ll always be around a lot of people catching their breath and congratulating themselves on reaching the top. At sunset, the view is absolutely breathtaking.

A little further around the mountain, overlooking Glendale and Downtown LA, you’ll find Dante’s View. A wood-post fence separates the trail from the lush garden, which is a shock of greenery and shade perched on the side of the otherwise shade-less mountain. A little maze of trails winds down the slope through the garden, passing an incredible variety of plants: pine trees, eucalyptus, succulents, prickly pear cacti, agave, jade and other flowering bushes, all mixed together on the hillside. A picnic area sits in one corner of the garden, and benches are scattered throughout.

The origin of Dante’s View is connected to Captain’s Roost, although it is far better documented. The garden is named for Dante Orgolini, a Brazilian journalist and artist who settled in the U.S. in the 1920s, working as a Hollywood reporter for a major Brazilian newspaper. While raising his family in Los Feliz, Orgolini fell in love with Griffith Park and became one of its informal caretakers. According to the previously linked article from The Friends of Griffith Park, he worked on maintaining Captain’s Roost for a time before running afoul of Rae Pivnik, a severe older woman who had assumed stewardship of the Roost after the Captain’s death. When Dante had finally had enough of the abrasive treatment he often received from the old woman, he quit the Roost and moved to the other side of the hill, establishing his own garden in the 1960s. When he died in 1978, his ashes were scattered in his garden.

To this day, Dante’s View is clearly the more beloved of the two Mt. Hollywood gardens: it’s larger, has more shade, and many dedicated caretakers who have maintained the garden over the decades. Although it too was badly damaged by the 2007 fire that wiped out most of Captain’s Roost vegetation, a casual visitor like ourselves won’t find any evidence of it today.

The third and final garden we will visit, Amir’s Garden, lies at the heart of Griffith Park. It is certainly possible, if you’ve left early enough in the day and have enough stamina, to hike straight there from Mt. Hollywood (from the summit, you take the North Trail and just head north, with some careful consultation of a trail map). But it’s far enough away that I prefer to present it as a second trip, one that requires a slightly longer hike due to its location deep within the park.

Trail map to Amir’s Garden

The nearest bus stop to Amir’s Garden is on the eastern side of the park at Crystal Springs Drive & Griffith Park Drive, served by Metro’s #96 bus, which runs about once an hour between Burbank and Chinatown (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). In fact, this is the very same bus stop you would use to get to the abandoned Old Zoo, another beloved Griffith Park attraction which we’ve written about previously. From the bus stop, it’s almost two miles of a hike to Amir’s Garden, although most of it is relatively flat with a few short steep sections.

From Crystal Springs Drive, follow Griffith Park Drive towards the hills. On your left, you’ll pass the expansive lawns of the Park Center and Shane’s Inspiration, an all-inclusive playground designed for children with disabilities, while on your right will be the golf course. Shortly after you pass the playground, Griffith Park Drive will curve to the right; the little road ahead leads to the Old Zoo, while between sits a small parking lot. Go through the gap in the fence behind the parking spaces and take the trail up the hill. You should pass a sign saying it leads to the Mineral Wells Trail, which you’ll join after a short climb.

The Mineral Wells Trail parallels Griffith Park Drive as it heads deeper into the park. The road has no sidewalks or room of any kind for pedestrians, so it’s important to stick to the trail, which dips up and down as it winds along the hillside just above the road. Although some portions are a little steep (particularly at the start), they’re separated by nice, relatively flat and shady stretches. Right away, you’ll get some great views of the Glendale skyline, which will be a reoccurring theme on this hike.

Eventually, you’ll round a bend and see a big hill directly in front of you, with the top covered in tall trees and the tops of the slopes adorned with flowers. This is your first glimpse of Amir’s Garden. From here, you can also spot a little trail, with the occasional stairway, leading straight up the slope ahead. Tempting as it may be to take this shortcut, it’s a very steep climb and the trail is rough and unmarked. It’s better to go the long way around, from the Mineral Wells Picnic Area, and save the rough trail for your descent.

Amir’s Garden, straight ahead!

Continuing on the Mineral Wells Trail, you’ll pass the gated entrance to a boys camp on your left and the parking lot for the golf course on your right before the trail finally reaches the Mineral Wells Picnic Area, which is made up of a wonderfully lush and shady lawn that fills the bottom of the canyon, dotted with picnic tables. Here, the trail reaches a junction where you’ll see a sign with a map of the park, marked the North Trail Trailhead. This is what will take you to Amir’s Garden, but before you start your climb, take this opportunity to fill your water bottle and rest in the shade of Mineral Wells Picnic Area.

When you’re ready, climb the North Trail uphill. It’s a very steep and grueling climb, but mercifully short. Once you reach the water tank near the top of the hill, the trail flattens out immediately and you can enjoy the rest of the walk into the garden, taking in the absolutely spectacular views of Glendale and the San Gabriel Mountains, with the golf course and driving range in the foreground. You might even hear the hooting of monkeys from the zoo, just across the canyon.

Pretty quickly, you’ll encounter the first signs of the garden: a crop of ice plant, with beautiful purple flowers, growing on the slopes on both sides of the trail. Leafy bushes and huge agave plants soon join them, and before you know it you’re suddenly standing in the heart of the garden: a wide path, like a central plaza, lined with benches and hitching posts and surrounded by shady trees. This is the gathering spot for Amir’s Garden, where hikers and equestrians alike can rest. A horse trough sits on one side, with a sign reminding dog owners not to let their pets jump in the water (but fear not, dog lovers, because further down someone has left a doggie bowl next to a water fountain).

At the end of the “plaza” is a sign proclaiming this to be Amir’s Garden (“Since 1971”), with a little memorial sign honoring the creator of this garden attached. In front of it is a picnic table and a flag pole, and if you look carefully you can find another sign attached to the flag pole, partially hidden under the branches, which is a tribute by Amir himself to the volunteers who helped him erect the flagpole. Next to these are some beautiful planters, some of the oldest things in the garden, built by Amir and perched on top of old telephone poles and other found materials.

Amir Dialameh immigrated to the United States from Iran in the 1960s, bringing with him a love of hiking and nature. Shortly after arriving in LA, he got involved in Griffith Park’s gardening community and volunteered with Dante’s View until a brush fire swept through the northeastern portion of the park. After hiking through the scorched remains of the fire, Amir sought to beautify the landscape, both to help it recover from the fire and to provide a shady rest stop for hikers. In 1971, he received permission from city officials to dig out the charred stumps of trees and begin work on the garden, which acts as a fire break owing to how lush and green the foliage is. A community of volunteers quickly formed to help with Amir’s Garden, expanding it over time and helping the eastern side recover from brush fires in the mid-’90s. They still maintain the garden to this day (and even a website), especially after Amir’s unexpected passing in 2003.

The garden only covers a few acres at the very top of the hill, but when you’re in it, it feels massive, impossible to take in all at once. From the “plaza” at the center, makeshift stairs, consisting of wooden boards bolted to the slope, wind their way downhill, connected by narrow trails which wrap around the hillside through dense foliage. Occasionally you’ll happen across a bench or a picnic table, surrounded by trees or perched so as to take advantage of the view. In one instance, a bench overlooking the canyon sits between two sets of stairs, like a miniature movie theater with nature as the entertainment. On the other side of the garden, there’s a bench nearly engulfed by succulents.

The flora varies throughout the garden. On the sunnier southern and eastern slopes, the ground cover is made up mostly of succulents, while thick bushes cover the shadier northern slope. All sorts of trees provide shade: eucalyptus, pines, oaks, palms, and fruit and flowering trees. Naturally, it all provides ideal habitat for the park’s native birds and lizards, as well as other fauna.

The little maze of garden trails continues downhill for a ways, forming a little horseshoe around the eastern point of the garden. Go downhill far enough and those trails eventually lead to the rough, informal trails that go all the way down to the bottom of the hill. When you’ve seen enough of the garden, you can take one of these trails (with great care, as they’re steep and not maintained) or return to the North Trail and hike back down to the Mineral Wells Picnic Area. Whichever route you choose, you’ll return to the Mineral Wells Trail to retrace your steps back to the Old Zoo parking area and the bus stop.

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