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Griffith Park provides equestrian trails in the heart of the city

It's the best of both worlds for the horse riding citizens of Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale, California. Read about impacts of recent fires in Griffith Park.

From the Spring 2007 issue of the American Trails Magazine.

By Lynn Brown

photo: horses on backcountry trail
Some of Griffith Park's trails seem far from the surrounding city

The City of Los Angeles, movie capital of the world, does not call to mind horses and trail riding. Yet hidden in the heart of one of the United States largest cities is a one of its best kept secrets. This unexpected delight is Griffith Park encompassing more than four thousand acres with over fifty five miles of horse trails. Located in the very center of Los Angeles, bordered by both Burbank and Glendale, the surrounding area supports many stables, both commercial boarding facilities and back yard barns.

Not only is the fact that there is city horse keeping and trail riding a secret to most of the world, it is largely a secret to the majority of people in Los Angeles as well. There were, at last census, approximately a hundred thousand horses in Los Angeles County. The mild climate makes riding horses a year round sport as there are very few riding days lost to bad weather.

Originally part of a Spanish land grant in 1787, the area was known then as Rancho Los Feliz . It was a large acreage, including what would become the Park, and was irrigated with ample water from the Los Angeles river.

Photo: riding horses

Equestrian trails in Los Angeles' Griffith Park

While under Mexican rule for many years, the prosperous Rancho was owned by Dona Maria Ygnacia Verdugo, reputed to be a shrewd businesswoman. After her death, the Rancho passed to relatives, with much internal drama, illness, love triangles and greedy betrayals resulting in the mostly mythical "Curse of the Felizes" cast forever by one of the betrayed women upon Griffith Park.

Seemingly the curse was effective as cattle sickened, the dairy business was a failure, a fire and grasshoppers destroyed crops, and the vineyards perished with a "strange blight". In 1882 the Rancho was sold to pay off its mortgage. The buyer was Col. Griffith J. Griffith who would prosper from this land and grow wealthy from a real estate boom in 1887.

Griffith Park was donated in 1898 to the City by Mr. Griffith. At the time, the hilly terrain was considered worthless for developing. What was then worthless is now a priceless piece of the shrinking open space in this City. Horse keeping and trail riding have been a part of the Park's history since it was the Rancho in the 1700's. Early photographs of the Park inevitably show both hikers and equestrians on its many trails. Much of the Park remains in a natural state of a wild California habitat. There are other areas that have been developed over the years, especially before there was a strong push in the 1970's to conserve open space.

photo: horses on a trail
Views of downtown Los Angeles from a Griffith Park trail

Griffith Park's attractions include: The Observatory, with its spectacular city views and celestial presentations in the planetarium. It has been the location for many a movie, from Flash Gordon, to James Dean sulking moodily in the parking in "Rebel Without A Cause." Travel Town, a train museum, and the Live Steamers, a miniature train place, both feature train rides for the public. The L.A. Zoo sprawls in one corner of the park along with a world class Merry Go Round, a Boy's Camp, and a Girl's Camp for holiday and summer camp adventures. The pony rides and a horse drawn miniature stagecoach draws a United Nations of multicultural families to the Park to watch their children jiggle around on the backs of hardworking ponies. There is an excellent public golf course, numerous picnic grounds, and the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, among other attractions. On weekends the Park is full, the picnic grounds, attractions and trails all heavily used.

As a horse and trail riding area, Griffith Park is probably unique in the United States. Over the years, the state and local politicians have recognized the unique aspects of this urban park by providing continuing horse access points even as the surrounding cities have crowded around Griffith Park.

Photo: riding horses

Western traditions are alive in Griffith Park

When I discovered horse keeping in Los Angeles, it gave a whole new and wonderful aspect to living in a major city. It is an extraordinary thing to be able to ride, train, breed and enjoy all aspects of a horse related life usually only available to those who live in the country. To be able to have a daily contact with horses and with nature as experienced by being in this Park has added an precious element of sanity to city living.

The people who use these trails are fiercely protective of this special piece of a rural environment in the City with its lovely wide trails offering a contact with what remains of California's western heritage surrounded by the city's sprawl. The Park, quite surprisingly supports all manner of wild life (other than human). Riding through one is likely to encounter many deer, coyotes, a variety of raptors including red tailed hawks, owls and peregrine falcons. Of course there are coons, skunks, ground squirrels, and occasionally a lucky sighting of the shy bobcat, and mountain lion.

Two freeways, the Ventura and the Golden State, some of the most heavily trafficked in the United states run alongside the Park. It makes for easy access for both individual riders and horse club groups to trailer in from other areas to enjoy Griffith Park's trails.

There is no stabling in the Park itself. Riders on the Hollywood side of the Park can ride the fire roads directly to any point in the Park. For the trail riders boarding in the other surrounding areas, access to the trails is by crossing the Los Angeles river and riding through a series of equestrian tunnels that allow safe passage under the freeways. Folks who stable on the east side must ford the waters of the Los Angeles river, riding dirt ramps that lead to an equestrian tunnel. Folks on the south side have a suspension bridge over the river, which will bounce like it was on rubber bands if you cross at a trot. They also must go through two tunnels, with the cars and tractor trailers roaring overhead, to reach the park. It takes a steady horse and rider to accept these challenges. There is a local saying, "If you can ride a horse around Griffith Park, you can ride him anywhere".

photo: horse and park sign
 

Heading out for the trails, riders are mounted up on every kind of horse breed. Beside the usual Quarter Horses, Paints and Mustangs that most regard as trail horses, people take their Hanovarians, Friesians , Thoroughbreds, Paso Finos, Iceland Ponies, Belgian Drafts, Shires, Andalusians, Mules, Walking Horses, Fox Trotters and Saddlebreds under saddle on the trail.

Once into the Park, it's a different world. One legacy of the Spanish friars was that they scattered mustard seed between their Missions to mark the route lest early travelers become lost. Now, in Spring each year, the hills are carpeted in wild yellow mustard plants. Among the trees and hills, the roar of traffic fades to silence, as you ride the wide fire roads, or the deer trails. On the broad trails, it's easy to chat, riding two and three abreast. Pulling up after I've had an exhilarating lope along these tree lined, curving trails, I've felt that life doesn't get any better than this, a good horse to ride in this beautiful park.

Many riders carry picnic lunches in saddlebags as they can ride most of the day without covering the same trail twice. Back in the hills, it's hard to believe that you are in the City, until you top a steep rise and see downtown spread out in the distance. It's easy to feel sorry for those trapped on the freeway, or caged in their offices.

During the week, trail use is fairly light. It is possible to ride for a couple of hours in the morning without seeing another horse. Riders encounter joggers and hikers, ride past people enjoying their lunch at tables under the trees. On the broad trails, it's easy to chat, riding two and three abreast. After I've had a relaxing ride along these tree lined, curving trails, I've felt that life doesn't get any better than this, a good horse to ride with good friends in this beautiful park.

There are three rental stables offering guided rides in the Park on the Glendale/Burbank side of the Park. On the Hollywood side, there is a stable which has made a unique niche for itself by offering evening rides that completely traverse the Park, ending midway at a well known 40 year old Mexican restaurant, the Viva Fresh, which sits adjacent to the trail, with big windows and tie rails for large number of horses. The food is excellent and most welcome to the dudes who have just ridden for two dusty hours over the hilly trails to get there. This ride has been a fixture for many years, very popular with adults celebrating birthdays, and other occasions. Watching the horses standing hip shot at the tie rail, while many of the novice riders have struggled bowlegged into the restaurant, I wonder how many decide to simply take a cab home rather than face that return night ride.

Burbank and Glendale form a horse community with feed stores, tack stores, veterinarians, farriers, horse laundries, trailer sales, equine dentists, horse chiropractors and horse trainers of every sort. Pickup trucks and horse trailers are parked everywhere. Grouped around the L.A. Equestrian Center, a world class show, training and boarding facility, are equestrian condominiums with stabling, as well as restaurants and gift and clothing stores catering to the horse interests. The entire Rancho area, a community of suburban houses, is zoned for horse keeping, many homes with stables in the back, where a yard would usually be. People ride horses down the paved streets, past all manner of traffic to reach the dirt trails that lead into Griffith Park. Most everyone in these communities are there because of their love of horses and their love of riding in this lovely Park. It's the best of both worlds for the horse riding citizens of Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale.

Griffith Park faces long recovery from major fire

The May 8, 2007 fire was started by a homeless man who fell asleep or passed out in the bushes with a lit cigarette next to the Roosevelt golf course.

It is possibly the largest fire in the history of Griffith Park. Estimates vary between 817 acres to 1,400 acres burned. Griffith Park is over 4,200 acres. Since about 600 acres of the Park are developed areas, i.e. Golf Courses, L.A. Zoo, The Autry National Center and Museum, the famous Griffith Park Observatory, Traveltown, the Live Steamers, the Merry Go Round, Pony Rides as well as the sports fields, estimates vary from about 24% to 40% of the wilderness habitat are burnt. One more big fire and almost all of an entire wildlife habitat including its chaparral eco-system could be lost.

Within four minutes, Park Rangers fire crew and the first fire department team had arrived to combat the fire. In 12 minutes, there were 400 firefighters on the ground responding to the fire and within a few hours, 1000 firefighters were on the ground with crews showing up from as far north as Moro Bay, and into Southern Orange County.

Led by the Los Angeles Fire Fighters, they defended not only the Park, but in some cases brought fire hoses directly into people's houses as homes were evacuated adjacent to the Park. No one was killed and no homes were lost.

Homeowners complained of throngs of lookie-loos, crowding around those trying to evacuate. One friend said there were spectators with video cameras on her porch and lawn as she was packing her car, trying to get the best shot of the raging fire.

Some of the brush hadn't burned in 60-70 years, so the fire was very hot, plus there were winds to push the flames.

Firefighters, Park Rangers, traffic officers, and other support city staff were on site for 4 days.

New water pipes to replace the old system in the Park had been installed by DWP in the last few years. It worked very well, in providing needed water to ground crews.

Over 900 water drops were made by helicopter to the steep slopes and inaccessible parts of the Park. The helicopters even flew at night, a brave and hazardous act, as there are power lines to contend with. The copters scooped water from the Los Angeles' Silverlake and Echo Park reservoirs.

Once the major fire was out, there were numbers of spot fires caused by smoldering tree roots. Trees that appeared green on top, would topple over without warning. As they fell, the roots would be raised above ground and embers and flames would spark out, starting other fires. Days later, there were still falling rocks, and slipping hillsides, covering access roads.

Griffith Park is an urban wilderness, home to a surprising variety of wildlife. Found in the park are many species of birds and raptors, deer, snakes, raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, bobcats and infrequently, an temporarily visiting mountain lion. Fortunately, the loss to the animals were minimal with only a few deer and some small mammals dead. Among the birds the greatest number lost were the Downy Woodpeckers, most of the other birds, especially the raptors, managed to escape. No bobcats were injured. The major impact in the burn area was loss of habitat. Wildlife has returned to the area, with the red tailed hawks soaring above the blackened landscape.

Bulletins were sent out educating the urban public to have patience with the displaced wildlife they might find on their lawns.

 

The policy seems to be to allow the Park to recover on its own. There is soil testing going on to determine what viable seeds might be left in the burn areas. Many different agencies will be involved in the restoration of the Park. Dead trees are being removed, and ground up for mulch. So far over 836 trees have been removed, some still smoldering. There are still many more trees to be removed.

New trees will be planted, with an emphasis on native California species. However, there will be some flowering trees planted at Dante's View and Captain's Roost.

For the indefinite future, no one will be allowed in the burn areas. This is a difficult choice for many user groups, such as the hikers who had favorite trails in the burn areas and those ethnic groups who loved to do their exercises at dawn on Mt. Hollywood.

An Ordinance is to be passed forbidding open fire cooking and all smoking in all City Parks. This makes the picnicker groups who enjoyed outdoor cooking, and the golfers with their cigars unhappy.

The action plan is:

Phase 1:

  • Emergency Debris removal, clean up and re-use.
  • Cleaning of existing Storm Systems.
  • Scientific Surveying and mapping.
  • Science and Date-based Erosion Control design.

Phase 2:

  • Science and Data-based Restoration Planning
  • Repair and replace damaged Erosion and water conveyance structures.
  • Run off, debris and soil capture
  • Jute mesh slope stabilization
  • Targeted temporary irrigation using reclaimed water

Phase 3:

  • Restoration and rehabilitation of Landscapers, structures, habitat, furniture, fixtures, trails and infrastructure.

Estimated cost of recovery: $50,000,000

photo of computer

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