Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles, CA)

So how was your spring break? Over here at GGG central, we started off strong with lots of day trip shenanigans. When we ran out of energy (and money!), we played in the backyard and read a lot. In summary, a week of extremes, really.

After the last day of school before spring break, we high-tailed out of Santa Barbara and I took my 3-year-old to see the sunset at Griffith Obervatory followed with late-night (for her) donuts at California Donuts. It was the perfect half-day adventure.

More about the Griffith Observatory

Griffith J. Griffith (like Moto Moto from Madagascar 2 would say, "a name so nice, you got to say his twice") was a journalist and mining advisor who then made his fortune in Mexican silver mining. A California resident (though born in England), he purchased a large piece of land previously known as Rancho Los Feliz in Los Angeles, and later donated 3,000 acres of it to the city of Los Angeles to create Griffith Park. Griffith explained, "it must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered."

And so Griffith Park was born. Griffith also donated money to the city of Los Angeles with the express purpose of building an observatory that would be open and free to the public in Griffith Park, but this goal hit some road blocks and was not reached within his lifetime. He left his plans and his vision for the observatory in his will when he died in 1919.

The Griffith Trust picked up the project again in 1930, putting high profile astronomers in charge of designing the observatory, such as George Hale—whose name you may recognize from the popular 60-inch Hale reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles and the 200-inch Hale reflecting telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego.

The Griffith Observatory finally opened in 1934 and has been a popular Los Angeles attraction for locals and tourists alike ever since, with only a closure between 2002 and 2006 for renovations and expansion. The observatory still features its original 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope (pictured below), which has been used by more people than any other telescope on Earth.

A history refresher about a sculpture

Sitting in front of the observatory since 1934 is the Astronomers Monument, featuring six prominent astronomers: Hipparchus, Copernicus, Galilei, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel. On the top of your head, can you recall what each of them did? If not, memorize the below before you take the kids so you can tell them on the spot and look like an all-knowing genius.

Hipparchus (about 125 B.C.) - Provided major development in the field of trigonometry, improved early astronomical instruments, calculated the size and distance of the moon, and discovered the precession of the equinoxes.

Sidenote - The precession of the equinoxes (a.k.a. axial precession) is actually really cool and not very well known or understood by us non-astronomy folks. Axial precession is the wobble of Earth's axis over a cycle of 26,000 years. It doesn't change the degree of Earth's tilt on its axis, but its orientation. That means that the north star will change over time (slooooowly) and that the northern hemisphere will experience summer at the point on our elliptical path around the sun where we currently experience winter. This video does such a good job at making it sound simple, so take the time to watch at least the first five minutes and it'll start making sense.

Back to our astronomers...

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) - Formulated a model of the universe in which the sun was its center, not Earth as had been previously believed.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) - Fought for the Copernican system (or heliocentrism), discovered four of Jupiter's moons, provided experimental proof of the laws of motion, improved telescopes.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) - Discovered the three laws of planetary motion.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) - Discovered the law of gravity, developed the field of calculus (along with Leibniz), discovered the three laws of motion.

William Herschel (1738-1822) - Provided further developed on the reflecting telescope, and discovered Uranus, four moons (two for Uranus, two for Saturn), and infrared radiation.

Fun fact: The Astronomer Monument was created by six sculptors, each working on one of the six astronomers. The artist responsible for Newton's statue was George Stanley, who also sculpted the Oscars statuette.

What can kids do?

There isn't anything at the observatory specifically targeted to children, but the indoor exhibits cover many subjects and interest levels. The building itself, with all of its nooks and crannies—hidden stairs, elevators, decks, and paths—is fun for little ones to explore and what I spent most of my time doing with my 3-year-old.

If you're hoping to do some star gazing, be aware that crowds flock to the Zeiss telescope right after sunset. It quickly adds up to a long 1+ hour waiting line that smaller children will unlikely want to wait through. However, staff often set up smaller telescopes on the front lawn and there aren't many people waiting for those, so it's a great option with kids.

Fun fact: According to a sign in Gunther Depths of Space exhibit, the plural of Mars is Marses. This amuses me.

Tips and tricks

If there's any flaw to the observatory, it's its lack of convenient parking. There's a small parking lot in front of the observatory, which will undoubtedly be full. There's metered parking alongside the road that leads up to the observatory, which is a bit of a walk uphill but there's a safe sidewalk and it's not terribly far. But more than likely both of these options will be full and you'll have to park half a mile down a narrow, windy road. Then you'll have a pretty treacherous hike up the hill, where pedestrians have to squeeze between car traffic and a cliff.

So If you have two adults in the car and small children, it would be best for the driver to drop off everyone at the observatory on top and avoid making the children hike up the windy road. If you're going alone with children, then it's not impossible to hike up but expect to remain vigilant.

If you're not aiming for the sunset or night viewing, you can beat the crowds by arriving an hour before the observatory opens and take the gorgeous hike on the trail path behind the observatory to kill time. If your children are old enough to endure a more significant hike, there are more parking options near the Greek Theater or the Fern Dell Nature Center and trails lead up to the observatory.

There is also a public bus line (DASH Observatory) that can take you from the Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line station. The Universal City/Studio City station on the Metro Red Line has a huge parking lot that's super convenient and free on the weekend, so if you're coming from the north then it makes sense to park there, ride the red line to Vermont/Sunset, then grab the DASH Observatory. Honestly, the parking situation at the observatory is so congested, you'll probably be saving time.

Itinerary ideas

After our Griffith adventure, we took the 15-minute drive to get late night (late for my 3-year-old anyway) donuts at California Donuts. I saw it featured in The Most Instagrammed Restaurants in the U.S...the article is from 2015—I can't keep up with trends. But with a 4-star rating and nearly 2,000 reviews on Yelp, I didn't think its popularity was short-lived.

Honestly, I was expecting decent donuts with wild topics a la Voodoo Donuts, but what I got was the best freaking donuts I've ever had in my life. It actually surprised me that donuts could be this good. Seriously. Do yourself a favor and go there. Ironically, I didn't think to take a photo, let alone instagram it, before we gobbled up our donuts on the ride home. Oops!

Alternatively, if you come out of the Griffith with an appetite for something more substantial yet not any bit healthier than donuts, you could also check out Smoke's Poutinerie. As a Quebec expat, I feel compelled, if not required, to suggest this northern staple of fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Hmmm, you can't go wrong there.

References and further reading

Astronomer monument figures. Griffith Observatory.

A history of Griffith Observatory. Griffith Observatory.