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Hidden Gems in Los Angeles

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They should be the stars of the show, but most people don’t yet know…

The Miracle Tree of Cahuenga Peak

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Aug 11, 2012 —  On one side, you’ve got the kind of folks who want to do every kitschy thing imaginable with their free time. Packing the wax museum and Ripley’s Believe it or Not in Hollywood, picking up Star Maps in Beverly Hills, and arching from those double-decker buses with camera flashes on strobe. And the touristy side of LA is something everyone needs to experience at least once.

On the other side, there’s the sort who find Universal City Walk universally unappealing; who haven’t set foot on Hollywood Boulevard in years, and decry how overcrowded the beaches get on any sunny day (all 300 of them a year).

To those people, we offer up a few hidden gems in Los Angeles. And while we can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy all of them, we bet you’re the kind of person who will at least want to check them out.

1. The Miracle Tree of Cahuenga Peak

The 4,000 acres of Griffith Park are home to several LA icons, from the Griffith Observatory to the Greek Theater to that famous sign looming over Hollywood. One of our favorite trips awaits way up on Cahuenga Peak at Griffith’s western edge, where a single tree looms above LA – the lone survivor of a long-forgotten raging fire – before Cahuenga plummets towards Highway 101. The tree has many names: Tree of Life, The Miracle Tree, and The Lone Tree to name a few. You can hike up in thirty minutes via a well-maintained trail off Wonder View Drive (park on Lake Hollywood and walk the road), but we like the “secret” ridge trail right by the Hollywood Sign. Hike Mt. Lee Drive to the sign, but right near the top when the road bends hard left, pick up the used trail to the right instead. It’s a steep ridge climb in parts, but soon you’ll be staring out at what seems like the entire city some 1800-feet beneath you. And chances are good you’ll have the view all to yourself.

2. Museum of Jurassic Technology

Most tourists venture to Culver City for the famed MGM Studios (admittedly, hanging out where Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were both shot IS kind of cool) but further west there’s a wonderfully odd little museum definitely worth weirding out in. It’s called the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and we fully admit first coming here expecting to see set pieces from Jurassic Park. What you’ll find, in fact, is a collection of random curios that takes the notion of a museum and, well, kinda messes with it. In one darkened room there are Disney sculptures crafted on the head of a needle. Another features a portrait gallery of dogs that the Russians blasted into space. Then there’s a model of The Ark next to a diorama of trailer parks. The museum’s introductory video near the entrance is completely – and purposely – nonsensical (watching guys pretend to understand it is hilarious!). Once you’re done, you can head upstairs to the tea room for free tea and cookies, and then head further up to the rooftop garden where you can ask yourself, “What the Hell did I just walk through???” Then go get a drink at some cool new spots in downtown Culver City, which has experienced quite the resurgence in recent years.

3. The Varnish

Hidden behind Cole’s restaurant (we want to be buried with their bacon potato salad!), The Varnish is hardly a secret considering the consistent weekend crowds, but this legit speakeasy is a signature part of the Downtown LA experience. The one room joint has managed to lure in some serious talent behind the bar, and the Prohibition-era décor is done with just enough subtle flare that it feels neither kitschy or like boozing in a museum. Add to that house piano players who plunk out festive Charleston standards and regulars known to don vintage wear before dropping by, and you’ll seamlessly feel transported to the 1920s. After a few ginger-laden Palma Fizz cocktails, you’ll probably be talking like you’re in the 1920s too! That certainly will help take the guilt off the gingerbread before the smoking lamp is out…Wow, we have no idea what we just said.   

4. LA State Historic Park

Caught in perpetual purgatory thanks to state budget cuts, LA State Historic Park is still a cozy gem hidden outside the ever-packed blocks of tiny Chinatown. A not-quite-finished gem, to be sure: rickety chain link rims one side, a lone snack stand opens at random intervals, and the only bathrooms are a handful of port-a-potties. Still, visitors enjoy 32-acres of open lawns, a running track, dozens of trees perfect for shading a picnic, and the always friendly folks at Nick’s Café just across the street. Originally a rail yard, then briefly a cornfield as part of Lauren Bon’s famous “Not a Cornfield” agricultural art project, the grounds these days frequently play host to art and music festivals on weekends, too. Bring the pooch and park in the open lot around where North Spring Street hits West Elmyra. And if you plan on going for a run, you might as well fill up on cheap pancakes at Nick’s first, right? Or just go on to explore some of the other great spots we cover in Downtown LA.

5. Saturdays Off the 405

High up in the hills above ritzy Brentwood, the massive 110-acre site of the Getty Center museum is hard to miss, which probably explains why some 1.3 million people drop by to check out the huge collection of pre-20th-century European art every year. But we bet most of those folks don’t know about Saturdays Off the 405, a wonderful summer event at the Getty that lets Angelenos get their weekend going right with a free concert series held on the gorgeous grounds. The setting alone is stunning enough, but several temporary bars set up for the event always make the views even prettier for some reason. Granted, it’s hardly an all night affair (they’re pretty strict about the 9pm closing), but if you want a fun date option that will definitely leave an impression, this is it. And even if the date doesn’t go well and that person clearly wasn’t the one for you, at least you didn’t drop a ton of money figuring that out.

User Comments

Victor H. Aug 14, 2012
Great article. I love hidden gems like these that are at times hard to find because they're not as advertised. They are a great change of scenery too. One of my favorite places is the Blue Ribbon Garden at the top of the Disney Concert Hall. I'm surprised not a lot of people know about it.
Paul F. Aug 11, 2012
My favorite hidden gem in Los Angeles is up in the hills behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. Here's what you do: take West Sunset Boulevard to Benedict Canyon Drive and go north. Follow Benedict until you get to San Ysidro Drive and go right. Take San Ysidro all the way to the very top of the hill until you get to Summitridge Drive. Park your car and walk over to the edge of the hill and look down into the valley. There you'll see 10 or so of the most ridiculously amazing houses you'll ever see. Enormous, secluded, architecturally perfect, etc. If you want to get inspired to work harder - this is one way to do it.
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