Among the lengthy list of picturesque attractions in this city—who can resist the temptation of a hike through Runyon, an afternoon in a botanical garden or a trip to the beach?—there is a wealth of beautiful parks in Los Angeles. Whether you're an art aficionado or a devoted dog owner, there's a slice of nature that fits your lifestyle. For those days when you don't feel like climbing up all 282 steps at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, roll out a blanket or take a stroll through 21 of the best (and free) parks in Los Angeles.
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For urban wilderness
It's easy to forget you're still in the city as you trek through the mix of native chaparral and landscaped paths that covers this rugged park. But take one look out from the iconic Griffith Observatory and you'll find yourself face-to-face with the LA Basin as it stretches out to the ocean. Griffith's myriad attractions and wilderness caters to all LA types: intrepid hikers can explore the Bronson Caves and visit Amir's Garden; easygoing weekenders can relax in the shaded, verdant passage through Fern Dell or the picnic tables at Crystal Springs; kid-toting visitors can board the steamers at Travel Town or explore the archaic cages at the Old Zoo; and pop culture lovers can catch a show at the Greek Theatre or visit Walt's Barn (a transplanted shed where Disney himself would tinker away with model trains).
Griffith may get all of the attention, but Kenneth Hahn is impressive in both size and topography for a park in the middle of the Westside. On top of the usual list of amenities, the Culver City park contains a lotus pond, fishing lake and sand volleyball court. But the urban oasis really establishes itself with over seven miles of walking and hiking trails through the Baldwin Hills, with views of almost every corner of the LA Basin—from the South Bay and the Pacific Ocean to Downtown and the San Gabriel Mountains.
Slip away from the everyday grind at this 105-acre plant and animal sanctuary. Start at the visitor center and you'll find two miles of dirt trails and a quarter-mile paved path that wind around two lakes, a stream and forested areas. The Nature Center is part of the larger El Dorado Regional Park; its western half is dedicated to sports fields and a golf course, while the eastern half features fishing lakes, trails, playgrounds and an archery range.
For art aficionados
After oil heiress and philanthropist Aline Barnsdall bought this cute little hill after the end of World War I, she enlisted Frank Lloyd Wright to build a group of buildings at its summit. Though the complex was never finished, Barnsdall went on to donate the house, guest house and 11 acres of the land to the city on the premise that they be used as a public art park. More than eight decades later, the site still fulfills that role, with exhibitions in a variety of gallery spaces, as well as tours of the stunningly restored Hollyhock House. In the summer, the park hosts al fresco cinema nights, wine tastings and cultural events that bring out a nice mix of singles, couples and young families.
Parking lots turned into parks—it's the latest green trend in LA, and who could complain after setting eyes on Santa Monica's Tongva Park? This idyllic and well designed ocean-adjacent oasis harbors a playground, meadows, waterfalls, walking paths and a conch-like wireframe lookout to the Pacific. Artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's kinetic sculpture Weather Field anchors the park as a minimal, serene and instantly memorable landmark. Most that come to Santa Monica will flock to Palisades Park—for good reason, as the ocean views from the palm and eucalyptus-lined paths are breathtaking—but our allegiances lie with this low-key newcomer.
For reclaimed green space
The slow, lumbering mission to turn Downtown LA into a vibrant cultural hub got a lift when a portion of Grand Park's 12 acres officially opened to the public in July 2012. Dotted with fountains, picnic lawns, bright pink benches and plenty of nooks from which to sit and people-watch, Grand Park is a bright urban oasis that proves the city has a sense of romance. The park plays host to performances, gatherings and other community events.
After a massive makeover, the Eastside's historic Echo Park Lake has finally become a family-friendly destination worthy of its bold backdrop: the Downtown skyline amid the lotus flower blooms and fountains. The lake has been around since 1860—it was once used as a drinking water reservoir, and later as a recreational park with canoes and fishing. Today, you can push your way through the lake in a pedal boat or stroll around the path that hugs its borders. Either way, make sure to stop at the revived boathouse (and its breakfast pit stop Square One at the Boathouse) and the Lady of the Lake statue.
For waterfront views
Walk along the palm and eucalyptus-lined paths here and it becomes obvious why tourists flock to this oceanside park in Santa Monica. Nestled between the beach and Ocean Avenue, this bluff-top trail has stunning views of the ocean and Santa Monica Mountains—this is the postcard picture of LA's coastline that lives in most people's heads. Steer clear of the tourist and homeless-ridden section by the pier—though don't pass up a stop at the Camera Obscura—and instead head north past the stately concrete sculpture at Wilshire to the colorful totem pole at San Vicente.
There's a quiet history that pervades the San Pedro coastline through the Point Fermin Lighthouse, Sunken City and the last vestiges of Fort MacArthur, with its decommissioned battery of heavy artillery that once protected the port. But just up the hill, perched over the Pacific, sits one of the most idyllic spots in all of LA: the Korean Bell of Friendship. The mighty metallic bell's rusty green finish complements the ornately painted hipped roof—its paint job has seen better days, but that doesn't detract from the beauty of the 1976 goodwill gift from South Korea. The exposed, grassy bluff is an ideal spot to fly a kite or just lounge in the grass of Angels Gate Park. If you've resisted romance with the South Bay, let this be your first date.
For Valley dwellers
Balboa is a large family-friendly park known for its beautiful lake and serene picnic spots. Springtime visitors are treated to the cherry blossom bloom around the lake's perimeter, though the sight doesn't come without crowds. Those simply in search of a workout will find a section that's fitness-centered and removed from the lake, avoiding the crowds entirely. Meanwhile, those more in the mood for grassy wilderness or cultivated gardens can venture next door to the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve and the Japanese Garden.
Just south of the Arroyo Seco's most famous tenant—the Rose Bowl—this 62-acre park provides a scenic green space for locals and out-of-towners alike. Set against the stunning San Gabriel Mountains, you'll find plenty of open space to run and play among the multipurpose sports fields, along with some shade near Reese's Retreat, the pirate ship-themed playground. There's a proper fitness trail around the park, but you'll find many active visitors running and biking along a path that flanks the entire east side of the park, all the way north past the adjoining golf course. If you're willing to shell out a few bucks, stop by the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center's dual pools or the hands-on Kidspace Children's Museum. Parking isn't an issue, thanks to that 90,000-seat stadium, but note that the Rose Bowl Flea Market sets up shop the second Sunday of each month, while UCLA plays home games on Saturdays during the fall.
For museum lovers
Much of the majesty of past Olympics has faded, as has much of the polish on the Memorial Coliseum—sorry, Trojans fans—but Exposition Park still stands as one of LA's most significant institutions. You'll find green spaces scattered around the USC-adjacent property, but the most charming section resides in the fragrant Rose Garden. Rest in one of the gazebos or take a stroll around the central fountain, all the while admiring its beautiful brick neighbors. If you're up for the museum shuffle, take advantage of the free California African American Museum and California Science Center as well as the incredibly underpriced Natural History Museum, which harbors a handsome nature walk and a seasonal butterfly garden. With the introduction of light rail service on the Expo Line, the park has all the building blocks of a traditional urban museum campus.
Hancock Park—not to be confused with the affluent neighborhood of the same name—sits atop a literal mine of goo-soaked prehistoric bones. You probably know this oily animal trap better as the La Brea Tar Pits, where archaeologists have unearthed fossils from saber-toothed cats to mammoths for more than 100 years. You don't need to pay for admission to the La Brea Tar Pits Museum to walk around the Tar Pits, and the same goes for the opposite end of the park, where you can pose in the Instragrammable Urban Light sculpture without a ticket to LACMA. The green expanse between the two institutions is picnic and dog-friendly, and overall a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors within a stone's throw of LA cultural icons (not to mention the row of museums on the opposite side of Wilshire).
For four-legged friends
Carved into the hills above the Hollywood Reservoir's walking paths but below a turnout of sightseeing vans, this grassy field feels like a dog-friendly Shangri-La. You don't have to have four legs to enjoy the scenery, thanks to a small playground, shaded picnic benches and one of the most fantastic views of the Hollywood Sign. But for dog owners, this verdant retreat is the perfect place to mingle with hills-dwelling pooches—just make sure your dog is leashed, lest you get ticketed by the park rangers.
Silver Lake's twin reservoirs have two dog parks (one big, one small), along with a slew of human-centric facilities: a basketball court, playground and field for the kiddies, and a 2.2 mile trail around its entirety. It's a great place to bring kids, dogs, a picnic or a running club. The Reservoir is also home to the Meadow (note: no pups allowed here), a soft, grassy knoll overlooking the water where visitors can lounge, picnic, or throw a Frisbee or play bocce.
For quiet neighborhoods retreats
As if South Pasadena wasn't already charming enough, Garfield Park practically defines what it means to be a wholesome neighborhood park. You're likely to encounter families celebrating birthdays or kids climbing around the playground, but the modest sized park never feels swallowed by crowds—with the allowable exception of its summer concert series. Enter through the Mission Street side and you'll first walk through a compact but lovely rose garden. Elsewhere, mature trees and cobblestone details lend a distinctly South Pas feel to the park—that is to say, small town warmth with decidedly LA style.
There's nothing notable about Rustic Canyon on paper: The park has your typical assortment of tennis, basketball and baseball facilities, along with a list of rules that can sound a bit stuffy—group picnics require a permit. But this humble Pacific Palisades park exudes an air of quiet elegance that you thought only existed on Pinterest. Surrounded by an upscale (but not ostentatious) neighborhood, this leafy, shaded park and its villa-style rec center feels like the backyard you always wished you had.
For kid-friendly afternoons
Your head will spin at all the options for fun available at Polliwog, the largest park in the South Bay. Three well-shaded play areas include a lighthouse structure, countless swings and so much more. Nearby, you’ll find a picnic area with plenty of tables and barbecues, as well as three gazebos, a nine-hole disc golf course, an exercise area, an amphitheater where concerts and other special events often take place, the city’s historical museum and a dog run. At the center of it all is a large pond, home to ducks and geese. When summer rolls around, you can also enroll the little ones in swimming lessons at nearby Begg Pool.
Not to be confused with another park in the Valley, this Beverly Hills retreat is known for its high-profile patrons and polished appearance. That said, it still feels decidedly low-key—downright relaxing, in fact—thanks in part to its small size and the babbling brook on one end of the park, which always invites tiny toe-dipping on hot days. The playground consists of two climbing/slide structures and a half-dozen swings over a sandy surface.
For daring history buffs
LA's oldest park, founded in 1886, is big and beautiful but tends to get a bad rap. Admittedly, some things here have fallen by the wayside, but among the palm tree groves and hilly hikes, you'll find great views of the Valley, Downtown, Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood Hills. On weekends, expect a buzz of activities around bouncy castles and “dog hill,” a spot where locals convene to throw balls, sticks, and compliments for each other’s canine companions. If you’re here in the early AM, you may hear volleys of gunshots. Don’t worry, it’s not gang warfare—the Police Academy is next door, and you can hear officers practicing at the firing range. It’s actually a comfort, as it means patrols are aplenty here.
We'll be blunt: MacArthur Park can look like a scary place. The Westlake park has found itself in the middle of turf wars for decades now—a temporary drain of its lake in the '70s famously unearthed a trove of discarded knives and guns. Conditions have improved in recent years, as the renamed Levitt Pavilion now hosts summertime concerts while areas to the east have rapidly gentrified. It's the kind of place that every Angeleno should visit at least once—maybe not at night—to appreciate a sense of history so rarely found in LA. A haunting beauty pervades the park; the prominent Westlake Theatre marquee across the street stands as a ghost of the neighborhood's glamorous past, when it was home to Art Deco mansions, luxury high rises and a Manhattan-esque atmosphere. At the very least, make a stop across the street at Langer's and take in the park's surroundings from the Wilshire Boulevard overpass that cuts it in half.