I’ve been traveling to Southern California on and off for most of my life, and much more frequently since 2006 when I met my wife, but in all that time, one bucket list item has been conspicuously missing from my “completed” list. I’d never seen the Hollywood sign. That’s especially shocking considering I usually fly in and out of LAX, and Hollywood isn’t that far out of the way on the drive to the Inland Empire. While in town for the UPGRD meetup in LA at the end of February, I decided it was time to seek it out and cross it off life’s to-do list. You’d figure that finding arguably the country’s most famous landmark would be a quick and easy thing to do on a weekend, right?
Well, not so much, at least when you’re in a hurry. The official website for the Hollywood sign lists two official viewpoints, one at the Griffith Park Observatory and the other at the Hollywood & Highland Center at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. There are decent views of the sign from the 4th floor of the Hollywood & Highland Center, with Hollywood itself as the backdrop, but Mount Lee is partially obstructed, and because you’re so far away, you need a zoom lens to get a good shot. Plus, the sign itself can be “dimmed” by haze and smog depending on weather conditions. As for the observatory, that’s a fine attraction by itself, and several hiking trails lead to excellent views of the sign, but with only about three hours to kill, we simply didn’t have time. Sooo…back to the drawing board.
A little research and some Google Maps-fu suggested Lake Hollywood Park might be a good place. The “Hollywood Sign Great View” sticker was a dead giveaway, of course.
The park looks easy enough to get to – just a couple of miles from the 101 freeway at Cahuenga Pass – but looks can be deceiving. The streets in this area are steep and narrow, they can switch directions and change names several times, and it is easy to accidentally take a wrong turn and wind up at a tight dead end where it’s difficult to turn around. Nevertheless, after taking good notes and taking a wrong turn only once, and with little traffic at midday on a Saturday, we made it to the “Great View” on Canyon Lake Drive in about 40 minutes from LAX. Google Maps didn’t lie. You’ll find a small dog park on the left, and there really was a great view awaiting us.
A great view of the sign, and no people!
My wife Prita playing movie star for a day
A not-so-great selfie of yours truly
This is about as good a spot as any to take a photo of the sign. There is ample (legal) parking available by the dog park on both sides of the road, and there is a large, mostly clear meadow to frame your shots. Most of all, despite all the hype I’d been seeing on the internet about hordes of tourists and gawkers looking for sign shots, as you can see, there aren’t very many people here at all. If you want something a little more adventurous, the northern end of the park connects to the trail system, where you can hike or scamper along the hills to get a better view of the sign, or Los Angeles off to the south.
To get to this spot, take the exit for Cahuenga Blvd. and Mulholland Drive off of the 101 (Hollywood Freeway) northbound. Pass Mulholland, and turn right at Wonder View Drive. At what appears to be the end of the street, turn right, then immediately left again to continue on Wonder View. Pass the traffic circle, turn right at the end of the street, then immediately right again on Lake Hollywood Drive. Lake Hollywood Drive will change names to Tahoe Drive. Continue and turn right at the end of the street (Canyon Lake Drive). The dog park entrance is on the left. NOTE: some websites suggest you can get even better views by continuing down Canyon Lake to the Beachwood and Hollywoodland neighborhoods. There is a semi-official viewing point maybe 1/4 mile further down the street, but I wouldn’t suggest going any further. The locals in those neighborhoods hate tourists looking for the sign. I mean, they REALLY don’t like tourists. If you can’t resist, please, be courteous, park only where legally allowed, don’t block driveways or fire lanes, and most importantly, don’t stand in the middle of the street to take a photo. As narrow and winding as the streets are, that’s just asking for trouble.
After a quick stop at the sign, we still had a couple of hours left before meeting with the UPGRD crew before the meetup, so I decided to cross another item off the bucket list – a trip down the city’s famous Mulholland Drive. Winding 55 miles through the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, the Mulholland Scenic Corridor comprises three distinct sections – Mulholland Drive from the 101 Freeway at Cahuenga Pass to Encino Hills drive just west of the 405 through some of West LA’s most exclusive neighborhoods; the “Dirt Mulholland” (mostly not open to motor vehicles) from there to just east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills; and the semi-rural Mulholland Highway from Topanga Canyon to the PCH (State Highway 1) between Malibu and Oxnard. The original idea of the road, the brainchild of city engineer William Mulholland, was to transport Angelenos to the nearby mountains and beaches, thus the road intersects with several major north-south roadways that lead to the beach. I’d driven the Mulholland Highway several years ago, so today’s adventure would be down Mulholland Drive from east to west. If you want to retrace our total route exactly, once you’re done at the Hollywood sign, go back the way you came, but once you reach the end of Wonder View, instead of turning right to head back to the 101, turn left (Lakeridge Place), then immediately right across the freeway. This will put you on Mulholland.
Starting at Cahuenga Pass, possibly the best section of Mulholland Drive comes up first at the Hollywood Bowl overlook on the south side of the road. Look to the east, and you’re afforded another nice view of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park, though this sign view isn’t as good as the one at Lake Hollywood Park since it’s farther away.
The best part of this overlook, though, is the view of downtown LA to the south – perhaps the single most sought-after view of the LA skyline. The view was even better today, given the lack of smog thanks to an approaching storm system.
The overlook also provides a good view of West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.
Be aware that this is probably the most popular overlook on the road, and it can get very congested. I was lucky to get a parking spot, and numerous tour buses come here, which can occasionally make it difficult to maneuver around the lot. Don’t park on the road itself unless it’s clearly allowed; I saw the LA County Sheriff studiously patrolling and looking for suckers illegally parked.
A little farther west is the Universal City overlook, this time on the north side of the road. As the name suggests, the overlook provides a sweeping view of Universal City and Universal Studios.
Continuing west, the road climbs higher as the Santa Monica Mountains build up, and a series of overlooks on the north side of the road provide excellent views of the San Fernando Valley, with the San Gabriels and Santa Susanna Mountains in the background. The incoming storm system made for some pretty cloud formations to go along with the scenery.
At last, we found what I was looking for. One of the most interesting aspects of Mulholland Drive are the fancy houses, especially as the road winds through the northern sections of the ritzy Beverly Glen and Bel Air neighborhoods (queue up the Fresh Prince jokes). Getting photos of the houses themselves is a difficult endeavor; parking is restricted outside of scenic overlooks, and side roads are narrow and difficult to turn around on, presumably to ward off gawkers. I was able to snap a couple of photos, though, that give you an idea of the pricey real estate in these parts, especially in the second photo.
If you find yourself with a few hours to kill in LA, and you have a rental car at your disposal, give this mini-tour a try. It’s a fun way to see what makes La La Land what it is, while enjoying some of Southern California’s natural beauty.