In Northern California, where cinnabar towers pierce through the cool fog as they rise to the heavens, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the region’s most recognizable landmarks. But in sunny Southern California, one of the most popular sights is a 45-foot-tall whitewashed metal sign affixed to the Hollywood Hills.
While builders in the other 47 contiguous states promoted their developments with more mainstream marketing tactics, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler propped giant white letters atop Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills to create a three-dimensional billboard for his upscale neighborhood, Hollywoodland, in 1923. Although the $21,000 sign (about $320,000 in today’s dollars) was only intended to last about 18 months, nearly a century later it’s still filled with star power.
But like many Hollywood legends, the Hollywood sign’s success story is not without tragedy. In 1932, a young transplant, disheartened by her inability to convert her stage experience in New York to the reels of Los Angeles, climbed 50 feet up a workman’s ladder. From atop the letter H, she jumped to her death, supposedly the day before an offer from the Beverly Hills Playhouse arrived.
In the years that followed, the neglected sign was torched by an arsonist and a letter O tumbled down the hill. On at least two occasions, pranksters rearranged the letters with the ease and cleverness of an El Arroyo restaurant sign, spelling out Hollyweed in support of looser marijuana laws and Holywood in advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Southern California.
As the 1980s dawned, Hugh Hefner united an eclectic group of singers, stars, and other Hollywood elite under the roof of the Playboy Mansion to save the Hollywood sign via a one-of-a-kind auction at a price of over $27,700 a pop. Shock rocker Alice Cooper sponsored the first O in honor of Groucho Marx. Crooner Andy Williams couldn’t take his eyes off of the letter W, and Warner Bros. Records saved the third O.
Soon after, the sign was as refreshed as a midlife actress emerging from her plastic surgeon’s office, ready to welcome Miley Cyrus to Los Angeles in “Party in the USA” and be the star of your Los Angeles vacation photos. Here are 10 tips for viewing the Hollywood sign.
1. When Time Is Limited
If you have limited time in Los Angeles, the best place to see the Hollywood sign is from Hollywood and Highland. Just east of the TCL Chinese Theatre, where handprints and stars fill the sidewalk, the northeast corner of this upscale shopping and entertainment district feels as if it were built specifically to frame the Hollywood sign.
About two miles east of Hollywood and Highland, another relatively easy way to take in the Hollywood sign is from the top of the Home Depot parking lot at 5600 Sunset Boulevard. Peer over the north side of the building for a direct shot of the nine white letters.
2. For Classic Views (Using Public Transportation)
With time in your itinerary to explore Griffith Park and wind your way through its hilly terrain to the Griffith Observatory, you’ll not only be surrounded by the beauty of one of the nation’s largest urban green spaces, but you’ll also have plenty of opportunities to see the Hollywood sign.
One of the best things about this viewing option is that you can avoid wasting time searching for a parking spot by using public transportation. The DASH Observatory bus regularly shuttles between the Greek Theatre and Griffith Observatory for a round-trip fare of less than a dollar.
Fun Fact: At 4,310 acres, Griffith Park is more than five times the size of Central Park.
3. My Favorite View Of The Hollywood Sign
But my favorite view of the Hollywood sign is from Lake Hollywood Park. About a 30-minute drive down the hill from the Griffith Observatory and around the mountain bend, follow the residential road that climbs above the Hollywood Reservoir to this viewing spot. From the edge of Hollywoodland, you’ll discover one of the best views of the sign.
However, there are several things to keep in mind when viewing the Hollywood sign from Lake Hollywood Park. Most importantly, remember that this is a residential area. People live in these homes, and kids play in this park. Respect the area as if it were your neighborhood, being mindful of private drives, traffic, and speed limits. Although Lake Hollywood Park is a lesser-known spot for viewing the Hollywood sign, it’s still quite popular. Expect limited parking and a steep hike up the sidewalk to the best viewing spot.
4. Hiking To The Hollywood Sign
Hiking to the Hollywood sign is a challenging uphill trek, but there are several options. The shortest hike is three miles round trip, with other trails stretching more than six. The shortest trail, while often the least crowded, is also one of the most challenging. Most of the trails are quite steep, with very little shade and no potable water or restrooms along the way. If your heart is absolutely set on a hike, be sure to take plenty of water, pack nutritious snacks, apply sunscreen, and wear sensible shoes.
Pro Tip: If you hike to the Hollywood sign, watch for rattlesnakes!
5. Look But Don’t Touch
Although Hot Chelle Rae sang about dancing on the edge of the Hollywood sign in their 2011 hit song, “Tonight, Tonight,” any actual party on the top of the world likely occurred elsewhere. In order to protect the iconic sign (as well as the native plants and critters that live in the area), the Los Angeles Police Department monitors a variety of motion sensors and cameras 24/7. So be sure to keep your distance when admiring the Hollywood sign up close.
Pro Tip: While cameras will prevent you from touching a piece of history, you can see the sign from anywhere in the world via these live webcams.
6. Out Like A Light
While the original roaring twenties Hollywoodland sign was once illuminated, the Hollywood sign of the 21st century is not. In fact, the last time the sign was brightened by bulbs was on New Year’s Eve 1999 as the world counted down to 2000. However, based on the shimmering city below, sometimes the sign appears to be lit when the city’s glow reflects on the tall white metal letters stretching 350 feet across Mount Lee.
7. Avoid Rain, Haze, And Fog
Like much of the Golden State, Los Angeles has both wet and dry seasons, which means you can expect several inches of rain per month from late fall to early spring and then next to none during the hotter, drier months of June, July, and August. When the sun’s sizzling summer rays heat the smoke and exhaust produced in the valley, a depressing brown haze descends over the City of Angels, obscuring views of the Hollywood sign. So the best time to see it is on a clear day in the cooler months, typically October through April, provided it’s not rainy or overcast.
Pro Tip: Round out your trip by adding these classic Hollywood locations to your Los Angeles itinerary.
8. Get Up Early Or Go Late
While the Hollywood sign is an iconic landmark that most people are excited to view at any time, the most beautiful views are at the beginning of the day as the sun rises and in the evening as the sun sets (especially when the sky is clear).
Pro Tip: If you want to see the Hollywood sign from any of the spots within Griffith Park, it’s open from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
9. Viewing The Hollywood Sign Is Free
There is no fee to view the Hollywood sign. However, expect to pay for parking when viewing the sign from the Hollywood and Highland entertainment district or the Griffith Observatory. (But remember, traveling to the observatory via DASH is less than a dollar compared to approximately $10 per hour to park your car.)
10. The Hollywood Sign Has Copycat Admirers
From the Dunedin suburb of Mosgiel in New Zealand to the green hills that once framed the animated world of Mickey’s Toontown, the world-renowned Hollywood sign has inspired others. Even Dolly Parton has cited the Hollywood sign as her muse for the Dollywood sign featuring a more elegant font and substituting a butterfly for the letter W.
Fun Fact: Known as SF Hollywood Hills, ShyFoundry created a font family that mimics the lettering used to create the Hollywood sign.