I’d wanted to visit O’Melveny Park since first getting wind of its existence several years ago and seeing repeated references to its being the second largest park in Los Angeles (after much better known Griffith Park). However, whereas I can easily walk or ride my bicycle to Griffith Park, O’Melveny is about fifty kilometers from Pendersleigh and public transit to it isn’t terribly convenient. Finally, though, I decided to visit this past Saturday and I’m quite glad that I did.
Although nearly every source describes O’Melveny Park as the second largest park in Los Angeles, factually it is not. It’s the second largest park in Los Angeles owned by the City of Los Angeles — for what that’s worth. Both Hansen Dam Recreation Area and Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area are larger and both located in Los Angeles — but are federally owned. The largest park in Los Angeles is Topanga State Park, roughly two and a half times the size of Griffith Park — but it’s owned by the state of California. O’Melveny, then, is the fifth largest park in Los Angeles — fifteenth if you’re talking about Los Angeles County, but no matter; at 289 hectares and spread across mountains and valleys it does cover a lot of ground.
That ground supports a variety of plant species. Although the north face of the Santa Susana Mountains is dominated by woodlands, the south face supports grasslands, savanna, chaparral scrubland, and riparian woodland. There are groves of native black walnut, blue elderberry, coast live oaks, flowering ash, and Western sycamore — especially near the mostly dry creek beds which drain into the main canyon.
Near the entrance of the park there are non-native eucalyptus trees and even a fruit orchard. A little rain was enough to ensure that small green blades of grass were poking through the mostly brown vegetation and after more substantial rain, the hillsides will bloom with California poppy, Indian paintbrush, Mariposa lily, and morning glories.
Animals which live in and around the park include American badger, American kestrel, barn owl, black bear, bobcat, California kingsnake, California mule deer, California quail, California slender salamanders, coast horned lizard, common poorwill, common western fence lizard, dusky-footed woodrat, gopher snake, gray fox, great horned owl, greater roadrunner, kangaroo rat, mountain lion, red-shouldered hawk, red-tailed hawk, ring-necked snake, ring-tailed cat, side-blotched lizard, southern alligator lizard, southern pacific rattlesnake, striped racer, turkey vulture, western skink, western toads, and whiptail.
The park is unstaffed but the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society hosts free, guided, birdwatching walks on the third Thursday of every month. On my own I spied ravens, towhees and other small birds as well as a brush rabbit, plump California ground squirrels, and several coyotes. I could hear the singing of unseen pacific tree frogs. There were signs of horses and I saw remarkably few humans and dogs mostly near the park’s entrance. In fact, as I scaled 56 meter tall Mission Point (which at an elevation of 845 meters is the second highest peak in the range), I didn’t encounter another soul until I reached the top. As I caught my breath I encountered an older Korean man who took a swig of something and then raced down the mountainside and out of sight.
Mission Point (or Mission Peak as it’s known colloquially), located just west of the park’s edge, affords a pretty remarkable view of the entire San Fernando Valley and Downtown Los Angeles in the distance resembles a matte painting. Situated atop it are the “Widower’s Bench” and tribute to Dr. Mario A. de Campos. A little further down is a grove of trees in which there’s another bench and a couple of burden boxes.
For most of my exploration of the park’s 21 kilometers of trails, I actually prefered the view of the park’s lower elevations. In the shadowy canyons you’re spared the sight of the Shell Oil Fields and Shell Electric Power Generation Facility, the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, and unremarkable suburban sprawl by surrounding mountains and trees.
At the park’s eastern edge the roar of automobiles on the nearby freeways proved to be too much. Deeper into the park, the din of traffic was drowned out by the gusts of the Santa Ana Winds, which whipped the grass, rustled leaves, and shook trees so that their branches banged and creakily rubbed together sublimely.
For thousands of years the Santa Susana Mountains were located at the juncture of the territories of the Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam. The land passed through the hands of the Spanish, Mexico, and the US before it was purchased in 1941 by attorney John O’Melveny, son of prominent Angeleno attorney Henry O’Melveny of the law firm O’Melveny and Myers. O’Melveny named his gentleman’s ranch “CJ Ranch” and used it as a weekend residence where he bred Irish bulldogs, raised cattle, and planted a citrus (mostly grapefruit) orchard, and apparently enjoyed Irish whiskey.
O’Melveny deeded half of his ranch lands to the city in 1973, a year before he retired. Under the Quimby Act, the planned park was expanded and it finally opened to the public in 1981. O’Melveny died aged 89 in 1984. The same forces which shape the region have often proven disastrous for its life as a park. In December 1988 the park was ravaged by the Porter Ranch Fire. The O’Melveny ranch home and barn were destroyed but the orchard survived and today there are occasional organized fruit pickings. Not surprisingly, open flames are prohibited (as are weddings, amplified music, bounce houses, and grills). Having lost much of its vegetation, students from Knollwood Elementary School planted seedlings, many of which were devoured by a flock of sheep in 1990. In 1992, heavy floods ravaged the denuded hillsides and the park was closed for several years as it underwent more restoration.
There are still some obvious signs of damage wrought by fire, sheep, taggers, and litterbugs. Much of the park feels largely untouched aside from the presence of a few trails, a couple of benches, and very few hikers. O’Melveny Park has picnic areas available for reservation and is open seven days a week from dawn till dusk. It’s served by Metro’s 236/237 bus line, which also connects with the nearest train station, Metrolink’s Sylmar/San Fernando Station.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam.
Brightwell has written for Angel Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California,diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the bookSidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College.
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