Ranger Bill's Last Hike

Ranger Bill's Last Hike

Bill Eckert raises
the flag at the
opening of the
Crystal Springs
Ranger Station
on April 4, 1981.

Photo: Bill Eckert Collection

Note: This article originally appeared in the Glendale News-Press on June 4, 1993.

In a spare bedroom of his North Hollywood home, Bill Eckert examines a sprig of some obscure plant encased in a little plastic bag attached to a 3x5 card bearing a typewritten description. A little later, he pulls out 19th century birth records of Spanish land grant families culled from the Santa Barbara Mission.

For some, this would be serious scholarship. But for Eckert, it's merely preparation for his next hike in Griffith Park.

Eckert, a 67-year-old Glendale native, has hiked, worked, researched or written about Griffith Park for much of his life. And for the last 15 years, he has led a first Saturday of the month six-mile interpretative hike in the park.

But tomorrow--Saturday, June 5--will be his last one.

"After 15 years, I just decided it was time to do something else," he said. And like so many other Southern Californians, it seems, he talks of putting his house up for sale and moving on, perhaps up north.

Eckert's hike has been co-sponsored for the last 15 years by the park's rangers and the Sierra Club. Barbara Frankel, outings chair of the Griffith Park Hikes Committee, said that Eckert will be missed. "He's been very popular," she said. "He gives a lot of information about the park and people like it."

End of an Era

The hike, if it's continued, will not be the same. Senior Park Ranger Phillip Manzi said deep budget cuts preclude assigning a ranger to lead it. Meantime, Henry Shamma, chairman of the Sierra Club's Griffith Park Hikes Committee, said that even if the club's volunteer leaders (The Sierra Club sponsors hikes in the park three times a week.) take over the hike on a rotating basis, they won't be able to keep up Eckert's running commentary.

"Nobody can fill his shoes," Shamma said. "I know the trails, but I don't know the other things he does."

Tomorrow will be the last opportunity to hear Eckert share his extensive knowledge of the park, its history and its flora and fauna. He might, for example, stop and point out black mustard (It's prevalent this time of year.) growing wild alongside the trail.

He's likely to tell his hikers--who are cleverly disguised as a cross section of the general public--that its seeds produce what we know as table mustard, while its leaves can be cooked like spinach and its flowers can be simmered for several minutes to make a broccoli-like dish.

And Eckert, who's a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona in ornamental horticulture and a grower of prize-winning ferns, researches everything he talks about.

"I go on fact," he said.

Griffith Park Historian

But in the blink of a coyote's eye, Eckert the botanist can turn into Eckert the Griffith Park historian. He might tell you about the dreaded "Curse of the Felizes," an 1863 land swindle that became the stuff of legends, or at least a legend. Antonio Feliz lost his land--which included present-day Griffith Park--to Antonio Coronel while Feliz was on his death bed.

The dying don's niece, Petranilla, vowed to Coronel that "A blight shall fall upon the face of this terrestrial paradise, the cattle shall no longer fatten but sicken on its pastures, the fields shall no longer respond to the toil of the tiller, the grand oaks shall wither and die."

Eckert might even quote the passage, which he knows by heart. Again, he's researched the subject. Alongside his collection of books on plants and his botanical card file are several file drawers brimming with Griffith Park history, including back copies of the Griffith Park Bulletin, a historical journal that he and a few colleagues write, edit and publish.

Back on the trail, Eckert may metamorphizes again, this time into Ranger Bill. He'll give you some practical information generally known only to Griffith Park insiders. He may tell you that the giant hat box of a water tank holds a half-million gallons because it has five rings and it sits at 710 feet above sea level because it has "71" painted on it.

Eckert doesn't need to research this stuff. He's lived it. Hired by the city parks department as a gardener in 1949, he became a charter member of Griffith Park's Ranger Unit in 1965. He served as a ranger until he and ranger badge No. 1 retired in 1981.

To Manzi, Eckert's skill isn't just having knowledge, but being able to share it. "He can communicate with park patrons, from the adult who wants to know about every leaf to the child running along the trail," Manzi said.

Eckert's hikes, which cover six miles in three hours, have drawn between four (on the Fourth of July) and 210 (when he retired in 1981). Eckert says he usually draws around 40.

Manzi thinks there might be a big turnout for the last hike. "He has some loyal hikers," Manzi said. "We get people in here (the Griffith Park Ranger Station at Crystal Springs) asking for the Bill Eckert hike."

For more information about hiking in Griffith Park, call the Crystal Springs Ranger Station at (213)665-5188.

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

E-mail me at MEberts@glendale.cc.ca.us

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