Parks and Degradation: Mismanagement and Scandal at the National Park Service

Credit: Photograph by Shana Novak

The year 2016 was supposed to be a happy one for the National Park Service. To commemorate its centennial, the agency launched all manner of celebrations: a nationwide Find Your Park[1] campaign to lure tech-obsessed millennials into the great outdoors; elaborate food and music festivals from the Great Smoky Mountains[2] to the Grand Canyon; citizen-naturalization ceremonies on park grounds; and high-profile visits by President Obama, who hiked with his family and delivered speeches about environmental conservation.

But by year's end, it was hard to find much to celebrate.

Not only had the summer of 2016 seen some of the worst overcrowding on record, but widespread allegations of mismanagement, including a series of high-profile sexual harassment scandals, cast serious doubt on the Park Service's ability to handle the challenges it will face moving forward — from the profound threat of climate change to a new, GOP-controlled government skeptical of federal expenditure for the preservation of public lands. "We call it the 'centennial hangover,' " says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The Park Service spent most of the past year in self-congratulation mode, without introspection; they have no plan for how to proceed; and the agency is so decentralized that they don't seem to have any accountability mechanisms."

MORE: A River Guide Tells Her Side of the Story[4]

Case in point is the story of Yosemite superintendent Don Neubacher. A 34-year agency lifer, Neubacher worked his way up from ranger duty at Glacier Bay National Park to superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore to, in 2010, the top job at Yosemite, one of the service's most visible and coveted positions. He made some big decisions — including adding the 400-acre Ackerson Meadow to the park and opening the upper Merced River to kayaks. But Neubacher likely will be remembered for congressional hearings into complaints by dozens of Yosemite employees of a hostile and toxic work environment. "In Yosemite National Park today dozens of people . . . are being bullied, belittled, disenfranchised, and marginalized from their roles as dedicated professionals . . . [and] publicly humiliated by the superintendent," Kelly Martin, who has served for 10 years as the park's chief of fire and aviation management, testified in September.

Neubacher himself was not accused of harassment, but critics say a brusque management style created an environment in which bad behavior went unpunished. And he was able to act with almost no accountability. For one thing, Neubacher's wife was a deputy at the NPS Pacific West Region headquarters, the office that oversees the region's parks. And he further consolidated power by refusing to hire a deputy superintendent.

Don Neubacher, former super-intendent of Yosemite Park

It's hardly limited to Yosemite. Martin also testified about rampant sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, where she had worked earlier in her career, telling the story of a male ranger who repeatedly spied on her as she showered. Although other women reported similar incidents, the ranger was repeatedly promoted. Similar stories emerged, always with perpetrators escaping discipline: A report from the Office of Inspector General detailed 15 years of sexual harassment by Grand Canyon river guides going unpunished, despite the knowledge of supervisors. Other testimony recounted harassment of female employees at Yellowstone; reports of harassment and financial mismanagement at Canaveral National Seashore; and a supervisor in Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area with a well-known groping habit.

Superintendents at two of these parks, including Neubacher (and his wife), were either transferred or forced into early retirement this year. But the problem, according to Department of the Interior sources, goes far beyond individual supervisors. Instead, many of the managers at more than 400 national parks, monuments, seashores, historic sites, and recreation areas, insiders say, ascend the ranks less through proven leadership than through political acumen and seniority. They burrow into plum positions in beautiful parks and then bury bad news that might cast an unflattering light. "It's like a fishbowl where the superintendent is king," says retired Yosemite ranger Andrea Lankford, author of Ranger Confidential. "The superintendent controls your housing, your job, your retirement, maybe your spouse's housing and job. Your kids might be in a school in the park, so the superintendent has a lot of power over you."

Large national parks, Lankford points out, are like towns, only surrounded by wilderness and almost entirely cut off from outside supervision. At Effigy Mounds National Monument, in Iowa, for example, one superintendent personally stole 2,100 archaeological artifacts, including the remains of 41 Native Americans; a successor oversaw an illegal $3.4 million construction project that involved digging trenches and installing wooden boardwalks throughout sensitive burial sites. "I don't know of a case in 40-odd years where a complaint by a lower-level fieldperson led to significant discipline against a supervisor," says George Durkee, a retired law-enforcement ranger who spent decades in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. "It just doesn't happen."

Perhaps it's not a major surprise that a recent Best Places to Work survey of 320 government subagencies ranked the NPS at 259th — nearly 100 places behind the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

The Park Service says it is committed to improvement. "We fully recognize that we have an issue with sexual harassment and hostile work environments," says NPS spokesman Tom Crosson. Already in the works are sexual-harassment training programs, the creation of a new ombudsman to field complaints, and an agency-wide survey aimed at gathering data. "In the long term, looking at things like hiring the right people for the right jobs, we have relocated folks out of their positions," Crosson says. Still, he says, "holistically, we've not looked at very sweeping changes."

The problem is that an antiquated NPS culture stifles creative thinking, so more serious challenges, such as catastrophic overcrowding, aren't met with innovative solutions. A record 305 million people visited NPS sites in 2015 — more than attended Disney World, nascar races, and professional football, hockey, and basketball games combined. Yosemite alone got a record-breaking 4.2 million in 2015, 250,000 more than the year prior; visits to Great Smoky Mountains National Park jumped 6 percent, to 10.7 million. The results were about what you'd predict: three-mile traffic jams outside many park entrances and public toilets going through a mile of toilet paper per stall per day. Zion National Park saw as many as 300 people at a time standing in shuttle-bus lines.

Hikers on Yosemite's Half Dome. Timothy Faust / Getty Images

The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 requires the agency to establish so-called visitor carrying capacities for every part of every park, and to pursue reasonable measures to make sure those capacities are not exceeded. But according to Ruch, that has not happened. "We looked at 108 parks and reserves and seashores," he says. "Only seven had anything resembling a carrying-capacity report."

The failure to protect parks from overuse can't be blamed entirely on bureaucrats. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 tasked the NPS with promoting and regulating parks "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Back in 1916, when only 325,000 people visited the parks, conservation and enjoyment might have seemed complementary goals. Now, however, they put superintendents in the middle of a constant tug-of-war between environmental groups and politicians supported by concessionaires who profit by maximizing the flow of wallets through park gates. Park managers at Biscayne National Park, for example, spent 15 years fielding 43,000 public comments, 90 percent of which favored the creation of a marine reserve within the park to protect dying reefs, only to have all that work undermined by Florida's $8 billion recreational saltwater fishing industry and its allies in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

Polls show that three out of four Americans believe that national parks benefit the country, and 83 percent look favorably on elected representatives who take strong stands in favor of protecting parks. But Congress has long starved the NPS for funds, and the new GOP-controlled legislature is unlikely to change that. In the meantime, the Park Service has a $12 billion system-wide maintenance backlog that now includes a 16-mile Grand Canyon water pipeline that breaks down up to 30 times a year, potholed roads throughout Yellowstone, and a Great Smoky Mountains so short on workers it can't even empty the overflowing trash cans.

The nonprofit National Park Foundation advocates raising funds by tapping private donors and corporate sponsorships, an idea anathema to many environmental groups. "The last thing we want is 'Half Dome brought to you by Coca-Cola,' " says Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club. "Also, corporate sponsorship tends to be considered as a substitute for public financial support of national parks, not as augmenting it so we can do more."

Underfunding and political gamesmanship also undermine the ability of the NPS to deal with the biggest challenge of all: the existential threat posed by climate change, which is already damaging some national park ecosystems beyond recognition. The glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting so fast that they most will likely be gone by 2030. The cloud mist over the high-elevation forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park now has pH levels comparable to lemon juice, threatening flora and fauna. Warm, short winters create conditions more favorable for insects like the hemlock woolly adelgid, which has killed 95 percent of the hemlock trees in Shenandoah National Park since 1988. In California, meanwhile, drought and a beetle infestation have killed 66 million trees since 2010, including huge numbers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Forest.

And then there is the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. The 2016 Republican Party platform explicitly advocates transferring federal lands to the states; changing the 1906 Antiquities Act to thwart future presidents from designating new national parks or monuments; scaling back Environmental Protection Agency regulations; and withdrawing from international climate-change agreements. And Trump seems to be taking that platform seriously: Early candidates to head his Department of the Interior, which oversees the NPS, reportedly include oil industry executive Forrest Lucas and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. High on the list of potential EPA heads is Myron Ebell, an official at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a climate-change skeptic.

"Environmental protection is going to take a big hit," Hamilton says, "and we're probably reversing course on climate change." As for the national parks, Hamilton expects that they'll continue to limp along. "The national parks are so sacrosanct in our culture," he says. "I'm skeptical that even a Trump administration would make a wholesale attack on them." Far more concerning are the wilderness areas surrounding the parks, which could become fair game for industry and development. "The biggest risks," Hamilton says, "are predominantly external."


How to Get Kicked Out Of An Uber Car, According to Uber

Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

More often than not, getting from Point A to Point B in your Uber is a pleasant experience for both rider and driver. “I’ve driven about 6,000 trips, and I’m grateful for every single one of them,” Nathan Fox, a driver in Cleveland, says. “To see the diversity and to interact with all of these different people and share a slice of their story is a privilege.” But even Fox knows it can get ugly. “My advice for other drivers has always been to have tough skin and a soft heart,” he says. “I think it makes me a better person to deal with the people who are difficult.”

We’ve all heard the horror stories and strange encounters of the rideshare kind, but on Thursday morning Uber updated their community guidelines to crack down on disrespectful riders. "[Our Community Guidelines] now explain in plain English the kind of behavior we expect from both riders and drivers when using Uber,” Regional General Manager Rachel Holt says. “And as part of these ground rules, for the first time we’re publishing a policy explaining why riders can lose access to Uber — just as we already do with drivers.”

Travel Insider: Advice from an Uber Driver[1]

Fox says he is a pretty tolerant driver and understands that everyone has their “off” days, so he rarely gyps riders of a 5-star rating. In fact, he’s only kicked one person out of his car, and it wasn’t even the Uber account holder — it was the rider’s guest. “He started getting angry and yelling and got physical in the car, so I pulled over and asked him to get out,” Fox says. “Other than that, the stuff that happens can be outlandish, but it’s usually laughable.”

But here’s the list of six things that won’t have your driver laughing and can get you kicked out of the car, according to the new Community Guidelines:

1. Leaving trash.

This just slows your driver down because they have to clean up after you and makes everything less efficient for everyone,” Fox says. Have a water bottle or sandwich wrapper with you? Take it when you go. Or be prepared to sacrifice a good rating. “If drivers see that you have a tendency to trash cars on your rating, they won’t pick you up.”

2. Being "disrespectful."

This one is probably the most subject to interpretation, but using verbal threats, and making comments or gestures that are aggressive, sexual, discriminatory, or disrespectful is a surefire way to get banned. “Treat your fellow riders and drivers as you would like to be treated yourself — with respect. It’s common courtesy not to shout, swear, or slam the car door... Most important of all, remember that when you use Uber you will meet people who may look different or think differently from you. Please respect those differences,” the new Guidelines read. 

3. Asking if your driver or a fellow passenger is single.

According to the guidelines, you aren't supposed to comment on someone’s looks or ask if they are single. So if you were hoping to get a date out of your morning UberPOOL, sorry. Obviously, it’s never okay to touch other people in the car. So don’t. And as a reminder, Uber has a “no sex” rule. That means no sex or sexual conduct in the car. 

4. Drinking a beer.

The guidelines generally ask you to follow local laws. Therefore, bringing open containers of alcohol or drugs into the car where it isn’t regionally legal will get you kicked out. Likewise, asking your driver to speed or traveling in large groups that exceed the number of seat belts in the car is grounds for cancellation.

5. Letting your kids use your account.

“We may deactivate any accounts associated with this type of activity, including: abusing promotions; collusion between rider and driver; disputing fares for fraudulent or illegitimate reasons; or duplicate accounts,” Holt says. And allowing your kids to use your account is out of the question. “Only adults can have an Uber rider account. If your child is using your account, a parent must be with them at all times.”

6. Carrying a gun (no matter what the local laws are).

“Please leave your guns at home,” Holt says. “Uber prohibits riders and drivers from carrying firearms in a vehicle while using our app.”


  1. ^ Travel Insider: Advice from an Uber Driver (

Your Chance to Sleep 60 Feet Underwater in the Aquarius Reef Base

Credit: FIU

Four divers with $4,500 to spare can join the limited ranks of people who slept underwater inside Aquarius Reef Base. Reef Environmental Education Foundation teamed up with Florida International University, which operates the undersea research lab, to offer the special expedition March 5 to 10, 2017.

Scientists use Aquarius Reef Base, 60 feet deep in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, to study the ocean, test and develop undersea technology, and train astronauts. Fewer than 1,500 people have worked inside the base, with only 392 spending a night there, Sylvia Earle and Fabian Cousteau among them.

MORE: Shelter of the Week, The Underwater Room[1]

The Base is beyond cozy, only 43 feet long and nine feet in diameter, but eight portholes look out onto the surrounding waters. Frequent sightings through these windows include large tarpon, goliath grouper, barracuda, and sea turtles in addition to schools of reef fish.

When staying in the habitat, scientists use a technique called saturation diving, where the body absorbs the maximum amount of nitrogen for the depth at which they work, allowing them to dive up to nine hours per day as deep as 95 feet with reduced risk of decompression sickness. The habitat’s interior atmospheric pressure remains equal to surrounding water pressure (about 2.5 atmospheres) and missions wrap up with more than 15 hours of decompression as pressure inside slowly returns to match that at the surface. Since 1993, 120 research missions in Aquarius have produced more than 600 peer-reviewed scientific publications.

ALSO: Life Advice from Sylvia Earle[2]

The REEF group will spend three days diving in the Keys before descending to Aquarius. The evening there includes a lecture and dinner, with breakfast served the next morning before divers return to the surface. The pressure inside Aquarius will be adjusted so that this night is not a saturation dive.

The cost includes four nights of lodging topside in Key Largo, three days of two-tank dives, and classroom sessions with REEF and Aquarius staff each day in addition to the night below. Expedition leaders Lad Akins, REEF director of special projects, and Ellie Splain, education program manager, have both spent time in the habitat before.

To get a spot, submit an interest form online[3], and a REEF staff member will follow up regarding confirmation of space and payment instructions.


  1. ^ MORE: Shelter of the Week, The Underwater Room (
  2. ^ ALSO: Life Advice from Sylvia Earle (
  3. ^ submit an interest form online (

Weedtown, USA: Home to America's First City-Owned Pot Shop

On a warm late-summer afternoon, Don Stevens steps out of the Cannabis Corner in North Bonneville, in southernmost Washington state. With a scruffy beard, wire-frame glasses, and receding gray hair that curls down to his collar, he looks like a hippie high school teacher, the kind who'd frequent a marijuana shop. It helps that he's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with heavenly buds, a local cannabis producer.

But Stevens is more than a pot aficionado; he's also the city's highest elected official. Just check out his license plate: mjmayor.

ALSO: The Weed Country Road Trip[2]

That Stevens is known as the Marijuana Mayor isn't the only funny thing happening in this town of 1,005. Inside the Cannabis Corner's otherwise unremarkable bright-green facility is a one-of-a-kind experiment. The shop, which opened its doors in 2015, is run by the city, making it the only government-operated cannabis store in the country. By September 2016, it had generated $2.2 million in revenue, and once the Cannabis Corner covers its start-up costs, proceeds will go to updating the local playground, bankrolling law enforcement, and other municipal expenditures. Not bad for a town that was nearly bankrupt in 2013.

Outside sleepy North Bonneville, this endeavor could have far-reaching implications for the five states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine — voting on legalizing recreational marijuana this election. Currently every recreational marijuana market in the country is based around privately owned stores. Because the Cannabis Corner is a government entity, not only is it exempt from federal taxes, but all the proceeds go back to the town, keeping cannabis — and its profits — in the hands of the people. "In states that legalize, there's no reason other towns can't do the same thing," says Pat Oglesby, a North Carolina marijuana-policy expert and former chief tax counsel for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

"It's the greatest idea nobody is talking about," says 59-year-old Stevens as he walks through the dispensary, passing cases packed with marijuana baggies and shelves displaying multicolor bongs and hand-carved walking sticks that double as weed pipes.

Marijuana Mayor, Don Stevens Photograph by Dina Avila

Stevens was elected mayor in 2009, though the longtime marijuana enthusiast hadn't planned to get into politics. In 2005, the former IT director moved with his wife from Hood River, Oregon, to North Bonneville for a sales job at a local fruit-bar company and for the mountain bike trails and snowboard runs in the Columbia River Gorge. But while North Bonneville boasts a striking mountain backdrop — "This is where God stopped creating," locals like to say — it also resembles a town dropped in the middle of nowhere. Set far back from the highway, it has none of the retailers, breweries, or other revenue-generating businesses that have helped revitalize nearby towns like Stevenson and Cascade Locks. For years North Bonneville officials sold off city land to stay solvent, but after the 2008 housing crash, there was little of it left. North Bonneville teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

An unlikely solution came after marijuana was legalized in Washington in 2012. Council member Charles Pace, an economist who'd helped tribal governments navigate federal regulations, proposed the idea: Why not operate a marijuana store, with profits going to the city's coffers? If it became a problem — say, fueling increased use among youths or contributing to auto accidents — the city could pull the plug. "The thought was, 'If it's going to be here, it's going to be on our terms,' " says city administrator Steve Hasson. So the council voted to create the North Bonneville Public Development Authority and provided a $15,000 loan to get the store off the ground. Loans cobbled together by local citizens provided another $250,000.

MORE: The True Story of What Happened When A Plane Loaded with 6,000 Pounds of Pot Crashed in Yosemite[3]

On March 7, 2015, the Cannabis Corner opened for business, and within four months it was attracting 100 or so customers a day. But not everyone was impressed, including local law enforcement. "When you spend 30 years fighting marijuana, to just roll over and take marijuana money and say things are great, I can't do that," says county sheriff Dave Brown. Critics are also waiting to see a real payoff. "If they could show something, like four shiny police cars, this model would be enticing," says local pastor Tom Flanagan, who remains opposed to the shop. "But in terms of financial benefits, it has not been significant."

Stevens and other supporters of the venture urge patience. Once the store pays off its loans in the next couple of years, it projects annual profits of around $75,000. While far from a jackpot, it's still more than the town, which has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, spends on law enforcement each year. Executive director Robyn Legun also points out that the store does not appear to be encouraging use among youths or attracting undesirables, and that it supports local growers, buying marijuana primarily from farms within a 30-mile radius. "It's become a farm-to-table, buy-local thing," says Stevens. What's more, the Cannabis Corner is now North Bonneville's second-largest employer, with 11 workers earning about $15 an hour (nearly $6 more than the state's minimum wage), along with benefiting from health insurance. "What other small-town mom-and-pop offers that?" asks Legun.

Maybe that's why the vibe among locals is generally positive. For a town without a single coffee shop, the Cannabis Corner has become a watercooler spot. Mothers and sons shop there together, and "budtenders" ask locals if so-and-so is still feeling under the weather and how the kids are faring at school.

A selection of the Cannabis Corner's one-gram buds ($12 a bag) Photograph by Dina Avila

"Compared with other Washington stores, they have the best deals and quantity as well as quality," says Terre Bluse, who recently moved from North Bonneville to a nearby town and stops by the shop a couple of times a week. "Bonneville was broke a year ago," she says. "Our town should follow the model."

For now no other municipality is considering the North Bonneville approach. Possibly, says Oglesby, that's because those pushing for legalization — diehard libertarians and liberals fed up with the war on drugs — aren't likely to trust government-run cannabis. Elected officials also fear incurring the wrath of the federal government, which still considers marijuana to be illegal.

So far, the feds have left North Bonneville alone. Which meant I had the rare opportunity to consume government-supplied marijuana with an elected official.

After visiting the Cannabis Corner, Stevens and I take a pre-rolled joint of  "Bluniverse 3" and pass it back and forth as we sit by the Columbia River, watching a paddle steamer of tourists chug by.

"I've never smoked pot with a journalist before," Stevens says.

Soon he could be doing so a lot. The Marijuana Mayor aims to spread the word about what his city has pulled off, by speaking at cannabis conferences, reaching out to pro-legalization operations in California, maybe taking the news all the way to the top. After all, there's a reason that, as part of the dispensary's inaugural first purchase, he bought a gram of  "Nobama Diesel."

"I've still got the [now empty] bag," he says. "Someday I might send it to the president."

The Cannabis Corner by the Numbers

Average number of customers daily: 100

Total grams of marijuana sold between March 7, 2015, and September 1, 2016: 134K

Average customer age: 49

Customer breakdown: 35% tourism related, 65% local


Downtown L.A.: How A Cocktail Renaissance Revitalized the Former Industrial Wasteland

The Broad Museum Credit: Spencer Lowell

So a Hollywood power broker, a ripped personal trainer, and a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills walk into a Pressed Juicery. This isn't a joke. It's most people's conception of Los Angeles, a company town where TMZ tour buses roam the streets of Hollywood like military surveillance vehicles, stalking B-list celebrities.

But there's another Los Angeles, a creative stretch of urban sprawl where locally owned restaurants are redefining the dining scene and world-class art galleries operate on streets that were littered with syringes five years ago. This is Downtown L.A., or DTLA, an electrifying two-mile radius, from the Staples Center to the upstart Arts District that may be the coolest stretch of graffitied warehouses in America.

The neighborhood hasn't always been this way. Downtown L.A.'s heyday was in the 1930s and '40s, when the area was full of supper clubs and glittery marquees. But urban flight began in the 1950s, and the lights dimmed dramatically. Then, in the 1980s, much of L.A.'s garment industry fled to China, and Skid Row quickly settled in.

So it was no coincidence that Kurt Russell chose L.A. to escape from in his 1996 dystopian satire: The formerly grand downtown appeared irreparably screwed. But in the late '90s, a handful of visionaries squinted and saw possibility — it was a wild West Coast where a community of artisans began to smooth out the rough edges.

Raan Parton, the creative director for the men's store Apolis, was one of the earlier tenants on East Third Street, where the rent was rumored to be 30 cents per square foot. "Our first studio was a former heroin den," he says. "There had been a murder in the space, so no one wanted it. We got in and power-washed the place, burned some sage, and crossed our fingers."

MORE: Kayaking the Los Angeles River[2]

The gamble paid off. Today the streets still feel raw, and there's an unironic sense of wonder, of not knowing what's hiding around every corner. Behind an orange door simply labeled bar on East Seventh Street lies Everson Royce Bar[3], though you'd never expect the awesome hoedown happening in the patio out back. It's like being invited to a friend's barbecue, with twinkly lights, well-above-average pork buns, and no velvet rope.

This isn't Raymond Chandler's L.A., a sordid backdrop for lonely souls. This is more like New York in the 1970s, an alluring Venn diagram in which danger meets the thrill of the undiscovered. Chase Spenst, co-owner of the Wheelhouse[4] — a new bike shop– coffee joint (which improbably manages to do both well) — says of  his DTLA neighbors: "It's a bunch of people choosing community and culture over convenience." And now's the time to visit. Here's your road map.

Lounging at the Ace Hotel Pool. Jessica Sample

Day 1: Cocktail Revival

There may be no better neighborhood in America for drinking than Downtown L.A. To start, there's Westbound[5], a dark, copper-clad bar on the site of an old Santa Fe Railway station that delivers a mean Sazerac with a fistful of popcorn. Seven Grand[6], a sleek wood-paneled den not too far away, stocks more than 700 varieties of whiskey. Bar Jackalope[7], a recently opened private room, is quieter, with a separate entrance inside and a stash of rare Pappy Van Winkle. The Varnish[8] is a seven-year-old speakeasy-like bar installed in a onetime storage room at the back of Cole's[9], a historic pub and sandwich shop that claims to be the birthplace of the French dip sandwich.

The man who predicted all of this — and who opened most of the bars — is Cedd Moses, who made his money in finance before turning to more colorful pursuits. He had always been infatuated with the area, and in the late 1990s, he heard about plans to convert vacant downtown buildings into residential lofts. Moses figured that if people were going to live there, they would need a place to drink. So he opened the Golden Gopher in 2004 and never looked back. He now owns and operates more than a dozen spots, all among DTLA's best.

"People thought I had lost my mind," Moses says of those first years. "I might have lost my mind, but I found my balls."

Perhaps even more unlikely than a cocktail bar in an old storage room is a legit brewery corridor in the neighborhood. Arts District Brewing Company[10] — celebrated for its vintage Skee-Ball machines, ping-pong table, delicious German pretzels, and, of course, beer — opened earlier this year in an old envelope factory on Traction Avenue. Iron Triangle[11] is harder to find but worth the effort: The 3,500-square-foot tasting room on Industrial Street makes its home in a former horse stable, built in 1904, and keeps a dozen seasonal beers on tap. Iron Triangle Dark Ale is the clear favorite; despite its cold-brew color, it's crisp on the palate — and now also on draft at Dodger Stadium, just a few miles up the road.

With spots like Everson Royce Bar, Downtown L.A. maybe the greatest drinking hoot in America. Dylan + Jeni

Day 2: The Foodie Scene

According to a sign above the entrance, the Grand Central Market[12] has been feeding Los Angeles since 1917, though never so well as today. Most every stall maintains a vintage neon sign, yet the sawdust-covered floors and bruised produce are no more — food trucks with no previous brick-and-mortar outposts have turned Grand Central Market into the hottest incubator of culinary talent in town.

Chef Alvin Cailan's wildly popular food truck, Eggslut[13], opened its first permanent space here in 2013, and there's been a line ever since. Eggslut regulars craving coddled eggs with potato puree served in a mason jar line up early and often. A 20-something employee behind the counter tells me the longest line he's seen was around 100 people. "But the wait wasn't too bad," he says with a straight face. "Maybe 45 minutes." Here's an Eggslut hack: Come for an afternoon snack at 3 on a weekday and you can walk right up. Wash it down with coffee from G&B[14], a favorite of local music supervisor Zach Cowie. Cowie's latest obsession is G&B's Dark & Stormy. "An espresso shot with cold ginger beer doesn't sound right at all," he says, "but I'm hooked."

Chef Ori Menashe of Bestia[15], perhaps the hardest reservation to get in all of L.A., was 31 when he opened his restaurant in a dilapidated 3,000-square-foot warehouse on a side street with zero visibility. This isn't an exaggeration. He installed streetlights on Santa Fe Avenue because so many customers' cars were getting broken into. (Menashe still pays the electricity bill for them.)

During those first months, while Menashe's neighbors grew annoyed — even throwing water balloons at customers once — the influential Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold flipped for Bestia's steak tartar. The menu has changed daily since, but the original chicken gizzards have earned a permanent spot. DTLA is a place to take risks, not just in real estate but in palate. The lamb's neck, Menashe says, is always the first thing to sell out. Try finding that in Beverly Hills.

The Bradbury Building Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Day 3: The Arts

True to its name, the Arts District is lined with notable galleries. This isn't kitschy vacation art, either. In the 1970s, artists and musicians colonized the vacant buildings, and a 1981 ordinance essentially gave them squatters' rights. Sonic Youth and Beck fine-tuned their music at Al's Bar, off  Traction Avenue. The Box[16], run by Mara McCarthy (daughter of the influential L.A. sculptor and video artist Paul McCarthy), has been a pioneering space for artists like the late painter John Altoon.

Thanks to the recent revival, rich benefactors have come in and slapped their names on more than a few buildings, such as the Geffen[17], nearby. We're partial to the Broad[18], the 120,000-square-foot gorilla in town, housing the private collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, which opened to the public in 2015. The Broad (rhymes with "toad") is something of a greatest hits of contemporary art, where works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Jasper Johns rub shoulders. It's the perfect place to breeze through on a Sunday afternoon, especially since the museum is free on that day. (Our tip: Those free tickets often get snatched up well in advance, so go online and buy a $12 ticket to the special exhibition, which includes entrance to the rest of the museum.)

More pioneering is the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel [19]space, which opened in March 2016 in the old Pillsbury flour mill on East Third Street. The gallery's mission is to give international artists a home in the States. Here, Berlin's Isa Genzken, Gerhard Richter's ex-wife and a celebrated artist in her own right, gets her first solo show in L.A. The building, painstakingly restored down to the original flour-mill molding, is itself a work of art. At 116,000 square feet, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is a straight-up compound, larger than the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which gives you a sense of its ambitions.

The gallery's restaurant, Manuela[20], opening this fall, has a menu inspired by 39-year-old chef Wes Whitsell's upbringing in rural north Texas. "Smoking, preserving, fermenting, pickling," Whitsell says. "I'm using the Old World techniques I was raised on." Manuela is local and seasonal (prerequisites these days, it seems), but Whitsell takes things one step further: He's installing an on-site 700-square-foot urban farm that will include finger-lime trees, tomato plants, an herb garden, and a chicken coop (for eggs). The Downtown vibe, he explains, is about "letting the true beauty of a space reveal itself."

Climbing at L.A. Boulders Courtesy L.A. Boulders

Day 4: Action

DTLA may be a gourmand's paradise, but the neighborhood also has its share of adventure options like L.A. Boulders[21], a climbing gym next to the L.A. Gun Club. With 12,000 square feet of climbing space and 17-foot walls, L.A. Boulders is the largest such gym in Southern California, complete with steep overhangs.

Or better yet, explore the changing shape of the neighborhood courtesy of L.A.'s Metro Bike Share[22] program. No visit to DTLA is complete without a ride through Grand Park. Another worthy stop is the Bradbury Building, an architectural wonder dating from 1893 that you may recognize from the climactic chase in Blade Runner or from Zooey Deschanel's (500) Days of Summer, if that's more your speed.

Even the old U.S. Bank Tower is getting in on the fun: Take the elevator to the 70th floor, where you'll find the just-built OUE Skyslide[23], a glass-enclosed slide attached to the skyscraper's exterior, a silly-enough attraction that earns its stripes at sunset, when the views are killer. Don't worry about earthquakes.

(I asked.) "You could hang a yellow school bus filled with children off the slide," an employee tells me. "Or two blue whales." And this being L.A., it may not be long before you see that happen — at least in a movie.

The Wheelhouse Courtesy R.J. Guillermo

Where to Stay

When the Ace Hotel[24] opened in the 1920s-era United Artists Building in 2014, it was a neighborhood turning point as significant as the debut of DTLA's first supermarket, Ralphs[25]. The key to the hotel's vibe is its revamped Spanish Gothic theater, which has hosted a slew of artists from Wilco to Tig Notaro. Even if you don't stay here, check to see who's playing. The Sheraton Grand[26] recently underwent a $75 million renovation that includes the farm-to-table lobby restaurant District on the Bloc. You'll also get a front-row seat to The Bloc, a $180 million downtown office and retail project that involved tearing off the roof of a Macy's (seriously) to create a sun-filled public plaza with local vendors, food trucks, and, soon, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse's[27] first L.A. outpost.

Where to Caffeinate

The Wheelhouse[28] is a semi-hidden bike shop where fixed-gear heads go for their coffee fix. The hulking space (next to the L.A. Gun Club) is part sales floor for brands like Handsome Cycles, Rivendell Bicycle Works, and Heritage, and part serious coffee bar.

Where to Snack

If you spot the Pico House[29] food truck, flag it down and grab an order of pickled red-onion rings served with herb-quark sauce — then lick your fingers for the next two days. Chef Johnny Zone got famous with his Howlin' Ray's[30] food truck, which brought Nashville hot chicken to L.A. and blew everyone's mind. Zone just opened the first Howlin' Ray's brick-and-mortar space, in Chinatown.


  1. ^ MORE: Plan Your Next Four-Day Weekend Where It Counts (
  2. ^ MORE: Kayaking the Los Angeles River (
  3. ^ Everson Royce Bar (
  4. ^ Wheelhouse (
  5. ^ Westbound (
  6. ^ Seven Grand (
  7. ^ Bar Jackalope (
  8. ^ The Varnish (
  9. ^ Cole's (
  10. ^ Arts District Brewing Company (
  11. ^ Iron Triangle (
  12. ^ Grand Central Market (
  13. ^ Eggslut (
  14. ^ G&B (
  15. ^ Bestia (
  16. ^ The Box (
  17. ^ Geffen (
  18. ^ Broad (
  19. ^ Hauser Wirth & Schimmel (
  20. ^ Manuela (
  21. ^ Boulders (
  22. ^ Metro Bike Share (
  23. ^ OUE Skyslide (
  24. ^ Ace Hotel (
  25. ^ Ralphs (
  26. ^ Sheraton Grand (
  27. ^ Alamo Drafthouse's (
  28. ^ The Wheelhouse (
  29. ^ Pico House (
  30. ^ Howlin' Ray's (