The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is the largest museum of its type in California (and throughout the West), with 35 million specimens, spanning exhibits on dinosaurs, birds, gems & minerals, and more. The museum features dioramas, fossils, and a variety of interactive displays.
In this post, we’ll review the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA), with photos from our visit and thought on the experience. Despite this being one of the most popular attractions in Southern California, and pretty well-renowned, it took us a while to finally get here, with this being our last stop on the ‘circuit’ of major SoCal museums.
Our first couple of stops in the Los Angeles Natural History Museum were the Gem and Mineral Hall, North American Mammal Hall, and African Mammal Hall. These were fine. Neat things to see, but at this point, I was a bit apprehensive. The displays seemed somewhat dated, and the exhibits were dry. I was beginning to think that the Natural History museum was overrated–a rare misstep in Los Angeles’ exceptional museum scene. Fortunately, that all changed…
The turning point was stepping foot into Dinosaur Hall. I know, I know. As an ardent Dinosaur aficionado, this should have been my first stop.
This 14,000-square-foot exhibit is one of the largest dinosaur halls in the world in terms of the number of individual fossils displayed, and has a number of innovative and unique displays.
Chief among these is theTyrannosaurus rex growth series, which displays a baby, juvenile, and sub-adult T. rex. It’s an incredible display, and a lot can be gleaned simply by looking at these fossils. There’s also a complete Stegosaurus and Triceratops, both of which are really cool. The 68-foot long-necked Mamenchisaurus is also quite the sight to behold.
My favorite of the fossils, though, is the Plesiosaurs. These used to be my favorite “dinosaurs” as a child (they’re no longer classified as such, though they’ll always be dinosaurs in my heart), and it was fascinating to learn about the breakthroughs made by the paleontologists who confirmed they gave birth to their young via the discovery of a pregnant Plesiosaurs fossil.
Frankly, you could skip the entirety of NHMLA aside from Dinosaur Hall, and it’d still be totally worth visiting the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Dinosaur Hall is that good (and dinosaurs are that awesome).
The layout of Dinosaur Hall, or rather, Dinosaur Halls, is a bit disjointed. It’s pretty obvious this sprawling exhibit was retrofit into repurposed spaces, and as such takes up multiple halls across 2 levels of the NHMLA. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing, actually.
Unlike the Gem & Mineral Hall, for example, which is a large space that allows bouncing around, the presentation in Dinosaur Hall is much more conducive to a linear approach.
There’s a natural progression to Dinosaur Hall, and its best experienced when following that, which is fairly easy to do, thanks to and despite the exhibit feeling like a bit of a maze.
What’s really interesting about Dinosaur Hall, I think, is the emphasis on the paleontologist, and the admission that our underlying knowledge of the prehistoric is constantly evolving. The exhibit presents changes in our collective wisdom and varied hypotheses about dinosaurs.
Personally, I like this approach. It sparks a sense of inquisitiveness, challenging visitors. It’s different from a ‘matter of fact’ recitation of scientific knowledge, and I think it’s a great way to engage people with science.
Hopefully, this kind of exhibit gets kids not only interested in science, but also makes them question what they can contribute. The world–especially Los Angeles–could use more of its children aspiring to be scientists and engineers rather than athletes and celebrities.
This approach provides a natural segue into the Dino Lab (upstairs–it’s a bit of a convoluted layout, but make sure you find this area), which actually presents ongoing work of paleontologists.
Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds is an interesting place. It feels like this was funded via a generous contribution by Jimmy Stewart and other celebrities in 1988 (Ralph W. Schreiber was a long-time curator of ornithology at the museum, not the hall’s benefactor) before debuting in 1991, and hasn’t been touched since.
Yeah, I did some research in the L.A. Times archive on it. I have an odd preoccupation with typography…
While this bird hall has a dated look and feel to it, I don’t think it looks outdated or obsolete. Rather, the style is something of a time capsule from the 1980s. The substance itself still holds its own, particularly the interactive habitats with various effects. The experience is diverse and varied, which makes it more captivating than some of the static exhibits downstairs.
One minor note about the ‘time capsule’ nature of the exhibit is some of its information is now obsolete. For example, the exhibit discusses the plight of the California Condor, questioning whether they’ll be able to avoid extinction. (Spoiler alert: after being taken into captivity in 1988, they were reintroduced into the wild in 1992. They are wildly seen as a success story now.) I only know this because the California Condor is one of my favorite animals; who knows what other info here is out of date that I wouldn’t have caught.
Aside from Dinosaur Hall, Ralph W. Schreiber Hall of Birds was actually my favorite part of the Natural History Museum! Perhaps I have a soft spot for this style of exhibit, particularly given that this has a distinctly EPCOT Center-esque vibe to it.
Whatever the reason, I’d recommend making time to head upstairs and check out the Hall of Birds. Maybe it won’t be for you, but it’s at least worth giving it a shot.
I also really enjoyed the Becoming Los Angeles exhibit. This highlights the evolution of the city, from a small pueblo community to a sprawling metropolis. Southern California has a rich history, and I found this to be fascinating.
I think this is more adult in nature, and probably less interesting for kids.
Admission prices for the NHMLA vary depending upon whether you choose any add-ons, such as the Butterfly Pavilion, with prices starting at $12 per adult. Free general admission is available on the first Tuesday of every month (except July and August), and every Tuesday in September. The museum itself warns of high crowd levels on these days, so if you’re going to take advantage of one, it’s definitely better to go in mid-September (if you’re a local and can choose when you visit).
If you do choose to go on a free admission day, we recommend reserving tickets in advance to guarantee entry and to skip the line, which can be quite long. Paying and not hassling with the crowds is probably a better option, if you’re not on a tight budget.
With that said, the NHMLA is huge, so even on a busy day (and it was quite busy when we visited), the museum does a pretty good job of absorbing crowds. Dinosaur Hall is unsurprisingly a popular spot for families with small children, so visiting this early in the morning or late in the afternoon is an advisable strategy if you want to avoid crowds.
Even that’s not a strict necessity. We visited Dinosaur Hall in the middle of the day on a weekend during Spring Break, and it wasn’t crowded to the point of frustration, nor did we have to wait for, or crowd around, certain placards. Some areas of the museum, including Bird Hall and Dino Lab, were pretty empty, even.
In terms of other tips, my recommendation would be doing the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on the same day as the California Science Center. They are within walking distance of one another, and this is a way to visit two excellent museums while only paying for parking once.
If you’re really frugal and comfortable with Los Angeles, you can avoid paying for parking entirely by finding street spaces in the residential area a couple of blocks over (across Vermont Street, in the vicinity of Wisconsin and Walton Ave). It’s much more convenient to just park in the lots by Exposition Park, and at $10, it’s not too pricey by Los Angeles’ standards.
Overall, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is excellent, and a point of interest in Southern California that we highly recommend. Dinosaur Hall alone would put this in my top 10 for things to do in Los Angeles, with the rest being icing on the cake. It also earns points for being totally unique: while there are a number of places to go to see art in SoCal, the region is currently in the midst of an ongoing dinosaur-drought, with the NHMLA being a veritable dinosaur-oasis. I highly recommend it, and making a full day itinerary out of this, the California Science Center, and other spots around Exposition Park.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County? If so, how does it rank in terms of Los Angeles museums for you? Would you recommend it to an out-of-town tourist with a week or less in Southern California? If not, why do you hate dinosaurs?! 😉 Any additional tips or thoughts to share about the NHMLA? Any questions about visiting this museum? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!