Battle of the Bike Paths: Which Is Better, Ballona or the L.A. River?

The Ballona Creek Bike Path
The Ballona Creek Bike Path
Isaac Simpson

Of the four uninterrupted bike paths in L.A., two stand out as the most uniquely Angeleno. Both cut for miles through the city, along the concrete rims of our iconic, man-made waterways.

The Ballona Creek Bike Path runs from Culver City to the sea. It's a trippy journey, from the concrete jungle of the "creek" on the Culver end, to cranes flapping over sea fronds in the Marina at the other.

The Elysian Valley Bike Path (better known as the L.A. River Bike Path) runs along a soft-bottom part of the L.A. River, connecting lower Glendale to Elysian Park. The route is a frenetic blend of gorgeous trees and large birds, trash and homeless encampments.

Which trip is a better way to cycle through a Saturday afternoon? We rode the distance of both to find out. Here, we break down the Battle of the Bike Paths.

The Cycling Experience 
Ballona Creek: The exact length of the Ballona Creek Bike Path is unclear, as even official sources sometimes say seven miles, sometimes eight. Suffice to say, it's about seven miles. The grade varies, as the path dips under overpass after overpass. There are occasional obstacles, typically in the form of slower commuters or pot-smoking teens, but, for the most part, it's easy cruising.

L.A. River: The L.A. River Bike Path is a 7.4-mile curve around Griffith Park. It's more remote, and less of a commuter route than Ballona, with fewer other cyclists to block your way. It's flatter, with fewer dips and crests and more long, straight stretches of flat riding. However, being at street level, instead of running largely below it like Ballona, it's more susceptible to wind. This is particularly frustrating during the 3-4 mile stretch that runs next to the 5, after which you're covered in a layer of smog residue.

EDGE: Ballona Creek. Better to battle through clouds of pot smoke than clouds of smog.

The L.A. River Bike Path
The L.A. River Bike Path
Isaac Simpson

Communion with Nature
Ballona Creek: Ballona Creek is a narrow string of concrete in Culver City. As you travel westward, it slowly opens up to the Ballona wetlands, and then to full-blown ocean at Marina del Rey. The eastern portions are devoid of nature, unless you count graffiti and elaborate homeless settlements. Only a thin glaze of water trickles down the concrete. As you move west, however, birds start to appear, including ducks and crows as well as few large sea-birds, and the channel gets greener. Your final reward? Salty-aired ocean.

L.A. River: This path, on the other hand, starts green and ends green. On one side there's the green hills of Griffith Park; on the other, the soft-bottomed L.A. River with its wild sprouts of green trees, tall weeds, and dirt. Big birds, storks and cranes of varying shapes and sizes flap around, making their nests on islands in the river, standing on the concrete flanks and dipping their beaks down into the shallow brown water. Birds aren't the only inhabitants - there's an endless string of homeless encampments set up in the center of the river, tents, trash and blankets organized under the canopy in barely recognizable homesteads.

EDGE: L.A. River. The ocean part of Ballona is great, but short. On the river, you bear witness to the unnatural becoming the natural, as jungle bursts out of concrete.

Turn the page for more comparisons, including the safety issue (muggings! gang members!)

Ballona: So pretty.
Ballona: So pretty.
Isaac Simpson

Ballona Creek: Ballona Creek is the more crowded of the two, which can give a sense of security, but there have still been incidents. In 2008, a cyclist was attacked by two gang members who threw a bicycle under his path, blasted him with pepper spray and stole his backpack. In 2013, a similar incident occurred, leaving a cyclist with a broken collar-bone and a punctured lung. Beyond muggings, the traffic on the high-speed commuter path can be dangerous as well, particularly when some people ride motorized bicycles and scooters.

L.A. River: The path here is isolated and runs through some tough neighborhoods, so it's no surprise that crime has occurred here, too. In 2013, a group of cyclists was attacked and robbed by members of the Frogtown gang. A man swung a skateboard into one rider's chest, knocking him off his bicycle, while another threw a beer bottle, which fortunately bounced off another cyclist's helmet. After the incident, police increased patrols along the path.

EDGE: L.A. River. The Frogtown gang incident was isolated, while muggings seem to be a more consistent risk on Ballona.

Stops and Byways
Ballona Creek: The Culver City entrance of the trail is at Syd Kronenthal Park, an unremarkable spot in the middle of a traffic-clogged area. However, less than mile or so into the ride it runs by the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook (a decent hiking spot) and Culver City Park. The west end terminates in Marina del Rey, where a short jaunt to the right travels up the Ballona Lagoon past some of the nicest houses in the city, and right into the Venice Canals. It also links up to The Strand Bike Path, which, if you're looking for a real challenge, will take you all the way up to the Palisades or down to Redondo.

L.A. River: The path runs by the zoo in Griffith Park and will drop you off at Elysian Park at the other end, or in Atwater Village along the way. It mostly runs through a newly named neighborhood called Elysian Valley, better known as Frogtown, a sliver of Echo-Park-style urbanity next to the 5, just north of Dodger Stadium. It's a pretty desolate landscape, with the exception of the Nomad Gallery, a massive, fascinating art space only about 50 yards off the bike path, which features a bookshop, a band stage, a pool, a printshop and a barber, as well as a pop-up café on Sundays and a tiny museum (the current exhibit is a Pez collection).

EDGE: Ballona Creek. No better place to take a ride-break than Abbot Kinney.

Nomad Gallery's Pez collection — a good place to stop along the L.A. River Bike Path.
Nomad Gallery's Pez collection — a good place to stop along the L.A. River Bike Path.
Isaac Simpson

Ballona Creek: You go from a graffiti-clogged, post-apocalyptic landscape to a wide-open, yacht-filled marina in only seven miles. The air gets saltier; the birds get bigger. Land turns from grey to green, water from green to blue. Fishermen cast lines over the rocks into the marina. If you've ever felt choked by Eastside traffic, this ride is a therapeutic allegory for clawing your way to freedom.

L.A. River: The mix of lush twisted trees, scattered litter, homeless tents, and large birds provides for a very entertaining ride. It's quieter and straighter than Ballona, a place where hardcore riders can cut loose and sprint. The miles alongside the 5, however, force you to gulp down fumes on your breakaway.

EDGE: Ballona. The change in environment along the ride is something special, while proximity to the 5 hurts LARBP.

WINNER: Ballona Creek. It's a close call, but if you've only got one afternoon, there's nothing like an uninterrupted cruise down to the beach and back.

Follow Isaac Simpson on Twitter. 


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