As I was reporting my recent feature on tensions surrounding the Los Angeles River, I realized I hadn't seen much of it. I'd ridden the 7.4-mile bike path in the Glendale Narrows, which goes from Chinatown to Griffith Park. And I've seen glimpses of it from my car, going over bridges. But I didn't have a sense of the river as one continuous thing.
Walking along the 51-mile river would take too long, but I could bike it. An uninterrupted L.A. River bike path is still a ways off (the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation wants one by 2020), but there are a few bike paths along the Valley portion of the river, plus some streets that run parallel to it. Downtown is a bit of a dead zone, river access–wise, but there's the Glendale Narrows bike path and one 20-mile bike path from Vernon all the way down to the Pacific Ocean, in Long Beach.
I knew I'd probably have to break it into two trips — I'm not Lance Armstrong — but two 25-mile bike rides didn't seem that bad. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything.
Wednesday morning, 10:50 a.m.
The L.A. River begins at the confluence of two creeks (Bell Creek and the Arroyo Calabasas) in Canoga Park, just north of Vanowen Boulevard and just east of Topanga Canyon, near the In-N-Out Burger. A small piece of “green space” — i.e., not quite a park, not quite a concrete slab covered in graffiti — opened here last year and apparently cost $11.5 million.
So you see what a tough road to hoe this whole river revitalization thing is gonna be, given that $11.5 million gets you some shrubs, some landscaping and a 2½-mile bikeway.
Minutes into my journey, I see my first shopping cart! Two of them! The water here is green, murky, not very deep. This is city water, oily urban runoff. Later on we'll see water that's been treated by reclamation plants, but here it's all oozy.
The bike path comes to an end. These padlocked gates are everywhere, especially in the Valley and downtown. Mayor Eric Garcetti has set a goal to make every mile of the river within city limits (32 miles out of 52) accessible by 2025. That doesn't seem all that hard to me — the rest of the river, south of L.A., is already accessible via a bike path the county put in. According to the mayor's website, 20 miles of the river is currently accessible. After my ride, I'd say that figure deserves a fact-check, or at least some clarification.
My plan is to bike as near to the river as I can, which is a lot harder than it sounds. And sure enough, I end up in some alleyway, where I get a flat tire.
I look up “bike shops” on Google Maps and walk to the closest one. It isn't there. I walk to the next closest, which is closed on Wednesdays. The third closest bike shop is a bit further, and so I look up which bus to take. The bus never shows up. The bus line appears to have been discontinued. I walk to another bus, which takes me to within walking distance of the bike shop.
Random thought: There aren't many services available for casual bike riders such as myself. Where's the AAA for bikes, or a bike shop that picks you up, or even a special class of Uber cars with bike racks?
Cycle World gets me a new, heavy-duty tube and I am back on the road. I'm basically stalking the river at this point, looking for little streets and paths that run near it. It's a tedious process and I'm not very successful and I'm also getting hungry.
There's a cluster of baseball fields in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area. Behind Harvard-Westlake's field, I can hear the river. I climb down and find what appears to be an abandoned hobo jungle:
Some of these shopping carts look like they've been melted, by either the sun or the water.
And behold! The river! Looking shockingly riverlike! This is the first of three soft-bottom sections, stretches of the river where the bottom is actual dirt and rocks, not concrete.
Of course there's no bike path here, so I have to walk back up, through the abandoned hobo jungle, to try to find another path.
Which I do. Sort of. I'm pretty sure there's a bike path somewhere near here, but I couldn't find it, so I ended up on this dirt walking path, on the southern banks of the river, just north of a golf course. Seems OK to bike on this, right?
Wrong. It is here where I get my second flat tire — the same one that I just got replaced. Damn you, Cycle World!
The salesman at Cycle World sold me a patch kit, which he made sound as easy as changing a tire. Let me tell you, it is not. Even after watching a YouTube video on my phone, I can barely pry the tire off the wheel. I basically get every step of the process wrong, and when I give up, I can't even put the tire back on. By now it's like 90 degrees, I'm sweating like Richard Nixon, and did I mention I was hungry?
I start walking again. I escape from this wretched jogging path and walk to the nearest bus stop, where I see a little makeshift gravesite by the river.
And this almost picturesque vista:
I take the bus to Peddler's West, who again replace my tube. While they work, I walk over to Pizza Revolution. Let me tell you, it was no revolution. It wasn't even reform. It was, at best, Pizza As Usual.
I get my bike and head back down to the river. I've been at this for four hours and I've gone about 10 miles. 4 p.m.
There's very little direct river access from the 405 freeway to Griffith Park. But there is this lovely residential street called Valleyheart (great name for a street in the Valley) that runs, intermittently, parallel to the river. This is actually as close as the river gets to being integrated into a neighborhood, in that people in these apartments can at least see it, albeit through a chain-link fence.
And up ahead there's a cute little river walk, which is another dirt path. This time I'm too afraid to ride on it, so I walk. This one-mile section opened last year and cost $3.5 million.
The riverwalk feeds into another little bike path — but annoyingly, there's no crosswalk at Laurel Canyon. It's a good example of how there are little bits and bobs of restoration, but no overall connective tissue and no thought as to how someone might experience a long stretch of the river. Yes, there are myriad master plans that no doubt aim at this, but those would cost billions of dollars to implement.
Anyway, the bike path ends pretty shortly, and I'm on my own, biking on the mean streets of Studio City.
Fun fact that I probably should've known but didn't: Riverside Drive follows the course of the L.A. River, from Van Nuys to downtown.
I take Riverside, meander along to Forest Lawn, where I can sort of see the river. This is starting to feel like an exercise in futility.
I finally arrive at Griffith Park and the start of the Glendale Narrows bike path, which will take me all the way to Chinatown.
This is the second soft-bottom section, and probably the most popular part of the river. It runs through Atwater and Frog Town. Lots of cyclists going way too fast. Some will be unnerved by biking no more than 20 feet from the bombastic 5 freeway, but I've always loved it. There are tons of birds. The water — from a treatment plant — seems to shimmer.
The exhaustion begins to hit me. I feel like I'm trapped in a Robert Frost poem, only a lot hotter. My vision is starting to go a little blurry. My ass cheeks feel like they've been shot with rubber bullets.
I make it out at Chinatown. I can't even bike anymore. I walk home, feeling more than a little discouraged. I wanted to follow the river, but there's so much of it I still haven't seen.
Tuesday, 9 a.m.
Right then! It's six days later, and I've just about recovered feeling in my legs — and I went to my local bike shop and had them put Kevlar in my tires, so hopefully I won't get any more flats. I start out by trying to follow the river downtown, which I quickly realize is impossible. The river here is flanked on either side by railroad tracks, and there's no Valleyheart (no small street that offers a peek at the concrete estuary). It's all industry and rail yards and electrical substations and garbage dumps.
There are, however, some incredible bridges that go over the river, as well as a semi-secret tunnel that goes under the Sixth Street Bridge and leads directly into the river channel. I learned more about this a week later, when I attended a press conference held by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, the fine folks that invited Frank Gehry to join in this nonsense. That led to this wacky photo opp:
Anyway. The shame of it is that this is one of the coolest parts of the river, where they filmed all those car chases in Grease and Terminator 2 and Repo Man. And there's no access — except for that tunnel, which doesn't even have a sign. If ever there was a need for a bike path, it's here.
Bike paths, by the way, are the low-hanging fruit of river revitalization, since most of the river has a service road running alongside it. The roads do get interrupted by bridges and overpasses, but compared with tearing out concrete and installing new habitat, bike paths are relatively cheap.
Another random observation: The L.A. River master plan would turn this area into a big park, which would indeed be amazing and we need more park space, especially downtown. But … it's pretty cool now. It would be a shame if we got rid of all this. It's so iconic and weird and crazy-looking and unique. There's nothing like this part of the river, and it would be a bummer to lose all of it.
But back to my weird bike ride. I'm forced to kind of crisscross the river, just so I can catch glimpses of it. It's all very True Detective around here, everything's industrial, all the cars are trucks. And indeed, the bike path on the southern portion of the river starts in, of all places, the city of Vernon. From here on out, the river is outside the city of Los Angeles.
This is how the longest stretch of uninterrupted access to the L.A. River — a 20-ish-mile bike path from Vernon to Long Beach — begins. A tiny green sign and some road lettering that reads “WALK BIKE.” No wonder no one knows this thing is here.
It's not particularly pretty, either.
This guy was practicing karate under a bridge.
Somewhere between South Gate and Lynwood, a ramp leads down into the channel itself. I can't resist taking it, so now I'm biking inside the channel, three feet from the water.
Around where the 710 and 105 meet, I start to get nervous. What happens if I get a flat tire? What happens if some psycho throws a rock at me? I'm pretty isolated here. No one can see me. I think it's time I make my way back to the bike path.
Except I haven't seen another ramp. So I lift up my bike and clamber up the sloping channel wall.
There's only one problem: My precious bike path has turned back into a service road. The actual bike path switched sides, over to the east side of the river, and I missed the changeover. Soon, the service road ends.
Which means I need to lift my bike over a padlocked fence and onto the Rosecrans Avenue bridge, which, thankfully, has a pedestrian walkway. From there, I'm able to get to the other side of the river, where I meet up with the bike path. Incredibly, I manage all of this without getting run over or getting another flat tire. My luck's starting to change!
The river's not much to look at around here.
Water's looking a little oily again.
I finally make it to Long Beach and I can sort of smell the sea breeze, but mostly it's just garbage. There's also a pretty strong headwind, and I'm starting to regret doing this again. This is where the third soft-bottom section begins.
It was here, shortly after crossing Willow Street, that I came upon a long stretch of wildflowers. This is probably one of the nicest parts of the river I've seen.
I made it! I can't feel my legs.
As I begin wandering around Long Beach in search of a sandwich, I think back on my day-and-a-half–long, Heart of Darkness–esque journey down the river. Had I learned anything? Was it a waste of time?
I learned how disjointed the river feels, how haphazard and catch-as-catch-can some of the revitalization efforts have been. I learned that L.A. County is way better at building bike paths than the city of L.A. I learned that there are miles and miles of the river that are still inaccessible.
And I learned that the river is really, really unnatural, really strange, constantly in flux, widening, narrowing, changing colors, collecting birds and weeds and shrubs and shopping carts and weird smells and kayakers, cyclists in Atwater, walkers in Compton, homeless people all over.
But I was convinced, by the end of it, that it can connect the city, if the city wants connecting. All it will take is a ton of money.