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Exploring the Los Angeles River

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For the past three years, two sections of the Los Angeles River have been open to the public for recreational paddling. Known as the Sepulveda Basin (open 30 May through 30 September) and Elysian Valley (open 30 May through 25 September) Recreation Zones, the two sections offer adventurous paddlers the opportunity to explore an often overlooked natural resource in the Los Angeles area. I took advantage of an unanticipated opening in my schedule on a recent Friday and packed up my wife’s Toyota Prius for a trip to the Elysian Valley section.

The Elysian Valley Recreational Zone runs through an area known locally as the Glendale Narrows which is not far from Griffith Park – home of the Los Angeles Zoo, the Griffith Observatory, numerous hiking trails and a host of additional attractions, among which includes a facility operated by the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation where residents can pick up free compost and mulch.

I planned to pick up some compost for our recently redesigned herb garden after paddling a section of the river, so I loaded the Prius with my inflatable Sea Eagle NeedleNose 12’6” SUP and trusty Quickblade Kanaha Paddle along with a batch of blue plastic buckets and lids from Lowe’s which I would later fill with compost.

Heading to the Los Angeles River

I left my house and headed towards downtown Los Angeles. I navigated the urban jungle along the 10 to the 101 to the 5 Freeway before exiting near Fletcher Drive, just a short distance from the Los Angeles Zoo. There are two “official” entry points immediately downriver from Fletcher Drive and I was able to find a parking spot in the neighborhood without too much difficulty on an early Friday afternoon.

Since this was my first time to the area I left my gear in the car and walked over to the Los Angeles River channel to take a look at what I would be getting into. As I expected, the river was channelized by steep concrete banks, but as a result of the natural river bottom there was a dirt river bank on the east side of the channel which was overgrown with palms and a diverse melange of lush green foliage.

Entering the River

I launched from the concrete embankment on “river right” and proceeded downstream through a flat water section towards the Marsh Park Rapids. Along the way I passed through a narrow wave train. It was not anything too technical, but the water was fairly shallow and had picked up speed due to the narrow width for an approximately 40 yard section of the river.

After clipping my center fin on a submerged rock and narrowly avoided being tossed over the nose with the sudden stop I decided it would be safer to sit down on my SUP and navigate the wave train since I was not wearing a helmet. I could see the bottom was littered with large rocks, not to mention the concrete bank immediately to my right – both of which could easily make a lasting impression if I made an unexpected impact.

Just after completing the wave train I saw a small fish jump out of the water out of the corner of my eye. I paddled over to a shallow calm area and saw a school of minnows  swaying back and forth in the current. I’m not sure if one of the minnows was the “jumper”, but it was nice to see the river had some life in it.

River Trail Guide and Map

When in doubt – scout it out! Enter at your own risk.

River conditions and hazards are subject to change without notice. This guide does not list all river rapids, hydraulics, holes, strainers, sweepers and other hazards. Riverbanks are slippery. Scout ahead before paddling. River Zone visitors are responsible for knowing and obeying all park rules, postings and warnings.

Routine pedestrian travel is restricted to paved and rocky surfaces, except at the designated take-out trail, in order to protect endangered bird species protected by Federal and State law.

Put in Point “A” (primary)

Use designated entry zone to gain access to the river. 

Marker 10 – Rattlesnake Rapids

Notes: 0.2 miles of Class 1 & 2 rapids with submerged cement sub-bank on River Right, strainers and other hazards. Portage past the Marker #9 hazard for flat-water conditions if these sections (#9 and #10) are above your skill level.

Marker 9 – Cement hazard upstream of Highway 2

Portage past hazard if this hazard is above your skill level.

Launch Point “B” is an alternate put-in located under the south side of the freeway overpass if you have portaged around the Marker #9 cement hazard. Just under the southern edge of the freeway overpass (State owned property) you will find shallow, still water to launch.

Marker 8 – Marsh Park

Take one of the rapids to River Left. Portage past the rapids if above your skill level.

Marker 7 – Knox

Take the right fork to main center channel.

Marker 6 – Benedict

Merge to River Left from main central channel, paddle or portage chute on left. Portage past chute if above your skill level.

Marker 5 – Rich

Portage past hazard and take left fork 100 yards ahead continuing River Left.

Marker 4 – Birkdale

Take left fork around island, then right main fork to central channel, then to River Right.

Marker 3 – Glover

Portage past shallow cement hazard. The next 200 yards is a “jumble” of small islands and cement/ man-made hazards. Portage or carefully pick route.

Marker 2 – Harwood

Take left fork to River Left.

Marker 1 – Oros

Take Out Point at sandbar beach landing to the right (100 feet).

Take trail to Steelhead Park bike path using riverbank marked trail. Portage to Egret Park (26.63), then Riverside Drive to Oso Park. River partners can stay with gear at Oso Park while one member in your party takes the free shuttle back to Confluence Park parking area.

(Source: LAriverrecreation.org)

A bit further downstream I found what I believe were the Marsh Park Rapids, based on the brief description in the legend of the Los Angeles River Recreation Zone – Summer 2016 map. The Marsh Park Rapids passed through a well overgrown section of the bank to what I presumed to be an unseen channel along “river left”. It would take a machete to cut through the foliage, even if I remained on my board, and unfortunately while I do own a very nice machete, I had not anticipated needing one while paddling the Los Angeles River!

Back Upstream

I turned back upstream and while my initial plans to paddle downstream to the Oros take out point had been thwarted, I was not dejected by the circumstances. I proceeded back up through the wave train moving against the current. The narrow section offered a bit of resistance, but was not impassable and I was able to proceed without scrapping my fin on the rocks by standing near the nose, thereby enabling me to both raise the tail out of the water and readily spot the rocks submerged beneath the surface.

There is a bicycle path running the length of the recreation zone – it actually extends for several miles in either direction along the concrete channel – and there was a steady stream of traffic moving in both directions. I attracted a fair amount of attention from passersby not only as the sole person on the river that day, but in large part for paddling a SUP.

About the Area

The Elysian Valley Recreational Zone is open for a couple more weeks, according to the lariverrecreation.org website, whereas the Friends of the Los Angeles River site indicates the recreation zone closed on Labor Day. Since the former is run in association with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority I presume it to be the more accurate of the two.

There was not a formal parking area at the Fletcher Avenue launch point, nor are there restroom facilities or anything beyond the one or two signs to indicate you are in the right place to launch into the river. Walking down the concrete channel to the water is a bit different from the typical Southern California beach experience, as is inflating a SUP along a bike path in a decidedly urban section north of downtown Los Angeles where many residents probably have never heard of a stand up paddleboard, let alone seen a guy roll up in a Prius and pop one out from the folded down back seat.

I’ll definitely go back to the Los Angeles River for another round, likely with my Sea Eagle 9’6” hybrid inflatable SUP and a helmet so I can charge the small sections of rapids and make my way through the rough!

Photo Gallery

Map of the Area

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Acknowledgements: A special thank you to Kühl for providing me a pair of Mutiny board shorts, the Mutiny shorts are my go-to boardies for outdoor adventures; to Bluesmiths for the hydrophobic Kanaha Lane shirt, #1 in comfort, performance and style; and to Shelta Hats, makers of the best sun protection head wear on the planet.

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