Growing up in Los Angeles, summers meant hiking in the canyons or soaking up that SoCal sunshine on one of the many beautiful beaches in LA. But kayaking down the Los Angeles River? No way! We never went near that stark, concrete channel that usually had more garbage than water in it.
But the LA River is being transformed into one of the best urban renewal stories around due to the vision and perseverance of many partners, including Friends of the Los Angeles River (founded by Lewis MacAdams) and the city and county of Los Angeles. Now, there are stretches of natural channel filled with trees and greenery that attracts dozens of bird species, and a bike path that will eventually parallel the length of the 51-mile river from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach.
And as the river restoration and bike path are building momentum, they are creating new paradigms for LA’s urban neighborhoods.
Steven Appleton runs LA River Kayak Safari (LARKS), guiding tours from May through September on the Elysian Valley stretch of the LA River under a permit from the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. This summer, I joined him, a few locals and some tourists visiting from Holland for a quick kayaking day trip.
An artist and sculptor by profession, Steve, who lives near the river in the Elysian Valley neighborhood, was inspired to launch LARKS after becoming engaged with some advocates working on revitalizing the LA River corridor. He recognized what a profound impact that would have on the local communities and the river ecosystem.
“When I first ventured down the concrete channel of the LA River, I was surprised to find a “real river” hidden among willow trees in a magical stretch of the Elysian Valley,” said Steve. “I was immediately reminded of the creeks and ponds I experienced as a youth in Michigan. Those early experiences stuck with me, and now I’m inspired to take others down below the sound plain of the city and into nature in our backyard.”
Steve says he particularly enjoys the trips he implements for local youths and young adults through partnerships with middle schools, high schools and colleges, adding, “For several local institutions of higher learning, [we’ve] become a curriculum piece, with discussions adapted to urban planning, landscape design or environmental science.”
He continues, “The space of the river unleashes another kind of social experience among people who are away from all the gadgets and, to be frank, suddenly challenged and focused by a surprising bit of whitewater right in the middle of a huge city.”
Our river tour began with a bike ride on the LA River Bike Path, which afforded us a preview of the lush stretch of river we’d soon be navigating. I spotted multiple Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets.
At the put-in point, Steve shared some of his vast knowledge about the river, which was first channelized starting in 1939 after a decade of serious floods. While it performs a vital function in stormwater management, the channelization wiped out most of the natural habitat, and industrial pollution and dumping further degraded the river. For decades, the city turned its back.
But now, the vision of a restored river ecosystem is coming to life, and dozens of communities along its banks are embracing it as an urban oasis. Water quality is steadily improving, and the aquatic life, birds and flora are eagerly reclaiming their place.
Public access is a key component of the revitalization, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been a steady supporter of the bike path, which is more than half complete but with some challenging gaps remaining, including near downtown LA. Many of the neighborhoods along the river are low-income communities of color, and the restoration provides badly needed green space and close-to-home recreation.
Improving the health of the river ecosystem and providing public access to it are high priorities for LA’s Mayor, Eric Garcetti, who has included the development of the LA River Greenway in his Sustainable City pLAn. The LA River Bikeway and Greenway Design also got a major boost from passage of LA County Measure M, a transportation funding measure which will fund design and construction of 12.5 miles of new bike bath and greenway in the San Fernando Valley. Clearly, Angelenos no longer turn their back on the river as they did in my childhood but have fully embraced it as a precious asset and a strategy for urban revitalization.
Back at the put-in, our little flotilla launched our kayaks, took a few practice strokes and then immediately got a rush from dropping through a narrow chute in the river. At the bottom, Steve was pleased to see everyone still upright—success!
We spent a little under two hours on the river, navigating the Glendale Narrows, the only channelized section of the river with a non-concrete bottom. It's a relatively swift-moving section of the river with Class I and II rapids and lots of rocks to dodge. While the sights and sounds of the big city were never far away, the dominant feeling is a peaceful respite from the business of one of the world’s great metropolises.
As we arrived at the take-out point, we dragged our kayaks out of the river, reluctantly rejoining civilization. We got a little soggy and a little sandy, but we were all smiles.
Want to check out more about the Los Angeles River Trail?Explore on TrailLink