Biking Along California Aqueduct

<i> Cooke and Haggerty are Venice free-lance writers. </i>

“Spring has sprung, the grass has ris, where last year’s careless drivers is,” said Burma Shave, tickling our collective fancy and reminding us to drive sensibly.

Spring has also sprung along the banks of the California Aqueduct Bikeway. Out here on the southernmost edge of the Mojave Desert, cyclists tired of dodging automobiles and inhaling exhaust fumes on weekend rides in the city have left that traffic behind.

They’ve discovered what dedicated wheelmen and Antelope Valley residents know. A 107-mile bike path, well-maintained and fairly level, follows the California Aqueduct through the Antelope Valley.


Peace and Quiet

You won’t find any of those clever red Burma Shave signs that enlivened so many long car trips for us seasoned travelers of yore, but you won’t find any careless drivers, either. According to the California Department of Water Resources, which administers the aqueduct, “no motor vehicles are permitted.”

What you will find along the bikeway are purple, yellow and white desert flowers blooming after late winter rains, mild breezes blowing in your face, and vistas of green-carpeted hills, all yours to enjoy through May. And what better way to celebrate this annual metamorphosis than from the seat of your bicycle?

The bikeway, the longest officially designated bike path in Southern California, is about 10 feet wide and surfaced with asphalt. It’s built alongside the channel and its smooth surface, easy grades and gradual curves make riding fun for cyclists of all abilities.

One Steep Hill

The bikeway crosses one very steep hill in the short section just west of the 25th Street crossing near Palmdale, but nothing that a determined cyclist can’t cope with.

Ramon Gonzales and Kerry Browning, members of the South Bay Wheelmen, a Redondo Beach bicycling club, said they walked their bikes up the last stretch. “I began to tip over,” said Gonzales. “It was too steep to keep pedaling, even in my lowest gear. But that’s the only really tough spot, and it was short. The rest was easy and smooth.”

Gonzales and Browning were making a weekend out of their bike trip and had camped nearby at Soledad Canyon, a forest service campground. “We drove out last night,” said Browning, “because we wanted to get an early start in the morning and ride all day. At lunch time we stopped at one of the picnic areas and had a wonderful view of the desert while we ate.”


Easy Day Trips

Cyclists who drive out for a day’s ride can leave their cars in specially provided parking areas and get onto the bikeway at 19 access gates where country roads cross over the channel.

At each access road, fences prevent cars and motorcycles from entering the bike path. But gates for bicycles allow riders to leave the bikeway, cross the road and reenter the next section.

As a result, riding the bikeway is quiet, clean and safe. Most of its miles pass through the country, away from streets, houses, commercial districts and billboards.

Riders are treated to a close, uncluttered view of the desert, green hills, purple, shadowy mountains in the distance and restful silence all around. The only sounds are the wind in your spokes, the rhythmic click of your bicycle chain and the cries of birds. Song birds, prairie falcons and golden eagles visit these hills and valleys.

Scenic Channel

The aqueduct, a man-made, concrete channel, funnels 1.25 billion gallons of water each day from the Sacramento Delta to Southern California cities. The water rushes south through the San Joaquin Valley, over the Tehachapi Mountains and down to Quail Lake where the western end of the bikeway begins.

From there the channel turns southeast, with the bikeway following, past Elizabeth Lake Road, past Palmdale and Pearblossom and on to Silverwood Lake. There both aqueduct and bikeway end in the shadow of the San Bernardino Mountains.

On the eastern half of the bike path, going east from Palmdale, you’ll pass through ranch land near Little Rock, Pearblossom and the Pearblossom Pumping Station. After crossing Valyermo Road you travel parallel to the San Gabriel Mountains past stands of Joshua trees and creosote bushes, to Silverwood Lake Recreation Area.

Going west from Palmdale, the bikeway meanders along the side of a range of low hills through open fields and past orchards. Then it continues to Quail Lake just east and south of Gorman.

Closed for Repairs

For the next few months the steep hill west of Palmdale that Gonzales and Browning negotiated on foot won’t pose a problem for riders because that section of the bikeway will be closed. During this year and into next, parts of the western half of the aqueduct will be under construction.

Charles Keene, an associate planner for the California Department of Water Resources, says the project will “enlarge conveyance capacity of the canal by making some sections wider and some deeper, or both.”

Keene suggests that before starting out to ride on the bikeway’s western half, riders telephone the department for a progress report. Two areas closed are nearing completion and are scheduled to reopen by summer.

The bikeway’s eastern half, however, is open from the Pearblossom Pumping Station in the town of Pearblossom. Riders can park and get on at eight access points along the 44-mile strip and ride a short distance or all the way to Silverwood Lake.

Plentiful Fish

The Bikeway is used by hikers and anglers as well as cyclists. To the surprise of the aqueduct’s builders, striped bass, catfish and blue gills migrated south from big reservoirs in the Delta area, through pumping plants and canals, establishing large populations and creating great fishing.

You’ll probably come across sportsmen who have parked near the access roads and are fishing from the banks. If you own a rod and reel, pack it along and join them. The fish bite best in the spring and fall and, of course, you will need a California fishing license.

You can fish at any point along the channel, or at one of the specially designated fishing sites near parking areas and restrooms.

If you plan to ride a long way, consider packing a picnic lunch and eating at one of the many rest stops that have been installed at about 10-mile intervals. Most have picnic tables, drinking water, restrooms and shade ramadas.

Bikers should always carry their own water, and a warm jacket. In the desert, winds blow up and weather conditions and temperatures can change quickly.

Hidden Dangers

The water resources department, concerned about the safety of cyclists (and fishermen), recommends that you plan your trips carefully, carry extra food and water and spare bicycle parts. If your bike breaks down halfway between rest stops or parking areas, you could walk as far as five miles to reach a road.

In addition, the department reminds bikers that no swimming is allowed in the water channel because of the danger. According to the information pamphlet, “The concrete sides of the aqueduct are steep and slippery because of algae.

“The water can be still one minute and moving rapidly the next. Suction spots can occur, particularly around gates. Without help, it’s almost impossible to climb out except by using the safety ladders spaced 500 feet apart on alternate sides of the aqueduct.” For these reasons, you should never ride alone.

April Flowers

The bikeway is open every day from sunrise to sunset. The department offers a free information pamphlet with a map showing access roads, parking areas, rest stops and mileage. To get the map and up-to-date information on closed portions of the western section, call Charles Keene at (213) 620-5667 in Los Angeles.

To enjoy the desert wildflowers in all their splendor, Keene says prime blooming times vary from year to year. The Palmdale Chamber of Commerce, at (805) 273-3232, can also help out.

To get to the bikeway at the Pearblossom Pumping Station, take Interstate 5 north, California 14 east and California 138 and 18 into Pearblossom. Then follow the signs to the Bikeway entrance.