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A Walk Along L.A. River Can Be for the Birds

Great cities grow up along great rivers.

Paris has its Seine. London has its Thames. And Los Angeles has its . . . Los Angeles?

Difficult as it is for Angelenos to believe, the Los Angeles River was once a great river--or at least a real one. Certainly it was a real river in 1781 when a weary group of colonists who had traveled 1,000 miles from Sonora, Mexico, settled on the river’s west bank and built El Pueblo de Nuestra Sonora la Reina de Los Angeles.

In recent years, the river has made the news as a result of a proposal by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) to utilize the riverbed as a freeway. While Katz sees the wide, sterile concrete river bottom as eight lanes of highway awaiting signs and lane lines, conservationists and urban planners see a river restored with a greenway and lots of open space that would link--both symbolically and ecologically--the diverse neighborhoods of the metropolis.

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The Los Angeles River, which drains the San Fernando Valley at its southeast corner, is very much a part of the valley’s history and geography. Prior to the valley’s subdivision and suburbanization, sand-filled arroyos extended across the valley. Winter storms filled the arroyos, which, in turn, swelled the river. Flooding has been a problem since recorded history.

Today, the Golden State Freeway parallels the cement-lined river channel as it crosses the valley. But before extensive flood control measures were taken, winter and spring rains would wash out the trans-valley roads. Most travelers prefered journeying from the valley to downtown via Cahuenga Pass (now the site of the Hollywood Freeway), a higher, drier route.

In 1941, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rimmed the Sepulveda Basin with a three-mile-long earth-filled dam. Today, the city leases about 2,000 acres of the basin from the Army Corps of Engineers, and has established the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, complete with golf courses, sports fields and bike paths.

One of the few semi-natural stretches of the L.A. River (and the only one along which the authorities encourage walking) flows through the basin.

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The river attracts lots of bird life. Finding the reeds, willows and cattails of the river to its liking is the red-winged blackbird. Look for its distinctive red-and-yellow banded wings and listen for its call, often described as “a rusty hinge.”

Friends of the Los Angeles River and other conservation groups have called for the establishment of the “Sepulveda Wildlife Reserve” to preserve a habitat for the birds.

Directions to trail head: From the Ventura Freeway (101) in Encino, exit on Balboa Boulevard. Head north half a mile, cross a bridge on the Los Angeles River and look right for a drive leading to parking for the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

The hike: Begin walking on the dirt road by the river. Not long from the start, you’ll notice a river crossing. You can boulder-hop (when the water level is low) across the river on the return trip.

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The big hole in the ground you see off to the north is the completely empty Lake Balboa. The river looks pretty good along this stretch. Plenty of riparian growth and, yes, a few shopping carts. You can make your way down to the river for a closer look and even bushwhack your way up-river through the jungle that thrives on the riverbanks.

You’ll cross the river on the Burbank Boulevard bridge and resume walking on the other side. (Across Burbank Boulevard you can take a path to the foot of the Sepulveda Dam, but it isn’t exactly a thrill a minute.) Your route passes two golf courses and leads you back to the aforementioned river crossing or, alternately if the river is up, to Balboa Boulevard, which you can follow back to the beginning of your walk.

San Fernando Valley Los Angeles River Trail

Where: Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, San Fernando Valley. Distance: 3 miles, round trip. Terrain: Semi-wild banks of the Los Angeles River. Degree of difficulty: Easy. Highlights: Some greenery in the San Fernando Valley. The L.A. River actually looks like a real river. For more information: Contact the Friends of the L.A. River, P.O. Box 292134, Los Angeles 90029. (213) 663-7331.

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