L.A. River beckons despite its concrete

Special to The Times

In the soft light of a winter rain and at its most verdant points, the Los Angeles River is scenic enough to inspire a plein-air painter.

The low, steady current of water passes sculpted sandbars and an archipelago of tiny isles, all bordered by willow-lined banks. Croaking bullfrogs and the rusty-hinge creak of red-winged blackbirds provide natural music, as does the river itself, flowing over its stony bed.

But in harsher light, when the rain stops and the misty curtain parts, the river is a different picture. For most of its 51 miles, the river looks just like what it is: a concrete viaduct built with the same aesthetics as the freeways that parallel it.

You may have a hard time believing that the Los Angeles River was a natural waterway, one on which the city was founded in 1781. For more than a century the river was the principal source of water for the growing city.

The need to dispose of water during winter, not the need to capture it, led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cement most of the river channel in the late 1930s. The Olmsted brothers, landscape architects, imagined the river as a greenway linking parks, like a string of pearls. Their plan sank into oblivion, and the waterway was reduced to a flood-control channel lined by freight yards and ugly industry.

Then came a watershed moment in 1989: A state assemblyman proposed legislation to use the river as an eight-lane freeway -- just on dry days, of course. The proposal generated a wave of opposition.

Friends of the Los Angeles River had a different vision: a restored river that ecologically and symbolically would link some of L.A.'s diverse neighborhoods. Among the other groups involved in the effort: the Scenic Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program, which operates under the auspices of the National Park Service, and North East Trees, a grass-roots environmental group focusing on northeast Los Angeles.

For hikers, the best places to explore are semi-restored, semi-natural areas along parts of the river spared from cement because of their natural springs. My favorite walk is from a place nicknamed Frogtown, just north of downtown, to Griffith Park. (The native red-legged frog, alas, is faring poorly here against a carnivorous bullfrog from Africa.)

A path alongside the river passes behind a modest neighborhood making good use of the route: walkers, joggers, mothers pushing strollers, kids on bikes, cycling commuters.

You can join the river walk from the southern side of Riverside Drive, where the street passes beneath Interstate 5 and Highway 110, opposite Elysian Park. (You also can start farther north, on Fletcher Drive near Riverside.)

If you start at the south end, follow the river path as it travels in back of houses. Look behind you, where the freeways cross, and you will see a line separating the semi-natural part of the river from the concrete part.

Backyards and chicken coops will be on your left, the river will be to your right, and freight yards lie on the opposite bank. Even after a heavy rain the river is hardly Amazonian, but it is big enough to mask the sounds of cars and trains.

The river meanders west, passing more industrial areas, ducking under the Glendale Freeway and climbing an embankment on its way to Fletcher Drive. Most hikers probably will want to turn around here and retrace their steps to the starting point.

For a longer option, intrepid walkers can keep following the river path through Atwater Village to Los Feliz Boulevard, where the semi-natural part of the river ends. The channel's only pedestrian bridge is just south of that road. You also can use side streets to reach the neighborhood of Los Feliz.

John McKinney offers other tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.

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