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How to Enjoy the L.A. River This Summer

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Kayaking in the Sepulveda Basin | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr/Creative Commons

Memorial Day marks the start of summer season, and that means it's time to experience the Los Angeles River with a trove of fun activities. This year the official L.A. River Recreational Zones are expected to go until September 17 for Elysian Valley and September 30 for Sepulveda Basin. In the meantime, the areas around the zones are coming to life with community-centric activities. 

Here's our quick guide and FAQs to what's happening at the L.A. River Recreational Zone near you.

What is the Los Angeles River Recreational Zone?

The L.A. River Recreational Zone is a designated area along the Los Angeles River that allows public access to the river for non-motorized recreation like walking, hiking, birdwatching, fishing, and kayaking. The Zone includes the river channel itself, and five feet up the slope of the channel. It does not include the remaining banks or the existing bike path or maintenance road on the banks above the river channel.

Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) Rangers will be on patrol to promote public safety. They are trained in first aid, CPR, and swift water rescue. MRCA administers the two recreational zones.

When will the Los Angeles River Recreational Zone be open?

The Recreational Zones will be open from Memorial Day, May 29, 2015 from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. 

Where is the Los Angeles River Recreational Zone?

There are two designated stretches of the Los Angeles River for recreation. The 2.5-mile Elysian Valley River Recreation Zone, which starts from Rattlesnake Park on the corner of Fletcher Drive and Crystal Street, and the 2-mile Sepulveda Basin River Recreation Zone, roughly where Balboa Boulevard crosses the Los Angeles River downstream to where the Encino Creek joins with the Los Angeles River.

How can I access the Recreational Zone?

Sepulveda Basin River Recreation Zone can be accessed at its starting point upstream where Balboa Boulevard crosses the Los Angeles River.

  • By public transportation: Take the Orange Line, get off at Balboa Station and walk south about 2,500 feet until you see the Los Angeles River as walk on the on-grade bridge.
  • By walking: From Orange Line, walk south until you see sports facilities on the right. The Los Angeles River should be beneath your feet.
  • By cycling: A bike path runs from Victory Boulevard and Balboa Boulevard and loops south to Burbank Boulevard east to Woodley Avenue and north to Victory Boulevard again. It forms a nine-mile loop around the huge 2,000-acre city park.
  • By car: From the west, drive on 101 South and exit Balboa Boulevard, turn left, make a U-turn on the median and park at the generous parking lot on the Balboa Sports Center. From the east, drive on the 101 North exit Balboa Boulevard, turn right, make a U-turn around the median and park at the Balboa Sports Center. There is a free parking lot adjacent to the put-in area on Balboa Boulevard. There is ample street parking on Woodley Avenue downstream near the end of the run.
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Elysian Valley River Recreation Zone can be accessed at the starting point upstream on Rattlesnake Park.

  • By public transportation: Take the Metro Bus 603 from Pico-Union to Glendale. Get off at Fletcher and Ripple. Look for the heron gate: you can't miss it.
  • By walking: Walk along Fletcher Drive and keep an eye out for the Great Heron Gate. From there, it's an easy walk to other nearby parks: Marsh Park, Elysian Valley Gateway Park, Steelhead Park, and Egret Park.
  • By cycling: Access is located across the street from the downstream end of the Glendale Narrows section of the L.A. River Bikeway. Bike parking is available at Rattlesnake Park
  • By car: From the west, drive on I-5 South and exit Fletcher Drive, turn left and park on the four-hour zone along the street. From the east, drive on CA-2 South, merge onto Fletcher Drive, and park on the four-hour zone along the street. Parking is also available downstream adjacent to Confluence Park under the 2 freeway at Home Depot.
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What programs will be offered at the Recreational Zone? How much will they cost?

There are many free activities you could do along the Recreational Zones on your own. Visitors can walk, hike, photograph and birdwatch without any permits. Various bike paths are located near the Recreational Zones, from which you can go for a bike ride up or down the river. Fishing is also allowed, but with the usual permits required by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Pedestrians are limited to paved and rocky surfaces, so as not to disturb the wildlife there.

The most popular recreational activity is kayaking. The Sepulveda Basin kayaking experience is more leisurely and calm compared to the Elysian Valley route. Thus, the price for guided tours is also less expensive on the Sepulveda Basin route.

Visitors may kayak on their own, if they have their own vehicles. Personal floatation devices need to be accessible within the vehicle and those under 13 years of age will need to be wearing them throughout the kayak trip. They are also encouraged to check the latest weather reports. Other safety tips are available here.

Individuals are given access to the river for free, but schools, non-profit organizations, and for-profit businesses require a permit from MRCA. Details here.

At both zones:

At the Sepulveda Recreational Zone:

  • Paddle the L.A. River offers one-and-a-half hour guided group trips for $50 per participant. They also offer one-hour kayak rentals on select Saturdays for $30.
  • L.A. River Expeditions offers 2 1/4-hour kayak trips starting at $45.

At Elysian Valley Recreational Zone:

Is there an age limit?

No, there's no age limit for accessing the recreational zone, but adults are highly encouraged to ensure the safety of their children by keeping a watchful eye over them, especially on the concrete riverbanks where it can be slippery and wet. Gomez says that bringing your own child to the banks means taking on individual responsible for their health and safety.

If schools wish to access the recreational zone, they should work with the MRCA who limit the age of school children to 9 years of age and above. Kayaking trips are limited to children 10 years and over. Participants under 18 years old must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Pets are not allowed.

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Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr/Creative Commons

Are reservations necessary?

It may not be necessary but it is highly recommended. Previous years' tickets have sold quickly.

Do I need prior experience?

If you're going to a guided kayaking trip, prior experience isn't necessary. Many of the trips include basic instruction on how to manage a kayak.

How fit should I be?

Kayakers should be reasonably fit and engage in ongoing and regular exercise. Older folks have been very able to navigate the river. There are some rocky sections on the recreational zones that may require kayakers to carry their vehicles a short distance.
Those who want a more leisurely experience kayaking on calm water should book kayak rides on the Sepulveda Basin, which has deeper water with fewer obstacles. At Elysian Valley, there are some rapids and obstacles to get around.

Is the river ADA compliant? Wheelchair accessible?

Gomez says access points to the recreational zone does not have ADA compliant ADA ramps, but the disabled are not barred from the river if they are able to manage it. MRCA can also work disabled individuals who would like to kayak the river.

The MRCA is also looking for partners who are looking to work with the disabled interested in kayaking the Los Angeles River. "If there are organizations out there interested in doing programs with us, we are available," says Gomez. Interested organizations can start the conversation with MRCA at 310-858-7272 Ext. 300 or email them at Lariverrecreation@mrca.ca.gov

What should I wear?

Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, a shaded hat, closed-toe shoes/sandals or water shoes that have a good rubber grip. Jeans are not recommended as they get heavy when wet. Bring a change of clothing for after the tour and a plastic bag to place wet clothes in.
Bring a re-useable water bottle, ideally with a screw on top that can be hooked onto the boat. Single use water bottles are discouraged because they can fall over the boat and end up polluting the river.

Pack as lightly as you can. Leave your valuables at home or in the car. Place your keys and other necessary items in your own waterproof bag or container. Nix the jewelry (especially earrings, since it would get in the way of helmets).

Where can I store my things while I kayak?

The best place to store your things while you kayak is back at home. If it can't be avoided, leaving items in your car can be the next best option. Or, a waterproof bag, which can be secured near you and contains essentials like keys, cameras, and medicine. You can also request your tour operator to keep your things for you, though it isn't a guaranteed option.

How do I get back to the start point after I kayak?

At Sepulveda Basin Recreation Zone:

  • L.A. River Kayak rentals and L.A. River Expeditions start downstream at Woodley and Burbank. Kayakers are asked to travel a leisurely upstream on calm waters until they reach the northern point of the recreational zone on Balboa Boulevard. At which point, the current would assist them in returning to their original starting point.
  • Paddle the L.A. River kayaking begins upstream. Participants are asked to park at the Balboa Sports Complex, where a van will shuttle them downstream to begin their kayak ride. Kayakers will navigate upstream, allow the current to carry them back downstream, where Paddle the L.A. River will have a van waiting to return them to their starting point.

At Elysian Valley Recreation Zone:

  • L.A. River Kayak rental services include being picked up at the end of the recreational zone and being driven back to their cars. Otherwise, kayakers will be returned to the boat rental location at Marsh Park.
  • L.A. River Kayak Safari patrons arrive on the south end of recreation zone at Oso Park. Oso Park is located next to Riverside Dr. near the Figueroa Bridge. At this point, patrons sign waivers and are given bikes and helmets and ride north on the L.A. River bike path toward Fletcher St. to the kayak put In location at Rattlesnake Park. At the end of the kayak tour, patrons will now be back to where they started when they parked their cars.
  • L.A. River Expeditions are asked to navigate their GPS to 2810 Clearwater Street, Los Angeles, near Rattlesnake Park, where the operator will pick them up and return them after the trip.

Can I use my own kayak? How about tubes or paddleboards?

Yes, you can use your own kayak (see above), however, only non-motorized steerable boats are allowed. You may use other non-motorized vehicles such as paddleboards, but according to MRCA Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez, paddleboards may be unwieldly and users would be more prone to falling into the water. Inner tubes aren't permitted.

Kayaking in Elysian Valley | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa
Kayaking in Elysian Valley | Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

Can I fish in the river? Can I eat the fish that I catch?

Yes, you can fish in the river, but this still requires the usual fishing permits from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fishing is allowed in the Elysian Valley River Recreation Zone on the banks, five feet up from the slope of the channel or from a boat.

In the Sepulveda Basin River Recreation Zone fishing is allowed from a boat, or on the non-restricted banks where pedestrians are allowed. See the map.

Gomez says fishermen can catch and release fish. They are also allowed to eat the fish. A study by the Council for Watershed Health have shown that fish in the L.A. River have been found to contain lower concentrations of contaminants such as selenium and DDT pesticide, A FoLAR study showed that fish also had lower levels of mercury and toxic Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).

Can I swim or wade in the river?

No, swimming is not authorized in the recreational zones.

Can I have a picnic by the river?

Not right on the recreational zone (i.e. river channel itself, and five feet up the slope of the channel). The best places to picnic are the parks that sit alongside the river.

At Elysian Valley, the nearby Marsh Park offers great facilities such as picnic grounds, a nature loop trail and children's play areas. There are also public bathrooms.

At the Sepulveda Basin, the recreational zone is surrounded by a lush park, where picnicking is a normal sight to see. You can also walk, jog, and bike (rentals are available at the park). Barbecue pits are available. You can also feed the ducks on the lake surrounded by cherry blossoms.

Can my dog play in the river?

No. Pets are not allowed on the recreational zone.

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Isn't the Los Angeles River just a concrete flood control channel?

While much of the Los Angeles River was straitjacketed with concrete by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beginning in 1930, some portions of the river, including these two recreational zones, were left natural because of its high ground water table. This allowed the natural, riparian ecosystems to flourish there.

In July 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that the river fall under the "Traditional Navigable Waters" classification in the Clean Water Act, which meant it was afforded protections by the nation's water laws. It limited pollution along the river and increased recreational opportunities for Los Angeles residents. It also made the L.A. River Access Bill possible. The bill requires the L.A. County Department of Public Works' Flood Control District to provide for public use of areas under the district's control that are suitable for recreational and educational purposes, making it easier for the public to access the river.

A pilot recreation zone in Elysian Valley was established by the city of Los Angeles with the cooperation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2013. Building on the success and popularity of that program, two river recreation zones were established in 2014.

This year, the recreational zones might be extended until October 1 with the strong support of Councilmember Mitch O' Farrell's office. The councilman was also instrumental in obtaining a $200,000 funding that goes toward MRCA's services for the river recreation zone for two years, which enables the agency to provide its services at the quality the neighborhood has seen over the years.

There's a drought in Los Angeles. Is there's enough water in the river to kayak?
Yes, the Los Angeles River is re-charged with wastewater produced daily by the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys and the Los Angeles-Glendale plant in Atwater.

How safe is the water?

Water from the L.A. River comes from discharged water from Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys and the Los Angeles-Glendale plant in Atwater, but it can also play drainage pipe to gunky water that flows through the city's system.

Gomez says that the water is safe enough for incidental contact, such as accidentally falling into the river, but it isn't the kind of water you'd refill your bottle with.

What happens if I go to the river outside of the Recreational Zone?

Nothing, really. MRCA has no jurisdiction outside the recreational zones and cannot enforce any of the regulations of the zone. These areas outside the recreational zone have their own law enforcement. Most often the area is regulated by the local police department. Though if crimes are committed and witnessed by the MRCA rangers, they will also be reported.

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Japanese Garden at Tillman Water Reclamation Plant | Photo: Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

What places can I hang out it on or near the recreational zones?

At Sepulveda Basin:

  • The Japanese Garden: An authentic Japanese Garden can be explored Monday through Thursday from 11 until 4 p.m., and Sunday from 10-4 p.m. (the last gate entry each day is at 3:15 pm) at $5.00 per person, $3.00 for Seniors 62+ and Children under 12. More information here.
  • The Lake House: Drinks and sandwiches can also be found at the Woodley Golf Course near the recreational zone with a view of the golf course. More information here.

At Elysian Valley:

  • Frog Spot: The Friends of the Los Angeles River has brought back the summertime Frog Spot along the Elysian Valley bike path downstream from Newell Street. Frog Spot offers shade, free water, wi-fi access, and restrooms. It is also a community gathering spot. for poetry readings, kung fu and yoga classes, and live bands. River walks will be led by a FoLAR docent, and live bands will appear on stage every Saturday night with beer and wine served. See event page here.
  • Spoke Bicycle Café is a bike shop/café pop-up open from 8 am to 6 pm. 
  • Parks along the river: There are various pocket parks located along the river in and around Elysian Valley, from the newly expanded Marsh Park and Elysian Valley Gateway Park, to Rattlesnake Park and Steelhead Park. 

This post is updated to reflect information for 2017.

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