We’re getting better when it comes to the L.A. River. Ten years ago, most of us didn’t even know that L.A. even had a river.
And like many other aspects of Los Angeles, the river that runs through it can be confusing, hidden and downright intimidating.
The fact is that the L.A. River grew into the city of Los Angeles — starting near Downtown L.A., where the Tongva people lived and the Spanish conquistadores on the Portolá expedition camped.
And as L.A. expanded, it did so along its river.
It’s hit a few bumps along the way (including the 1936 Flood Control Act that channelized it with concrete walls) — but now, you not only can get to the re-wilded parts of the Los Angeles River, but you can get onto them, too (for a part of the year)!
Fortunately, you don’t have to tackle all 51 miles of it all at once.
Here are seven of the best — but overlooked — places along the L.A. River to get acquainted with and accustomed to our city’s life-giving waterway.
You could hit them all in one day — but go ahead and discover them at your own pace. Just give them enough time to surprise and delight you.
1. Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, Encino
Upstream from the Sepulveda Dam, just north of the juncture of the 405 and the 101, the L.A. River is a thriving, watery surprise with multiple creeks flowing into it and a soft river bottom that you can squish your toes into. Located a stone’s throw from the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve, it should come as no surprise that it became one of the first two areas that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Fish and Game opened for public recreation in 2015.
You’ll find an entrance/exit ramp on the south bank of the river, just downstream from the Burbank Boulevard overpass. That’s where L.A. River Expeditions launches kayaks for its two-hour, guided eco-tours along two miles of the recreation zone. Beginners are welcome and all equipment (kayaks, paddles, helmets, etc.) is included in your booking. If you’ve got your own kayak — or prefer to rent one from L.A. River Kayaks — you can head into the water on your own, no permit or fee required. Organized groups like schools, non-profits and for-profit businesses need to secure permits (for a fee) and show proof of insurance. Everyone’s got to wear a life jacket while on the water, and no motorized boats are allowed.
You’re also welcome to try to catch some largemouth bass, tilapia, green sunfish, and mosquito fish in this area (from the banks or a boat on the water) — as long as you’ve got a fishing license from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Regardless of how you choose to enjoy the L.A. River, you’re entering at your own risk. Remember why it was filled with concrete and channelized in the first place: It has a tendency to flood! And you don’t want to be anywhere near its banks when there’s a flood or thunderstorm watch or warning. Even if the skies are clear, make sure it’s been 72 hours since the last rain to ensure safe water quality.
2. North Valleyheart Riverwalk/Valleyheart Greenway, Studio City
Starting near the intersection of Moorpark Street and Fulton Avenue, you’ll find the beginning of North Valleyheart Drive and the start of the North Valleyheart Riverwalk — a major improvement to the L.A. River’s public access, thanks largely to the efforts of the now-defunct nonprofit The Village Gardeners of the Los Angeles River. The organization’s beautification projects for the area included installing interpretive signage, bench seating and artist Kevin Carman’s “The Mighty Steelhead” mural, an homage to the Southern California steelhead trout — a fish that’s native to the river. This stretch of the river has been open to the public since 2014, and one good access point that’s bike-friendly and ADA-accessible is across from the intersection of North Valleyheart Drive and Ethel Avenue. Park on the street, but beware of posted restrictions.
The greenway continues along the north side of the Los Angeles River (with a short break in order to cross Coldwater Canyon Avenue) until Whitsett Avenue. At that point, the main improvements switch over to the south side of the river, though you may find an unimproved dirt path, possibly behind a locked gate. But don’t give up — because your persistence will pay off just past Laurel Canyon Avenue, where you’ll find a steel toad gateway rising more than 14 feet into the air. Funded by the California Coastal Conservancy, the Great Toad Gate was designed by local artist Lahni Baruck based on a local fifth grader’s drawing and marks the official entrance to another restored stretch of riverside pathway, known as Valleyheart Greenway.
This beautified section along the south bank pre-dates the North Valleyheart Riverwalk by 10 years, having opened in 2004 after a massive effort by The River Project. Stroll down the path along the Snake Wall, or have a seat on the Butterfly Bench (also by Baruck) and enjoy this shady, quiet respite from nearby Ventura Boulevard. You can take it all the way east (a.k.a. downstream) to Radford Avenue and CBS Studio Center, or start your journey there and work your way upstream. There’s also a staircase entrance to the greenway, accessible from where Geurin Street meets Valleyheart Drive; and there are plenty of street parking options. It’s open sunrise to sunset — and you’re welcome to walk your dogs (there are baggies and trash receptacles provided) as long as they’re leashed.
3. Glendale-Hyperion Bridges, Atwater Village
The parklet (or “pocket park”) formerly known as Red Car River Park — dedicated all the way back in 2005 — has been permanently closed as part of the new Glendale-Hyperion Bridge complex. But what the area on the east bank of the Los Angeles River loses in a name, it gains in a brand-new pedestrian bridge that runs alongside the historic Glendale-Hyperion Bridge — the 93-year-old concrete arch bridge viaduct that connects Los Feliz with Atwater, as Hyperion Avenue gives way to Glendale Boulevard.
The new pedestrian bridge (which has yet to receive a proper name) was built atop the concrete footings of a former streetcar bridge, where Pacific Electric's Glendale/Burbank Red Car line ran until 1955 (the concrete replaced a wooden trestle that washed out in 1928). From Silverlake (then "Edendale"), it took passengers through Atwater Village, into Glendale and Burbank, and then back to the Subway Terminal in Downtown LA. Abandoned since the 1950s, the pylons were a haunting reminder of what once was.
But now, they support an entirely brand-new effort to connect both sides of the river (along the Los Angeles River Bike Path) and the communities that surround it. Construction began in April 2019 and the new bridge opened to the public in January 2020. It's open to pedestrians, bicyclists, as well as equestrians and their horses. Enter by foot where Ferncroft Road meets Glendale Boulevard, and keep an eye out for the 2005 mural commissioned by Friends of Atwater Village — “Revisit the Red Car” by artists Rafael Escamilla, Roxanne Salazar and Tom Hinds, which survived the new construction project.