As southern California moves towards enabling its denizens to live a car-free life – aided in no small part by the ever-growing extension of the Gold Line and the Purple Line – it’s no wonder that a SoCal commuter might also turn in their four wheels for just two, their gas pedal for pure pedal power, and their steering wheel for a pair of handlebars.
It’s faster than walking and more agile than driving. You can work up a sweat and warm up by the sun and yet cool down by the breeze cascading across your reddened face.
But while cruising down a designated bike lane and dodging bus drop-offs and pick-ups, right turns, and, quite frankly, other bicyclists, may be a congestion-relieving and environment-saving necessity, it’s not exactly recreational.
There are, however, places off the commuter’s beaten path where the scenery is best taken in by bike – where you can pedal at your own pace and roll along a rambling route – and it’s not just at the beach, along the river, or during CicLAvia when the roads are closed to motorized vehicles.
Here are six of the best places in SoCal that are a pedaler's paradise – whether you’re a novice two-wheeler or a penny-farthing pro.
1. Irvine Regional Park, Irvine
Over the course of the last 120 years, Orange County's oldest park and California's first county park has grown to a total of 477 acres, including many historic coast live oak and sycamore trees, some more than 500 years old, throughout the "little hollows and gullies" of the diverse ecosystems that range from native oak and riparian to coastal sage scrub. For the first 10 years of its existence, the county park remained pretty wild; but in 1913, its officials dredged the spring-fed marsh and banked it to form a lake. A year later, they added a boathouse and, in 1928, rechristened Orange County Park as Irvine Park. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration contributed picnic tables, BBQ pits, and Craftsman-style structures – like the hexagonal "Exhibit Hall" and the restaurant, both designed by Santa Ana architect Frederick Eley and now used as a ranger station and a nature center.
Even though it spent years as a World War II military training facility called Camp Rathke and even a while as a tuberculosis camp, there’s fortunately still a lot of nature to be had at Irvine Regional Park – including a cacophony of birds, like the Nuttall's woodpecker. Today, its paved bike paths are a quiet, pleasant escape from the corporatized city of massive shopping centers, master-planned residential communities, and never-ending new real estate developments of the City of Irvine. Sure, you’ll cross paths with the 1/3-scale Irvine Park Railroad, but its propane-powered train (a miniature replica of an 1863 C.P. Huntington) chugs along at a non-disruptive 7 MPH. Ride your own bike into the park (cars are charged a nominal admission fee) or choose from the tandems, cruisers, surreys, and more that are available to rent onsite.
2. Whittier Narrows Recreation Area and Legg Lake, South El Monte
These days, any open space in an urban environment is a treasure – but there’s something extra-special about the 1,492-acre Whittier Narrows Recreation Area and its three lakes – and those are the so-called “creatures” of Legg Lake, constructed out of concrete by Mexican faux-bois artist Benjamin Dominguez. And, as they’re not clustered in one area but rather scattered along the shores of two lakes (Legg and Center), why not hop on a bike to see them all – both from afar and thrillingly up close? These 1960s-era sculptures definitely put the “play” in “playground” – but they also maintain a certain amount of hazard that was once commonplace among children’s play areas. The two-headed dragon, octopus, dinosaur, whale and others are considered historic, so they may not meet the modern-day codes of safety. And quite frankly, the risk is part of the appeal.
The paths throughout Whittier Narrows are certainly walkable, but the soft, dirt paths make for a nice bike ride and an efficient way to meander on your hunt for monsters that seem to have crawled out from the lakes (and gotten a relatively recent paint job). You’ll also pass a number of rest stops and picnic areas as well as some colorful murals along the way, under the shade of California live oaks, sycamores, and pine and eucalyptus trees with Brewer’s blackbirds singing among the pink magnolia blossoms. Keep an eye out also for herons and egrets, generally silent among the cacophony of Canadian geese. Park in the lot off of Santa Anita Avenue (free on weekdays unless it’s a holiday), in close proximity to both the sculptures and the bike rental facility.
3. Balboa Park, San Diego
Balboa Park may be the crown jewel of San Diego’s urban parks system, but it’s just a bit too big to explore on foot. And, especially on weekends, it can be a challenge to find parking anywhere near any of the attractions that you want to go to. But if you can handle some rolling hills or really any elevation change (learn how to shift those gears!), it’s the perfect expanse to explore by bike. If you’re bringing your own, find a parking spot anywhere you can and set off from there, as there’s a plethora of museums and other attractions to coast through (like the California Quadrangle a.k.a. Plaza de California) or stop into (like the Spreckels Organ Pavilion or the Botanical Building). You’ll see the various layers of time unfold before you, as 1915-7 gives way to 1935-6 and the grounds of the California Pacific International Exposition.
However, if you’re renting your wheels, you’ll start your journey by The Old Globe, where you can work your way past the Museum of Man (the California Building and Tower from the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17) and across El Prado (a.k.a. the Cabrillo Bridge, a concrete and redwood walkway specifically built for the same Expo). If you prefer a bike share service – which is ideal if you’d like to drop your bike off at a different spot than where you picked it up – you’ve got your choice of six Discover Bike stations within the bounds of the park, including one conveniently located for visits to the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park Railroad, and the circa 1910 Balboa Park Carousel.
4. Hansen Dam, Pacoima
It may be hard to believe now, but flooding was once a major concern in the L.A. area – enough to channelize (translation: concretize) the verdant L.A. River and build other flood control measures. Located at the foot of the Angeles National Forest near Big Tujunga Wash, the massive horseshoe-shaped Hansen Dam was built after the catastrophic floods of 1938 and, at the time, was the largest of its kind in the world. These days, with everything more or less drier, Hansen Dam is known more as a recreation area, its earthen wall creating a nice elevated surface for a bike path, high above the bridle trails to the north and the golf course to the south.
Of course, as you reach the middle of the dam, you are reminded of its function – with a spillway topped by a bridge and a channel that doesn't stop the water from flowing but merely slows it down to prevent another flooding catastrophe. Out there, with the mountains in the distance and the horses below, Hansen Dam is an engineering marvel that offers panoramic views of the North San Fernando Valley, whether or not there's any flowing water to be slowed down. You’ll get at least a 2.5-mile stretch of dedicated bike path, though if you loop around the entire recreational area you can extend your trip to about seven miles.
Park in one of the free lots closest to the bike path, either on Osborne Street or off of Dronfield Avenue by the skate park. While there are no bike rental facilities at the recreation center (and Pacoima still has a reputation for attracting an entirely different sort of biker), you can stop by either The Blvd Bike & Skate Shop or Willie’s Bikes nearby to buy a new one or get yours tuned up before you get into gear.
5. Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area, Irwindale
Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area isn’t just the sprawling venue for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire or a destination for moonlight fishing. Formed by the San Gabriel River’s flood control dam (whose steep rim you can trace by bike), this county park offers amazing views of the San Gabriel Mountains as well as a nature center that offers interpretive programs and displays about the biological communities present in the alluvial fan of the San Gabriel River (in the foothills of those mountains). Slow down and look for the Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (whose image you can find on the logo of the nature center), and beware of rattlesnakes sunning themselves across your bike trail.
Its combo boat/bike rental facility doesn’t offer any two-wheelers – so, if you’re biking solo or are a more seasoned road warrior who prefers a traditional cruiser or 10-speed to a low-clearance, three-wheeled chopper or quad sport, you’ll need to bring your own. Park along Arrow Highway if you want to avoid paying the park’s admission fee, or pick up the San Gabriel River Trail at various points north of the park (all the way up into San Gabriel Canyon in Azusa) and ride in, high above the Santa Fe Reservoir and Santa Fe Flood Control Basin, exiting across the 605 Freeway in the town of Duarte (where you’ll also find a conveniently-located Gold Line station). You’ll recognize the dam area by its profusion of granite rocks – appropriately in Irwindale, a city known as Jardin de Roca, or “Garden of Rocks.”
6. Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, Encino
Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area offers an embarrassment of riches in the Valley – from wildlife viewing (and birdwatching) at the Wildlife Reserve to the cherry blossoms of Lake Balboa, The Japanese Garden of the water reclamation plant, and the model airplane field, archery range, and cricket fields of Woodley Park. And you can explore it all -- at your own leisurely pace -- by bike. Bike rentals are available at Lake Balboa, which is a great place to start -- though bike paths also extend around the entire perimeter of the recreation area as well as through the Haskell Creek environs. But while you’re there, don’t let having a bike in tow drag you down – because you’ll want to get off your wheels, take off your shoes, and squish your toes into one of the few soft-bottom stretches of the L.A. River, located in the headwaters region at Sepulveda Dam. If you’d like to securely leave your bicycle for a while longer and instead explore on foot, there are 12 bike rack spaces and 20 bike lockers at the Balboa station on the Metro Orange Line.