Southern California is full of natural wonders. There’s no disputing that.
But our rugged topography just makes our manmade infrastructure all the more impressive.
Whether it’s our mountain passes, our incline railways, or our bridges, great engineers of the past found ways to not only navigate the inhospitable terrain of South California, but to conquer it — making more areas of it accessible to pioneers, homesteaders, or even just naturalist travelers than ever thought possible.
Some bridges — like the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena or the Bixby Bridge on the Big Sur coast — have become famous with movie crews, tourists, paranormal teams and historians alike, drawing great crowds to centennial celebrations and visitors pulling over for a photo opp.
But there are other underappreciated bridges — great feats of civil engineering — that you can walk, bike or drive across to discover more of Southern California. Here are five of the best.
1. Cabrillo Bridge, Balboa Park, San Diego
Although you can drive across it now, the Cabrillo Bridge (a.k.a. “El Prado”) was a concrete and redwood walkway built specifically for pedestrians to make a grand entrance into the California Quadrangle area of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17. Now known as Balboa Park, the exposition's grounds are widely considered the “crown jewel” of San Diego. At the time, San Diego wanted to host a World's Fair but was deemed "too small" for such a large, international public exhibition. So, officials decided to put on an unofficial one, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, first used in late 1914. The resulting expo gave rise to the grandiose buildings on the other side of the bridge — including the “California Building” (now the San Diego Museum of Man) and its iconic tower. The Cabrillo Bridge was the first multiple-arched cantilevered bridge of its kind in California and now provides one of several vehicular entrances to Balboa Park. Having survived three fires (one arson in 2004), it's been designated a civil engineering landmark. While it once traversed a creek (which park officials dubbed a "lagoon"), San Diego just didn't have enough water to keep it going — and now, Cabrillo Bridge crosses over the Cabrillo Freeway (SR-163). While you’re in the vicinity of Balboa Park, head west to traverse a number of other cool bridges in the neighborhood — including the wooden trestle known as the Quince Street Bridge (circa 1905, built to give pedestrians better access to the trolley) and the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge (a 1912 footbridge that crosses Kate Sessions Canyon).
2. Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge, Los Padres National Forest
Speaking of civil engineering marvels, the Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge is worth a detour — to cross it while driving on Highway 154 or even just to view it from below — when you’re in the Santa Barbara area, perhaps on your way to the Santa Ynez wine country. The welded steel bridge itself is a relatively recent addition to the area, having been built by CalTrans in 1963 (opened to traffic in 1964) as a “shortcut” to span 700 feet across the picturesque gorge below, and circumvents the sharp curves of the old route from Santa Barbara to Lake Cachuma and beyond. At 400 feet above the canyon floor, it’s the highest arch bridge in the country — and it’s also one of the few steel arch bridges that are part of the roadways in the entire state of California. A stone’s throw from the late 19th century era Cold Spring Tavern, it’s along the old stagecoach route that once carried passengers (and mail) over the San Marcos Pass (now Stagecoach Road). Standing under this massive marvel, you can see its reinforced concrete foundations up close and gaze up at the clean, geometric lines of its girders, trusses and arches. The result is a bridge that’s efficient, structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing.
3. The Bridge to Nowhere, San Gabriel Mountains National Monument
This arch bridge was built in 1936 to provide greater access through the San Gabriel Mountains to Wrightwood — but subsequent catastrophic floods in 1938 washed out the road on either side of it. (These were the same floods that precipitated the construction of a number of our SoCal dams and the channelization of the L.A. River). Since the would-be East Fork Road was never rebuilt or even fully constructed, the concrete bridge that remained became a destination in and of itself rather than a via point. To get to it, you’ve got to hike along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River — sometimes crossing it — on the East Fork Trail through the Sheep Mountain Wilderness above Azusa. That means in set seasons, you could find yourself waist-deep in swiftly-moving water. This is a good hike to take, then, to cool off in hot summer months; but it is harder than it seems. Depending on where you find a parking spot, the round trip can clock in anywhere between nine and 11 miles — and when you’re not in the water, it can feel unforgivingly hot. The terrain along the East Fork Trail is extremely varied, turning from forest to beach to buckwheat fields in a matter of minutes, so you’ve kind of got to prepare for any and all conditions.
4. La Loma Bridge, Pasadena
The Colorado Bridge isn’t the only way to cross over the Arroyo Seco, but few people may know about the historic La Loma Bridge that runs 379 feet along La Loma Road above Lower Arroyo Park, connecting the Lower Arroyo neighborhood with San Rafael Heights. That’s partially because the 1914 Neoclassical Revival-style bridge — which was originally built as the Huntington Terrace Bridge, a year after the Colorado — has been closed for a seismic retrofit since July 2015, a necessary measure considering its position directly above the Raymond Fault. The rehab was supposed to be completed and the bridge reopened in winter 2016; but as of May 2017, the lights still haven’t been installed, the road hasn’t been surfaced, the reinforced concrete arches are still decaying, and the bridge is still closed to all traffic (even foot). But bone up on the details now so you’re prepared for its anticipated reopening (scheduled now for June) — which might’ve never happened, had Pasadena Heritage not intervened and objected to plans to demolish this landmark, which has been recognized on both the state and national level.
5. Venice Canal Bridges, Venice of America
In 1923 — two years before the City of Venice (a.k.a. Venice of America) became part of the City of Los Angeles, and six years before its canals were filled in — the "Race Thru the Clouds" rollercoaster at Windward Circle was demolished. Now, of course, the circular swimming lagoon is a traffic circle; and the waterway that led to it, Lion Canal, has been filled in, paved over and renamed Windward Avenue. For many new visitors to the present-day beachside community, Venice of America’s founder and creator Abbot Kinney is just a name on a street where they go brunching and shopping. But the seaside resort area modeled after Venice, Italy hasn’t completely disappeared — because there are a number of canals (though not the first ones) that remain and that you can both walk and drive across. Its residents take great care with the upkeep of their (now incredibly valuable) homes and landscaping, so it’s hard to imagine that by the 1950s, Venice had become known as the “Slum by the Sea.” Start your journey in your car by crossing the canals along Dell Avenue between South Venice Boulevard and 28th Avenue — but then park your car and finish exploring on foot along the Grand Canal, where there are four bridges you can cross. You’ll find more pedestrian-only bridges between Carroll Court and Court D, Linnie Avenue and Howland Canal, and between Holly Court and Sherman Canal.