Kayaking in my neighborhood

Line 'em up
Under Fletcher
Ladies and gentlemen, meet your all-new Los Angeles River.
Kayak Safari
River Access
Busy put-in at Fletcher
STL crew
A new view
Rocky bottoms
Navigating tricky rocks
Calm waters
I'm on a boat!
By Marsh Park
Egret and heron, together again
So excited
Almost at the end
Boat exit
Kayaks will be a regular thing
Other kinds of boats
Biking back to the start

I’m having a lot of “I’d never thought I’d see the day” days lately in LA. Like the day I rode my bike on 15 car-free miles of Venice Boulevard to the ocean, for example. Or the day when I saw the Expo Line bridges going up in West LA.

And then there was yesterday, when I went kayaking in my neighborhood.

For the first time in 80 years, the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River is opened to recreation as part of a pilot program. Meaning you’ll see people boating down this 2.5 mile soft-bottom stretch of the river—which is also officially open for fishing, hiking, and bird-watching—until September 2.

Web Map

You’ll remember last year I kayaked another section of the LA River, way up in the Valley, above the Sepulveda Dam. That section could only support a few trips a week, meaning that every tour was guided and sold out almost instantly. Here, many outfitters will run trips, but you don’t have to wait for a tour. If you have a watercraft you can steer—we saw people on inflatable kayaks, canoes, paddleboards—you can ride. No tubing, which was a disappointment to this Missouri native.

I was surprised how many people, including people biking and walking along the river path, had no idea this was happening. Which is why this is really important (besides being REALLY FUN). Touring the Sepulveda Basin was fantastic but kind of a hidden secret, tucked away in a big park in a far-off corner of the city. This part of the river is so visible that you can see it from the Fletcher Bridge as well as a few different freeways. With the bike path so heavily used, plus so many people who actually live along the way, this is going to be the place that’s going to truly transform the way Angelenos see their river.

Although we were certainly not the first people ever to kayak this section—see the documentary film Rock the Boat, where a group kayaked the entire length of the LA River to prove it was navigable—we were definitely enough of a novelty to create a verifiable media blitz at Marsh Park, about a mile from our put-in. Our group was even featured live on ABC7 news.

You can see me paddling behind John Hartung’s head and taking a photo of my friend Nick as he raises his paddle over his head at :36.

When I headed down to the press conference yesterday morning I was dismayed that none of the outfitters were renting boats on-site. The rangers let us paddle around in one of their kayaks for a few minutes, which was very nice of them (and why you’ll see us in multiple kayaks in the photos), but I really wanted to do the entire 2.5-mile stretch. As luck would have it, I happened to meet a few folks from LA River Kayak Safari, run by two Elysian Valley residents, who were heading out on a friends and family preview trip that very afternoon. $65 later, I was up by Fletcher Drive, strapping on a helmet and life vest and climbing into a hard-shell, sit-on-top kayak. I especially loved their tour because after we kayaked to the end, they met us with beach cruisers (ahem, river cruisers) and we rode the bike path back to the put-in. Brilliant. Update: LA River Expeditions has also added tours.

Now, wait, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t the beauty of this new section opening that you don’t need a guide, and you can just order up a kayak from Sport Chalet and be on your way? Well, yes, and no. Unlike the narrow, mellow, lazy river-esque Sepulveda Dam section, this part of the LA River is wide, rocky and a bit gnarly. Along most of the route the water is only calf-deep, but the river is fast and deep in a few spots and I’d say half of our group took unexpected swims. I felt totally comfortable the entire time but I was still happy to be following someone the first time who knew the way (even though we did end up taking a wrong turn once—not a huge deal for me but a little harrowing for some, who ended up picking up their kayaks and walking back upriver to the correct route). If you do go on your own, be sure to download the map and guide that shows you how to use the numbers painted along the bank to navigate. I would definitely wear a helmet due to the slippery rocks and shallow water. And unless they’ve got experience, kids should probably stick to one of the pools, like the one we’re paddling in on the news.

You may have wandered down to the river before, but being ON the river here is such a completely different experience.  The water is cool and clear and fun to walk around in. This area is much cleaner than the Sepulveda Basin—maybe thanks to the awesome LA River cleanup day last weekend—and once you’re down there it feels much more untouched by humans, despite being in a more urbanized area. For the most part it’s just gravel and rocks and trees. And birds. So many birds! I saw a snowy egret snatch a giant fish from behind a rock, and watched a blue heron as it flew right over my head, with a wingspan that was easily as wide as the length of my kayak.

It’s not a perfect riparian adventure. Since we ended up scooting over lots of rocks, the river could really use a bit more water (Army Corps of Engineers, is that something you can regulate?). In some places the concrete walls coming down into the water created a bleak artificiality, kind of like the manufactured landscape of a theme park ride. A few times, the roar of the 5 was a little overbearing (the Metrolink flying by was another story; I loved that sound). And there’s not nearly enough infrastructure: a better beach for launching would be much appreciated, and the walls are kind of steep and treacherous to carry your boat up and down. In fact, some services overall would be nice; there are port-a-potties in Marsh Park but I’m not sure if they’re permanent. Someone could make bank selling water, sunblock and snacks at the put-in. There also needs to be a beer garden at the end. Or a Garlic Mike’s. I’m going to work on that one.

But these are small complaints about a huge step in the right direction. As one of our enthusiastic fellow kayakers put it, “We’re pioneers.” And that’s exactly how I felt, often all by myself, with no one else in sight, carving my way through a yet-again totally different city.

Since the first reply from many people when I said I was doing this was the incredulous EW, IS THAT SAFE?, let me tell you: It’s safe, it’s clean, it’s beautiful. And it’s going to feel awesome on a hot summer day.

More photos here. All details there. Now… who’s in for a kayak share?

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  • Joe

    If it is like anything else in LA, by the end of this summer you will see a lot of vendors and extras there. As the saying goes “If you build, they will come.” :)

  • Stan Schwarz

    Nice photos. I’m going to have to bring my bicycle club group down there to see people kayaking on the L.A. River. We went there a few years ago to see the most elaborate homeless camps ever, complete with lawn gnomes and adirondack chairs. Also, did you know that the smallest house in L.A. is right there on Oros St.? All 299 square feet of it.

  • Steven Appleton

    I really appreciated this piece of writing. I also enjoyed your intrepid and enthusiastic attitude during our journey down the river together. You got the the essence of what makes this a unique experience- the meeting of nature and culture, industry and riparian environment. Oh yes- also the surprising thrills and spills of what does sometimes seem like a theme park ride.

    Grove and I have been learning a lot as we ready to open our tours to the general public. I guess something about you two caused him to venture that you’d be up for being part of what was actually a training run for us- literally the second legal run we could make. (We did put in once a month and a half a go -under the radar – to assist the process of determining the best route.) I am making solo runs this week to dial in the big and small details of the route.

    I’d love to see you on the river again sometime this summer.

    Steve- LA River Kayak Safari

  • Alissa

    Thanks Steve! We had a great time!

  • Alissa

    People have been asking (well, commenting on somewhere else this was posted) about the homeless communities. I didn’t see any on this stretch of the river, although I have seen more of them farther up the channel near the Los Feliz bridge. I do wonder if the city would ask them to leave. And I had no idea about the house! I will look for it!

  • Alissa

    So true! I need my beer garden ASAP, though!

  • Fit & Awesome

    Wow, this is so cool. I had no idea it was open. I may need to drive my paddleboard over there and check it out. Thanks!

  • Tony Taylor

    Not a fan of this endeavor. To me its a very dangerous thing to allow any and everyone to get into the putrid waters of the LA River. When someone gets seriously injured think that will be the end of this misadventure. Those doing this exercise need to know that the water can cause illness and if you have a scrape or cut on your body and the water gets into it you can, like the homeless people do, get an infection or worse. This also seems to have turned into a money making project. That was not part of the presentations. Shame

  • Will Taylor

    Great article! Thanks so much for raising awareness and inspiring others to get out and enjoy our natural LA resources!

    This river is a treasure to the city, and I think the powers that be are just catching on! Every month there are new announcements concerning a new section of river that’s either being cleaned up now, or is slated for major restructuring in the future, adding native vegetation, and more recreational opportunities for getting down and enjoying the neighborhoods the river runs through. All this work will help to clean the river over time (native plants actually clean and strain water as it passes through), and provide a natural haven, not only for the humans that inhabit the river areas, but also the animals, insects, and fish that are moving their way back in. So, yes, everyone that gets out there is being a pioneer, and will hopefully spread the word to others, becoming ambassadors for a revitalized river in generations to come!

  • Alexa Roman

    Alissa, you make the river look so clean and vibrant! I wish everyone could experience the river this way. Thank you for documenting this so beautifully in pictures as well as words.

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  • jm

    Yeah, shut it down! This sucks! Water hurts! Jesus. Not-in-anyone’s-backyarders.

  • Sandi Hemmerlein

    It’s totally gnarly! But the challenge is the fun of it (whereas the peacefulness is the appeal of Sepulveda Basin). I went down the river with Steve on Friday and was lucky enough that the rest of my group cancelled, leaving me the only person on the tour. I felt like a pioneer! Here’s my post about it: http://www.avoidingregret.com/2013/06/go-with-river.html

  • Sandi Hemmerlein

    Oh, and YES to beer garden!!!

  • Alissa

    Nice! You are such a great documentarian of LA adventures!!!

  • Alissa

    Thanks Alexa!

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  • Mike T

    Those are beautiful pictures of the river and a great article. All the river tours are sold out but one of the guys from Rock the Boat is renting Kayaks: LARiver Kayaks .com- wanted to let your and your readers know in case they want to “do it themselves”

  • Alissa

    Thanks Mike! Great tip!

  • Lauri

    I just read an article in Sunset magazine which led me to look online and led me to your blog. I was wondering though when kayaking on your own can you turn around at some point and kayak back?

  • Alissa

    Hi Lauri! Thanks for finding me. No, you can’t go back to the start because the current is too strong, you can’t paddle upstream.

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