The LA River may not be as well-known as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but this river attracts plenty of tourists and locals alike.
What makes this river unique is it flows through the city of Los Angeles, often right alongside the busy freeways. It’s been featured in films, used for swimming by celebrities, and even fished in by stars. The LA River is unlike any other river in the world, which makes it a great place to visit and photograph. And in all truth, there probably isn’t a more iconic natural landmark in the area (at least, not one with so many fun inherently fun activities).
At one time, this river was the source of water for the city, back when it was known as the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The river once resembled other waterways like the Santa Clara River. The earliest writing about this great river occurred in 1769 by Juan Crespi; he wrote that it was surrounded by luscious alders and cottonwoods, and showed signs of seasonal flooding.
Today, the LA River doesn’t resemble its natural past. The city has confined it and changed the outlying wildlife and foliage. However, it is even more beautiful framed by the bustling city of Los Angeles. People looking for things to do in San Diego or other nearby cities will still want to take a detour to the LA River to experience its uniquely urban feel.
If you’re looking for an idyllic, risk-free paddle, the LA River may not be for you. If you want an adventure, grab your oars and get ready for a highly unusual experience that uncovers the ugliness of man’s effect on nature.
Few people can say they have boated down the river and until recently, it was illegal. Most of the 51-mile long river is surrounded by concrete embankments and full of pollution and debris. It’s not uncommon to come across rusty shopping carts, plastic bags, and questionable odors. But, patches of unspoiled vegetation and wildlife remain despite the river’s many years of neglect.
While it’s still not easy to jump in a canoe and float down the river at your leisure (at least not legally), the steps toward revitalization are a good sign the river will transform into a public waterway. In 2010, the river became protected under the Clean Water Act. This moved several local organizations to start a program called Paddle the LA River, which helped legally open up river access to boaters and kayakers for the first time in nearly 7 decades.
LA River Expeditions was a vital part of this program and led the expeditions that proved the river was safe to navigate. The expeditions ran along the 1.5-mile stretch of river between Balboa and Burbank boulevards, about 20 miles north of downtown LA. Today, LA River Expeditions still run tours down the river but space is limited as the tour season only spans 10 weeks during late summer and early fall. You can sign up here to be notified of future tour openings or follow them on Facebook for announcements.
Best Time to Go
Los Angeles’ temperate climate allows visitors to enjoy the river any time of year. However, tour companies only operate in the late summer and fall when the river is less prone to flooding.
The industrial corridor along the southern part of the river is surrounded by freeways, high-voltage power lines, and rail yards. You’d be hard pressed to find many rivers running through such urban environments anywhere in the world. It may not be beautiful along this area, but it’s certainly unique!
Exploring along the river can be extremely cost-friendly and even free if you just want to take a hike along its banks or use your own biking equipment. There are several tour and rental companies featuring river activities. Here are some of the great options for enjoying this storied river:
- Kid-Friendly Activities – There are many ways to enjoy this waterway with your family. Children enjoy fishing, bird watching, and hiking near the water.
- Paddle the River – LA River Expeditions’ tours are often sold out due to limited availability and a 10-week season.
- Boat Museums – Near the river there are many museums that explore the history of the river and its boats. You can see photographs and real historical boats.
- Bike Tours – Physically fit people will enjoy mountain biking the distance of the river.
Here are some of the best spots to kick back and relax, read, or to have a quaint picnic:
- Rio de Los Angeles State Park – Here you can feed ducks, explore trails, or just sun bathe in the beauty of nature.
- River Garden Park – Tranquil and calm, this park is more of a botanical garden than a traditional park.
- LA River Walk (Above Balboa) – This walkway is like a park: well-groomed and peaceful, it has plenty of seating for visitors.
- Check out some easy-to-use river maps for visitors to help navigate to any part of the river.
- To get specific directions you can visit Google Maps and enter Los Angeles River to find turn-by-turn directions.
Without a doubt, the Los Angeles River is a beauty that’s prime for enjoyment by locals and visitors. Often overlooked, this natural treasure is sure be a memorable destination for people of all ages. What experiences have you had with this river?