Monday, June 22, 2009

Riding Along the San Gabriel River

I've done this long, looping ride from my apartment in the Atwater Village section of Los Angeles to Seal Beach, via the San Gabriel River bike path three times in the past month, and it's been different every time. The first time, I started latter than I should have, but the June gloom, the Pacific Ocean marine layer that fogs in the L.A. basin, kept things nice and cool. The second time, the fog turned to rain, lightening, and a surprise hail storm. This last time, I finally felt a bit of summer time heat.

I left my apartment, cut across my neighborhood, and started the long, easy, climb through Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and South Pasadena into Pasadena proper. I used the designated bike lane along Eagle Rock Blvd, and took a side street paralleling York to escape some of the traffic, but couldn't avoid a near miss or two on Fair Oaks. The street is nice and wide, and there shouldn't be any problems with the traffic, and usually there isn't, but the SUVs were out and they do take up a lot of extra space.

Once in Pasadena, I made a right turn on Walnut, and picked up speed on what is a slight, down slope through a commercial area. On the map, it doesn't read that way, but the reality is, Walnut becomes Foothill Blvd., leaves Pasadena behind, and climbs through Monrovia, past strip malls, chain stores, and one of my favorite L.A. area landmarks, the Aztec Hotel. The Aztec has one of those molded concrete fronts, with vaguely central American decoration. It's hard to believe, seeing the way SoCal is built up, but this was once the rural edge of the Los Angeles metro area, and the Aztec was a weekend get away for the Hollywood crowd. One of these days, if I'm ever able to solve some of my financial problems, I'm going to go to the Elephant Room restaurant at the Aztec for a nice steak dinner.

At the end of this particular section of Foothill, I had a short downhill section to Royal Oaks, and then into Duarte. There is an off road bike path that parallels Royal Oaks for awhile. It seems to be in a cut along the road, and has the appearance of once having been a rail line. Next to the paved bike route, there is a dirt equestrian trail. Looking at the map, Duarte isn't that big. It looks like it's middle class to, just barely, upper middle class. Finding the money to preserve some open space is something that southern California cities have not done well. This narrow corridor that connects the town border, with a school, and a city park is a great example of how a little money can go a long way. I doubt Duarte spent multi-millions on this route.

Once through Duarte, I came to the San Gabriel River. There is an almost impossible to miss pedestrian bridge that crosses the dry river bed to a park on the other side, and the San Gabriel River Trail that runs all the way to Pacific Ocean at Seal Beach. I thought about going north to the end of the trail, just so I could say that I had ridden the entire route, but like the other two times I've used this route, I decided that that was a detour left for another day. According to the bike computer, I already had 25 miles in, and with another 35 to go to the Pacific, I thought it best to just ride south.

The route goes under the 210 freeway, and enters the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area, climbing over the dam, built for flood control. From the crest of the dam, there are unobstructed views in all directions. On a clear day, more likely to be had during the winter, than the summer, it's possible to see thousands of square miles of southern California. The route goes over the flood control gates, and then a steep, but short downhill to the foot of the dam. There is a very sharp turn at the bottom, but another paved route, coming from the north, can be used as a straight away, easing the pressure to ride the breaks all the way to the bottom. Believe me, it would be impossible to make that sharp turn at anything above a walking speed. Following the route, I soon came to the first of only two road crossings between the dam and the ocean.

The upper San Gabriel River is an alluvial pan. Over the centuries, sand and gravel have been washed down from the San Gabriel Mountains, laying down deposits hundreds of feet deep, and miles wide. That's why Irwindale is the gravel pit capital of southern California. Back in the day when Los Angeles had pro football, the people of Irwindale tried to entice Al Davis, owner of the Raiders, to build a stadium in one of the gravel pits. After collecting millions of dollars from the city just to hear their sales pitch, he said no thank you. And so, along this upper section of the route, I rode past huge, still operating, gravel pits, rather than a football stadium.

As I headed south, I passed schools, trailer parks, light industry, and lots of livestock operations. I suppose the cattle were being raised for slaughter, but there were also a lot of horse operations. There were some horsemen along a dirt path to the west of the paved bike path, but at one point I passed a small wooden horse arena, were an auction was going on. I had to wonder, if the horse riders were out for recreation, or if they were exercising the stock, so that they would be nice and healthy for the buyers.

Above and just below the Santa Fe Dam, the river bed was dry, but as I made my way south, the river began to flow. There is a second flood control dam at Whittier Narrows, and some of the widest and wettest sections of the upper river are just above that dam. How much of this is back up, and how much is water that was running under ground come to the surface, I don't know. I couldn't really find an answer on line. Like the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel flows between two cement dikes that keeps the river within it's banks during heavy rains. Unlike the Los Angeles River, much of the San Gabriel still has a natural feel to it. The flood plain is much wider, with the river cutting a sometimes meandering course between the two dikes. There are still a few places along the L.A. River that are wide enough, that could be landscaped to a more natural appearance. Those who are interested in the restoration of the L.A. River should pay a visit to the San Gabriel.

After the Whittier Narrows Dam, the route leaves the river's side, and crosses a bridge to the west bank. By using a sidewalk, I was able to get to the other side of the river without actually riding on the road. It is natural in southern California for the wind to blow off of the Pacific Ocean, inland. I had been riding into a head wind since getting on the San Gabriel River Trail but after Whittier, what had been a gentle breeze became a strong, tree bending, wind. This is the hard part of the route. While mostly flat, with some slight undulations now and again, with the addition of the head wind, I found myself bent over into a tuck, and working harder, while riding slower. As I labored south, while the river channel remained wide, the actually water course narrowed. Eventually, the natural looking San Gabriel River became a paved and channelized stream, just like the Los Angeles River. On the other hand, as I progressed south, the east side of the river was also lined with parks. Narrow but long, another example of how the L.A. River could be improved.

I left the river once to get something to eat, and then returned to the bike path. At the confluence with Coyote Creek, arriving from the northeast, I once again, had to use a pedestrian and bike bridge to continue on with my ride. There were plenty of places where I could have gone down into the paved river bed, but I stayed on the actual bike path. When I saw the power plants that are on both sides of the river, now wide and edged by the concrete dikes on each side, I knew I was nearing the ocean. I could smell the sea. When I got to the end of the bike path, I locked up my bike, and walked down to the beach, sat on the sand and took a break. I needed it. It may seem that it would be a great thing not to be stopped by traffic lights every few blocks, but after riding 35 miles with only a short break for some food, I welcomed the time out of the saddle.

I was sixty miles into my ride and only half way done, so I couldn't spare more than fifteen minutes before I had to think about returning home. I rode through the Long Beach Marina, through the upscale Belmont Shore section, and, at the Belmont Pier, picked up the bike path that ran along the Long Beach inner harbor. Even though it was getting into late afternoon, there were still lots of people along the shore, so I had to ride slowly, keeping an eye out for breach goers walking along the bike path. At Rainbow Harbor, I left the ocean and headed inland along Pine Avenue, going north to Pacific Coast Highway.

Pacific Coast Highway, is to the best of my knowledge, the only state designated bike path in California. There are sections of PCH, where it would be suicidal to ride a bike. From Long Beach to Redondo, where I intended to pick up the Marvin Braude Bike Path, is not one of those sections. The route is wide enough, and with a little caution, a safe ride. It is, however, not the scenic route that one would imagine on Pacific Coast Highway. At first, the route goes over a bunch of over crossings. Freeways, oil refineries, ship channels and railroads; a route lined with fast food joints, convenience stores, auto repair shops. Industrial American. I like it. I was born and raised blue collar, and I suspect I'll die blue collar. So many of my rides take me through SoCal suburbia, one stucco house after another, one strip mall after another, one super market after another. For four or five miles, perhaps a bit longer, I felt like I was in a world where people actually made a living with their hands. And then things got a bit more upscale, and the stucco houses, strip malls, and super markets returned me to the suburban reality of Los Angeles.

When I hit Redondo Beach, I broke for the ocean front bike path. Again, I had to slow down to avoid running into beach goers, and again I felt the wind. My sun glasses picked up a coating of blown beach sand as I made my way along the ocean. The sun was going down over the Pacific, and the surfers were coming in off of the water. Dockweiler State Beach, has an RV park and camp fires are allowed on the beach, so the smell of salt water was mixed with that of burning wood. At Ballona Creek, I rode inland, leaving the Pacific Ocean behind. I like my neighborhood, and I like living inland, but every time I go to the beach, I'm reminded that beach culture is what southern California is all about. One of these days, I've got to learn to surf.

I followed the Ballona Creek Bike Path to Overland Avenue, in Culver City, rode past Sony, formally MGM, Studios to Venice Blvd. I stopped for a bight to eat, and made sure all of my safety lights were on. Venice does have a designated bike lane, and it's a wide street, and safe to ride, even at night, but it never hurts to be seen after dark. When I turned north on La Brea, it was dark. Riding in Hollywood is never a good idea. The streets are always crowded, bad drivers seem to get worse, and most of the roads aren't in great condition. La Brea and Hollywood Blvd, my route through the area, was the best of many bad choices. At Fountain, I turned and rode the last few miles home.

My actual route. Glenhurst Ave. to Tyburn St. to Perlita Ave. to Fletcher Dr. to Eagle Rock Blvd. to Lincoln Ave. to Ave. 54 to Buchanan St. to Aldama St. to York Blvd. which becomes Pasadena Ave. which becomes Monterrey Rd. to Fair oaks Ave. to Walnut St. which becomes Foothill Blvd. to Mountain Ave. to Royal Oaks Dr. to the bike path north of Royal Oaks just after Buena Vista St. returning to Royal Oaks to Encanto Pkwy. to the foot bridge over the San Gabriel River to the San Gabriel River Trail, exiting at South St. to Studebaker Rd. returning to the San Gabriel River Trail , to it's end at Seal Beach, returning to Marina Dr. to Second St. to Livingston Dr. picking up the Long Beach Bike Path at Belmont Pier to Pine Ave. to Pacific Coast Highway to Torrance Blvd. to Catalina Ave. to Beryl St. to Harbor Dr. which becomes Hermosa Ave. to tenth St. to the Marvin Braude Bike Path to the Ballona Creek Bike Path, exiting at Overland Ave. to Venice Blvd. to La Brea Ave. to Hollywood Blvd. to Sunset Blvd. to Fountain Ave. which becomes Hyperion Ave. to Rowena Ave. to Glendale Blvd. to Fletcher Dr. to Riverside Dr. to Glendale Blvd. to Glenhurst Ave. Total miles: 115.17. Bike: KHS Turbo.

I'll be putting up some pictures that I took the three times I've done this loop. They won't be in order, and they won't be published all at once.

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