There It Is, Revitalize It — The San Gabriel River

There It Is, Revitalize It

The San Gabriel River is one of three major rivers which drains and flows through the Los Angeles Basin. The river drains a watershed of roughly 1,850 square kilometers and is bounded by the watersheds of the Los Angeles River to the west and the Santa Ana River watershed to the southeast. For most of its length, it’s paralleled by a paved trail, which I decided to ride the length of on my bicycle, named Cream Soda.

The headwaters of the San Gabriel River are located above the San Gabriel Valley in the San Gabriel Mountains, at the confluence of the North, West, and East forks. For most of the river’s existence, it flowed freely through forests, grasslands, and marshes as it made its way from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. In hot summers and autumns, the river would practically run dry. In wet winters and springs, the river would flood, and when the waters confronted sufficient debris, carve an entirely new course.

The Spanish founded the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel near the Tongva village of Shevaanga in September of 1771. The Spanish chose to locate build their church along the banks of the probably then bone-dry San Gabriel River; September comes toward the end of the long, dry season which on average receives only six millimeters of rainfall. I have to wonder whether or not any of the Tongva (who had an extra 3,500 years or so of experience upon which to draw) were consulted about the wisdom of building a church in a floodplain in which several waterways converge. When winter came, sure enough, the San Gabriel River obliterated the structure. More floods were recorded, including serious ones in 1862 and 1938, by which the US Army Corps of Engineers had begun building dams and channelizing the river. Today, dams, dikes, and concrete channels tightly control the river’s course and flow rate.


As luck would have it, the week before my ride along the river, I’d been hiking on Iron Mountain, near the confluence of the San Gabriel River and Iron Fork, in the vicinity of the Bridge to Nowhere. High above the dams, the river still feels quite natural, and you’re reminded that it’s not just a flood control channel, but home to endemic species like the coastal rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus), mountain yellow-legged frog (Rana muscosa), Santa Ana sucker (Catostomus santaanae), and Santa Ana speckled dace (Rhinichthys osculus ssp.).

Azusa Trail
Northern terminus of the Azusa BikeTrail

A week later I returned to the river, via Metro’s Gold Line train. I disembarked at Irwindale Station and began by ascending to the top of the Azusa BikeTrail Head, a short extension of the San Gabriel River Trail which terminates in the San Gabriel Canyon. There, the riparian wilderness ends as it meets suburban encroachment in the form of a sleepy, gated residential community wistfully named Mountain Cove.

Northern entrance to the San Gabriel River Trail

At the entrance to the San Gabriel River Trail, I began to encounter both more walkers and garishly colored, wrap-around sunglasses-wearing roadies. This stretch of the path passes through empty pits and mines — and landfills where pits and mines used to be. It always brings to my mind thoughts of the plains of Isengard.

Nature Center Trail
Santa Fe Dam Nature Trail

After briefly stopping to walk around the Santa Fe Dam Nature Center and Nature Trail (where a man walking a dog asked me whether or not I was “having fun yet”), I hopped back on Cream Soda and rode across the Santa Fe Dam, a large barrier which impounds the Santa Fe Control Basin. The strange landscape seems like the natural home for the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which moved to the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area in 2005.

Santa Fe Dam

South of the dam the river flows parallel to the 605 Freeway, also known as the San Gabriel River Freeway. There the river bottom was muddy and marshy, dotted with scummy ponds and greasy puddles and — to continue the Middle Earth allusions, not a little like the Dead Marshes,  albeit populated by coots and geese in place of the Battle of Dagorlad’s fallen.

Looking South from Dam
Looking south from the dam

I stopped on near the edge of another gravel pit, partially filled with water. I couldn’t help but wonder what could be done with the platform in the middle, given a bit of imaginative adaptive reuse. Imagine what an exciting home the industrial landscape would make with a bit of fixing up. Perhaps a mixed use complex named The Bartertown Shops at Irwindale or something like that.


As I rode past a couple of parks, schools, country clubs, and neighborhoods separated from the river by freeways, chain link and barbed wire fences, and cinder block and corrugated metal barriers. I began to dream about a river in which those amenities were more connected to the waterway. Surely chain link and barbed wire don’t hold back flood waters and serve merely as ugly annoyances.

In 2005, the Amigos de los Rios introduced what they called the Emerald Necklace Vision Plan, a vision for the region which would connect parks and riparian greenways along the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River. The idea of hundreds of hectares of interconnected parks is something I’d love to see come to fruition.


Trees strewn with trash

As I continued south, landfills and mines increasingly gave way to nurseries and stables. Whittier Narrows is the name given to the water gap between the Repetto and Montebello hills to the west and the Puente Hills to the east; as such it marks the gateway between the San Gabriel Valley and Southeast Los Angeles.

Whittier Narrows dam
Whittier Narrows Dam

At the southern edge is the Whittier Narrows Dam, a flood control device which began operation in 1957. The river sufficiently tamed, suburban tracts sprang up in the previously flood-prone vicinity from the 1930s to the 1970s, but especially in the 1940s and ‘50s.

After I passed the dam, I noticed how much more lush and cleaner the riparian landscape was. The trees north of the dam were mostly denuded by rushing water which replaced foliage with plastic garbage. The contrast south of the dam was startling. I stared at the muddy water for a bit and things got a bit Tarkovksyesque when a riderless horse appeared, running around between the banks of the river.

meandering section

A short time after I realized I’d traversed two-thirds of the trail’s length, I stopped to rest. In a tree-lined stretch, I drank a bit of wine from my flask and watched a monarch butterfly float on the breeze. In the distance, automobiles idled on the 605, occasionally approaching a snail’s pace. I had the idea of playing Style Council’s “Down by the Seine” but my charge was getting low and I settled for listening to it in my head, as it had been for much of the ride by that point.

wine break
Nice, shady spot for a break

Next to Rio San Gabriel Park, between Downey and Norwalk, the concrete channelization of the river begins. I suppose an argument could be made for its industrial, unromanticized, Neue Sachlichkeit appeal — but it doesn’t take long for its lifeless monotony to grow wearisome — or maybe it’s just the steady increase in the strength of the headwinds which make this stretch feel like a bit of a grind. Of course, the proliferation of parking lots do nothing to increase the area’s appeal and I noticed that the lycra set have given way to younger cyclists who seem to be aimlessly riding in circles instead of training for some grueling multiple stage bicycle race.

The channelization begins

Around the time I reached Cerritos‘s Liberty Park I began to encounters runners who seemed to be participating in some sort of riverside marathon. As I got closer to the beach, the modes of transportation grew more varied and often less practical. There were people on skateboards, scooters, inline roller skates, and recumbent bicycles. It started to get chilly and I put back on my track jacket.

Near the northern edge of Long Beach is a shopping center Long Beach Towne Center. The spelling of its name of is inconsistently archaic. Why is isn’t it “Longe Beach Towne Centre?” Why is it so named when it lies at the northeastern corner of the city — far from Long Beach’s center? Why go the quaint route at all, when naming an unremarkable Wal-mart-anchored strip mall that’s not even twenty years old? There’s time to contemplate this and more when riding past more than 50 hectares of barren asphalt parking.

Just south of the complex is Long Beach’s largest park, El Dorado Park. The park was never developed with homes due to its location within the San Gabriel River’s flood zone. The land was sold to Long Beach by the Bixby family, whose charming ranch house is located not far from the river and currently operates as Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens.

coyote creek
Confluence of Coyote Creek and the San Gabriel River

Near the confluence of the San Gabriel River and Coyote Creek, the San Gabriel River’s channelization once again ends, and a measured degree of wildness returns. At that point, the San Gabriel River flows fairly closely to the border between Los Angeles and Orange counties, briefly crossing entirely into the latter as it passes between Seal Beach’s College Estates Park and Edison Park.

channelization ends
End of the channelized section

Further south, the river flows between two generating stations, Alamitos and Haynes. To me their industrial landscapes and architecture are surely as beautiful as celebrated structures like Richard Rogers’s bowellist Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris or the Lloyd’s Building in London. Separated from the river by the Haynes station is the world’s best-named retirement community, Leisure World.

Alamitos Generating Station

Aesthetics aside, the two power plants have wrought considerable environmental devastation on the brackish marshlands on which they’re situated, Los Cerritos Wetlands. Today, only a third of the once vast wetlands remains, albeit in a degraded state. Thanks to Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, efforts are underway to purchase the remaining 314 hectares and restore the habitat which supports many species of flora and fauna, including several endangered species.

oil derricks
Oil extraction where once were wetlands

The river finally ends at Alamitos Bay, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The air was cool and the sky overcast. Unlike the Long Beach Towne Center, River’s End Cafe is located conveniently where its name suggests. Although a bit saddle sore, I didn’t feel that much worse for wear but found that I had worked up a sufficient appetite to convince me that everything that I ate and drank was the best example of its kind. Afterward, I was frankly ready for a nap, but I still had to get home.

End of the line
Approaching Alamitos Bay

A ten kilometer ride to the Downtown Long Beach Blue Line Station was followed by an hour ride back to 7th Street/Metro Center, a transfer to Union Station, another transfer to the Gold Line, and then another eight kilometer ride home. I suppose I could’ve just bicycled up the Los Angeles River, but then I plan to do that this weekend.

End of the trail



Alvaro Parra‘s “Santa Fe Dam to Seal Beach: Biking the San Gabriel River Path” (2013)

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on various products from Cal31He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
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7 thoughts on “There It Is, Revitalize It — The San Gabriel River

  1. I think I got on your case about this matter once before; you article attracted my attention because I lived for many years near the west bank of the San Gabriel River in Duarte. When writing about locations in the US for mostly American readers, the use of SI (Metric System) units such as kilometres and hectares can seem like snobbery. I know nearly all other countries use SI. but we hard-headed Yanks have stayed with the traditional units despite pressure from various governmental and academic bodies to get us into sync with the rest of the world.


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