How To Kayak on the L.A. River

kayak la river rent a carWhen visitors to Los Angeles touch down at LAX, they usually rent a car and head for the Pacific Ocean for outdoor fun. That’s understandable. Los Angeles has many amazing beaches, and the weather is great for swimming, surfing, or simply sunbathing almost every month of the year. There’s another, less well known way to enjoy the water in Los Angeles: kayaking.

That’s right, it’s easy and fun to go kayaking on the L.A. River! Here’s the inside scoop on this fun, rewarding activity.

When Can I Go?

You can visit the L.A. River all year round, but kayaking is limited to certain months. There are many pedestrian and bike paths along the river, so you can always enjoy an outdoor excursion without acres of pavement surrounding you.

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority offers two distinct zones on the river for public access. They’re both open during the summer months, with slightly different schedules:

The Elysian Valley Zone

The Elysian Valley Zone is about halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. Head on out to Fletcher Drive and look for the iconic Great Heron Gates that mark the entrance to Rattlesnake Park.

The Sepulveda Basin Zone

To find the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Zone, travel to Burbank Boulevard in Encino, slightly west of Woodley Avenue. You can also find an entrance to the rivershed area at Balboa Boulevard near Victory Boulevard. For most visitors, finding your way to the river is the hardest part of an excursion. Once you’re at the water’s edge, the zones are clearly marked to make it easier to find your way around. Rules for kayaking, picnicking, walking, and cycling are clearly posted as well.

Is Kayaking the Only Way to Go on the Water?

Kayaking might be the easiest and most enjoyable way to enjoy the river, but many other types of watercraft are welcome as well. Canoes are popular. You can’t use anything with a motor, even a quite trolling motor. You’re not allowed to use inner tubes or pool rafts on the river. That’s because you must be able to steer whatever craft you take on the river. The river has become a popular destination, and while it’s rarely crowded, you’ll need to be able to avoid collisions with other visitors on the river.

How To Choose Between Zones

If you want a real escape to nature, you’ll love the Sepulveda zone. It’s near Lake Balboa, and sits smack dab in the middle of a big wildlife refuge. Because the area is a flood control area, there’s no concrete around the river’s edge. There are many grassy areas, and trees overhang the river to produce a very peaceful woodland effect. If you just want a peaceful paddle, it’s perfect. The water is very calm, and moves fairly slowly.

The Elysian Valley zone passes through the Glendale Narrows, the only part of the L.A. River that doesn’t have a concrete bottom. It’s dotted with little islands with lush greenery on them, which makes the trip more scenic. It’s slightly more challenging for a kayaker than the Sepulveda zone, however. The water moves relatively swiftly, and there are some rapids that will give you a workout. There are more obstructions to watch out for as well.

Where Can I Park?

If you’re using a rent a car from LAX, it’s easy to head north on the 405 freeway until it crosses the 101 in Sherman Oaks. Look for signs for Woodley Park, located on the west side of the freeway. The Sepulveda Basin L.A. River Recreation Zone runs through the park. There’s plenty of free on-street parking spaces on Woodley Avenue. You can also park in the lot near the kayak put-in ramp on Balboa Boulevard.

If you rent a car in Pasadena or downtown L.A., Elysian Valley is closer than the Sepulveda Basin. You can park for 4 hours on Fletcher Drive, or take advantage of free parking at the MRCA lot at Marsh Park. You’ll also find parking downstream at Confluence Park. It’s near the Home Depot under the 2 Freeway.

Where Do I Rent A Kayak?

Using the river is free for individuals and small parties, and doesn’t require a permit. If you’re part of an organized group, the MRCA issues permits for a fee.

You can rent kayaks at the following locations:

L.A. River Expeditions (both zones)

L.A. River Kayak Safari (Elysian zone)

Paddle the L.A. River (Sepulveda zone)

L.A. River Kayaks (Sepulveda zone, plus the Elysian zone on Sunday afternoons)

If you’d like to see a side of Los Angeles that very few people know about, paddling a kayak along the L.A. River is a must for your bucket list while you’re in town. For more information, see the Los Angeles River Recreation Zone website.

Photo courtesy of the The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division