Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hike 2012.030 -- Whittier Narrows

The Whittier Narrows aren't anything like the Zion Narrows. They just the spot between the Montebello Hills (to the west) and the Whittier (or Puente) Hills (to the East). Between these hills flow the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers, both of which drain the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains. They run generally north to south, and largely parallel to each other. Historically, the two rivers would switch channels with some regularity. Now, both are mostly encased in concrete and are not exactly the most scenic waterways in the world.

Set in the heart of the Whittier Narrows is the Whittier Narrows Nature Center. Its entrance is at 1000 E. Durfee Road. Most likely, you'd get there by taking the Pomona Freeway (CA-60) to Peck Road, head south on Peck for 1/4 (if coming in on the eastbound 60) to 1/2 (if coming from the westbound 60) of a mile, then turning right at Durfee.

After passing a McDonald's and some commercial strip office develop-ments, South El Monte High School will be on your right. As you reach the athletic fields on your right, the entrance to the Nature Center will be on your left. It's a little tricky to get into because there are raised yellow bumps in the median, designed to keep students coming out of the school parking lot from trying to make a left on to Durfee. Your left is immediately after the bumps end.

You can also reach this place by coming north on Peck Road to Durfee, or north or south on Rosemead Blvd to Durfee, or taking the Rosemead exit from the Pomona Freeway, then turning east on Durfee. If you're coming from Rosemead Blvd, the corner with Durfee (to the east) is also the corner with San Gabriel Blvd (to the west). From Rosemead Blvd, continue east on Durfee about two miles, with Legg Lake park on your left, past one traffic light, then be looking for the entrance on your right. If coming from either side, there are "approaching" signs several hundred feet before the actual entrance.

The head-quarters for Whittier Narrows Nature Center is an old building, probably built in the 1930s. It's dark and filled with really worn taxidermy. A number of snakes are in aquariums on one wall. They do not seem to have a current detailed map of the trails in the area. I get the impression that most folks visit for the bird watching, which means you're not really trying to walk a trail so much as get to where the birds are.

A small gift shop is attached to the museum, although it was closed when I wanted to visit it. There's also a small detached restroom with running water, several drinking fountains and several benches with shade.

The museum building is surrounded by large and relatively old but non-native trees. As a result, despite your proximity to Durfee, you get a somewhat sheltered feel.

From the visitor center/museum, you have two trail choices: to the south or to the west. The west path begins as a nature walk. I didn't go further that way, so I don't know for sure what you'd see. I went to the southeast end of the parking lot and headed under a wooden sign announcing the Tim Bulmer Memorial Trail. This one heads about 1/4 mile, to "the gates of the San Gabriel River." They mean this literally, as there is a lockable chain link gate where this trail intersects with the San Gabriel River Trail.

I've mentioned the San Gabriel River trail a few times; it's a paved bike/pedestrian/equestrian path from Azusa to Long Beach.

Because I had hiking boots on, I had no interest in walking the pavement towards either Azusa or Long Beach. Instead, when I reached the San Gabriel River Trail, I turned around. There's another paved path that rims the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, on the east side of a small channel or canal that breaks off from the San Gabriel River. Meanwhile, on the west side of that channel, the path is sandy dirt. I stayed on the sandy dirt side, heading towards the southwest.

After about 1/2 mile, I reached a fork in the road. A bridge crossed the canal. Two turkey vultures ate what I eventually discovered to be a dead rabbit.

Straight ahead would go towards the corner of Rosemead and Durfee. Left would take me to the the Dam. I eventually decided to go left.

I crossed the bridge and continued to the southwest, eventually reaching a dam that spans the San Gabriel River's bed. I would have assumed this was the Whittier Narrows Dam, although Google maps lists the dam blocking the Rio Hondo as the Whittier Narrows Dam. Of course, practically-speaking, it's one big dam, and one interconnected floodplain, so maybe the Whittier Narrows Dam applies to both parts?

Whittier Narrows Dam is huge, probably over a mile long. There's a small concrete area, with large mechanical spillways. But most of it is earthen. Recent reports by the Army Corps of Engineers say that the dam is also subject to total failure in the event of an earthquake. At least in part because of that, there's no reservoir behind the dam. There are a few small ponds, but mostly it's just a field of weeds and trees. Currently, there are lots of wildflowers, and it looks nice. Usually, I think it's just dry and dusty.

At the small pond nearest the dam, I walked off the trail and along the rocks to get closer to the water. I inadvertently startled some heron, who flew over to the other side of the pond, then settled down, again. The wide shot is at the top of this post; the closer crop of the heron is below.

The bike path climbs up to the crest of the dam. From there, you can look east, towards the Whittier Hills, including Rio Hondo College, Rose Hills Memorial Park, and the methane gas electrical generating plant.

Looking to the south, you overlook Pico Rivera's little par 3 golf course. The bike path continues south from there, on towards Long Beach. Alternatively, you can ride or walk the path that goes along the crest of the dam, eventually intersecting with Rosemead Blvd about 1/2 mile north of Gallatin Road. Since going there would either require a long backtrack or a long walk along the shoulder of Rosemead Blvd, I decided not to go that way.

Instead, I went back to the earlier junction, and took the long, straight walk along what Google Maps labels "Siphon Road." I walked straight off for about 4/5 of a mile, until I reached Durfee and determined there was no alternate, northern route back to the visitor center.

Somewhere north of Siphon Road, the map I picked up at the visitor center showed several lakes. Yet none were visible on my walk, and none are visible on the Google Maps satellite shot of the area.

After having returned about 3/5ths of the 4/5ths of a mile I had walked the other, I found a trail that seemed to offer an alternative. However, it eventually petered out. It also ran smack into what looked like stacks of honeybee colonies. I also came across a renegade colony, living in a wooden spool that probably once had cable.

My route eventually returned me to Durfee Road, somewhat west of Santa Anita Avenue. When the shoulder vanished on the south side of the road, I crossed over to the north. Pleasantly surprised, I found myself looking at an interesting bit of what was probably Depression-era architecture. It looked like a modified Mission style, with the bell tower looking more art deco than Spanish missionary.

Unfortunately, the building is fenced off. It must have been quite impressive in its time, when one approached this building from Durfee.

I continued along the north side of Durfee, skimming the edge of Legg Lake Park. I walked past several holes of a Frisbee golf course, and came across a fenced area where new, larger electrical transmission towers were rising. This area, like many places I've been hiking recently, is part of the Tehatchapi renewable power transmission project, which will close off access to the Whittier Narrows Nature Center from some time in July through October of 2012).

When I got back to the entrance of the nature center, I came back in, and wrapped up my hike.

I'm figuring 3.5 to 4.0 miles for the day, and essentially no altitude gain. It's low-difficulty hike, but not very scenic, and the San Gabriel River smells funny down here. I think it might make more sense to come here with bikes, and ride the paved trails through and around the nature center, including some of the San Gabriel River Trail. However, even there, you need to pay attention, because some folks on that bike trail take their riding seriously. Kids weaving along the path would drive them nuts.


  1. Renegade Bee Colony is the name of my next band.

    It looks like an interesting hike, actually, particularly that dam. Were the lakes supposed to be behind the dam, maybe, and had been allowed to dry out when they drained the reservoir?

  2. It's possible I don't appreciate the scenery because I grew up here. Also, I didn't include any pictures of the dry, dusty parts of the trail.

    The lakes on the map I had placed them well away from the face of the dam. The lady at the visitor center said one of them was removed during the last bit of flooding when the bulldozers trying to contain some flooding scraped away the clay lining underneath that lake. Since she made no similar comment about the other two lakes, I sort of assumed they were still there. Might be, too, but just hidden by the brush.

    Either way, they must have been pretty shallow, because there's not a lot of topographical relief in the area. It's a flood plain, after all.

  3. I grew up in the area. Spent a lot of time there on weekends, summer bike rides, and science club outings. Great to see it again. Thanks, peace,


  4. You're welcome. It had been years since I was last on those trails. Biked them a lot when I was younger, though usually on my way to the San Gabriel or LA River trails. Only made it to the visitor center once before, I think. It's a very underutilized resource.