“The San Gabriel Valley today has so many roads and houses it’s hard to imagine anything natural survives. Yet survive it does, and Whittier Narrows helps prove it.”
The authors of Wild LA, a 2019 nature guide published by the Natural History Museum, remind us that nature abounds and surrounds us here in Los Angeles—from the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountain ranges and Angeles National Forest to our oceans, hills, valleys, arroyos, wilderness parks, and protected habitats.
And even in the San Gabriel Valley amidst “so many roads and houses,” we have unlikely nature havens like Whittier Narrows and the neighboring Puente Hills Habitat near the 60 and 605 freeway interchange.
Perhaps one of the few upsides of the pandemic has been the growth of nature-seekers and outdoor recreation. A study from the University of Vermont discusses how COVID-19 has created new “nature lovers,” while newspapers around the world clocked a global “boom” of outdoor activities, specifically hiking: AP News reported “8.1 million more Americans went hiking in 2020 compared to 2019,” many for the first time.
I became one of these stay-at-home pandemic-era hikers around Whittier Narrows and the Puente Hills Habitat. I’ve grown to appreciate what my proverbial backyard offers in terms of ‘nature.’ These San Gabriel Valley parks show us that hiking in L. A. doesn’t have to mean trekking to Malibu, Runyon Canyon, or Big Bear. They may not make the big city paper’s ‘best hiking in L. A.’ lists, but Whittier Narrows and the Puente Hills offers features some of the most underrated suburban wilderness and nature trails in the county for people at all fitness levels.
Here are four hikes through local space, time, and natural history.
HIKE #1—Bosque del Rio Hondo
Location: Bosque del Rio Hondo, 9311 San Gabriel Blvd., South El Monte, 91733
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate. Flat, paved trail suitable for all fitness levels; ADA accessible.
Length: 4.0-mile loop.
Our first hike is more like a long nature walk through the lushest, greenest, and seasonally wettest part of the sixteen-mile Río Hondo River Trail. This walk covers a two-mile segment at the Bosque del Rio Hondo, a beautiful park and nature center in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, and ends on Rush Street in South El Monte, where the river turns to concrete.
If you’ve taken San Gabriel Boulevard to the Montebello Mall or zipped down Rosemead near Legg Lake, you’ve likely whizzed by the Bosque del Rio Hondo without even knowing it. A Spanish mission-style arc and façade mark the entrance to the Bosque parking lot on San Gabriel Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the original site of the Mission San Gabriel built-in 1771. Kiosks inside the Bosque tell stories of Tongva villages that thrived in this rich river-fed area and of Mexican barrio kids who would call it “Marrano Beach” hundreds of years later.
These days, the Bosque del Rio Hondo is the crown jewel of the riparian Emerald Necklace, an “an interconnected loop of parks and greenways along our urban waterways”—in effect, the green spaces sustained by the Los Angeles River, the Río Hondo, the San Gabriel River, their creeks and reservoirs around L.A. County.
The Bosque del Rio Hondo is “one of the last remaining natural segments” of the Río Hondo. Here’s how to enjoy a good hike through this urban forest.
The Bosque Hike
- Hike: Park at the Bosque del Rio Hondo and follow the path from the kiosks to the paved river trail. Turn right and walk north towards the mountains. The path follows the Río Hondo to your left and Whittier Narrows on the right, passing under the 60 freeway and continuing around the bend through the park. Keep left and follow the trail to the end of our 2-mile segment at Rush Street. Turn around and walk back to the Bosque to complete the 4-mile loop.
- Nature: Bosque del Rio Hondo means “forest of the deep river.” It was built in 1994 by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and restored after parts of the Bosque burned in the 2015 Lincoln Fire. Look for a variety of verdant old and new growth trees among the burn areas and along the riverbed, as well as plants like poppies that “thrive after wildfires,” according to Wild LA. Birds of the Bosque area include sparrows, finches, hawks, and hummingbirds. Along the trail, watch for Western fence lizards, cottontail rabbits, squirrels, red-tailed hawks, and the occasional gopher snake.
- Fun facts: As you walk, imagine this “forest” doubling as an African jungle or the deep South. Because it did! Mountain View High School teacher Michael S. Weller writes about the time Whittier Narrows made its “rather inauspicious debut as a [film] location” in 1915 when “it stood in for the American South in D. W. Griffith’s infamous pro-Confederacy film The Birth of a Nation. Almost twenty years later, it would serve as the ‘Africa’ of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the film versions of the Tazan novels that starred Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.” Read more here.
- Good to know: Free parking during park hours fills up quickly on weekends; restrooms, tables, and fitness area available. The Rio Hondo River Trail connects with the mountains-to-beach San Gabriel River Trail near Marrano Beach. And enjoy great post-hike tejuino, fruta, and elotes from vendors along Rosemead Boulevard near the Bosque.
HIKE #2: Sycamore Canyon Trail—Puente Hills Habitat West
Location: Sycamore Canyon Trailhead, 5040 Workman Mill Rd., Whittier, 90601
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Length: 2.6 or 3.8 miles out-and-back
The first of our Puente Hills Habitat hikes begins at the west end of the Sycamore Canyon Trail. This is a hiking-only trail, so no bicycles, horses, or dogs are allowed—ideal conditions for a long, quiet nature walk through “one of the most beautiful areas in the Puente Hills,” according to historian Amanda C. West.
In her 2007 paper, “The Puente Hills Habitat Authority: A Preservation Success Story,” West argues that the preservation was a success in part because a “well-organized grassroots coalition, a series of unusual, creative and sometimes controversial funding arrangements, as well as the sheer determination and tenacity of a handful of individuals” showed that “development, even in Southern California, does not have to be inevitable.” After the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake turned so much of Uptown Whittier into rubble, land dealers and the historically pro-business Whittier city council were eager to commence the ostensibly “inevitable” housing, shopping, and highway developments that threatened to decimate the natural beauty of the rugged hills to the north and east.
But newly-elected preservationists to the Whittier city council in the 1990s stopped a road extension and condominium construction in the hills by buying out land holdings from Wells Fargo, Chevron, Unocal, and the Catholic church. These transactions, partially funded by 1992 Proposition A neighborhood parks money from Los Angeles County, helped establish the Puente Hills Habitat Restoration Authority to protect and restore the area’s natural landscape for generations to come. Today, hikers can enjoy nearly 25 trails throughout the 3,870 acres managed by the Puente Hills Habitat Authority, from the 605 freeway in Whittier to the La Habra-Brea border just…