Throughout most of Orange County, the Santa Ana River is one long geographical misnomer. For all but a few rainy days each year, the long concrete channel isn't really a river at all; it's filled mostly with dirt, silt or marshy plants, not water. The mighty Columbia, it ain't.
But local cycling aficionados love it. Because, when riding atop the river's banks, they can enjoy the longest continuous, almost entirely uninterrupted ride in the county. No auto traffic, no cross streets, no stop lights, no horrible surprises like drainage grates. Just one smooth, paved shot, from Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach to Featherly Regional Park in Yorba Linda. A total of 22 miles of bicycle heaven.
"It's definitely one of the most used trails (in the county)," said Jim Freibert, an employee of Two Wheel Transit Authority in Fountain Valley, Orange County's largest bike shop. "Day in and day out, it has more traffic, probably, than the beach bikeway (which runs along Pacific Coast Highway). It's outstanding. It's the best alternative to traveling on the street."
Particularly for the newer generation of cyclists--mostly adults who are discovering cycling as a way to keep in shape--the trail represents an escape from the nagging problems that can interrupt a good, continuous workout aboard their machines. In traffic, one must observe the same rules as autos; on the Santa Ana River trail (or nearly any off-road trail), cyclists can keep the pedals spinning, the heart rate up, and speed depends mostly on whim.
The first parts of the trail were constructed along the southernmost sections of the river bank nearly 10 years ago, said Mike Wellborn, a planner for the county's Environmental Management Agency's transportation planning office.
"We hear pretty consistently favorable comments about the trail," he said. "We even got a letter from a guy who moved his family closer to it so he could have quicker access. We did an informal survey last summer, and we found that there were a wide range of people riding on it: youngsters out there going to school, people using it for daily transportation, people from police and fire departments who have to stay in shape professionally."
Cycling clubs and serious cyclists also use the trail frequently, Freibert said.
"I'll see people out there at 7 or 8 in the morning, before work, getting in a few miles," he said. "A lot of serious recreational cyclists and racers use it for distance training. We've even had professional riders who usually spend their time in Europe using it for clinics or special events.
"And there are still some people out there who are just learning to ride from scratch."
In 1985 and 1986, the trail made up the first leg of the Race Across America, a coast-to-coast endurance bicycle race that began in Huntington Beach.
Cyclists riding on the trail do not pass over highway bridges that span the river. Rather, they roll under them, moving along on their half of the 12-foot asphalt strip paved for their use. The only point at which they must venture into the vehicular world comes at the Imperial Highway crossing near Anaheim Hills, said Wellborn, and the break is smooth and brief. Each arterial road passing over the river has an access gate for cyclists, he added.
"It's great to be able to go flat out," said Freibert. "Not necessarily fast, but at an uninterrupted pace. It's the only place in the county that I know of where you can do that."
SANTA ANA RIVER BICYCLE TRAIL AT A GLANCE
Where: Extends 22 miles from Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach to Featherly Park in Yorba Linda.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.
Access: Gates at each arterial road.
Surface: 12-foot-wide, two-lane, paved asphalt.
Rainy weather: Can result in the flooding of two low-water crossings, at 17th Street in Santa Ana and Katella Avenue in Anaheim.