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Hiking: Southern California

Following Juan Bautista's Lead

November 03, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Just about the same time American Colonists began battling British soldiers at Bunker Hill, Concord and other East Coast locales, the Spanish sought to establish control over the Pacific Coast of what is today's United States. The viceroy of New Spain assigned Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza to press Spain's claim to the New World.

The De Anza Trail was the route of the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition of 1775-76, which brought 200 colonists from Mexico across the Colorado Desert and up the coast to found the city of San Francisco. In 1990, Congress established the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and assigned the National Park Service to preserve, develop and sign the path. The agency has produced an excellent brochure, available in English and Spanish versions, that describes the Anza Trail.

For the most part, the historic trail will be an automobile route with many interpretive displays along the way. In addition, there are numerous hiking opportunities along the trail in Mexico, Arizona and California.

Historically, the Anza Trail is much better documented than the Lewis and Clark or other trails that opened up the West. This is because of the meticulous diary-keeping of Anza and the expedition's chaplain.

The National Park Service has teamed with the nonprofit national Heritage Trails Fund to sponsor special events throughout the year in Mexico, Arizona and California to re-trace Anza's 1,468-mile journey.

In California, the Anza Trail travels through cities and along pristine coastline, through bird sanctuaries and shopping malls. Anza's route through Los Angeles follows the Los Angeles River into the San Fernando Valley, then west along present-day U.S. 101 to the coast.

If you'd like a Los Angeles County sampling of the Anza Trail, here's three walker-friendly locales in the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.

Whittier Narrows Nature Center: For a glimpse at the natural world that once flourished along the banks of the San Gabriel River, join mile-long Aquatecos Lake Trail.

A cliff above the Whittier Narrows section of the San Gabriel River was the original site of Mission San Gabriel, established in 1771. Spanish missionaries regarded the San Gabriel as a dependable source of water and could well imagine the possibilities for a settlement in the river valley.

Birds, lots of them, have long attracted birders to Whittier Narrows. At last count, more than 250 species have been recorded in the area between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. Diverse habitats--lakes and rivers, sandbars and mud flats, and riparian vegetation--account for the high number of species.

A wild river, vines that climbed high into the trees and jungle-like vegetation attracted movie makers of the 1930s to Whittier Narrows. The Narrows doubled for deepest, darkest Africa in the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. Over the years, Whittier Narrows survived fire and floods but nearly perished as a wildlife sanctuary, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built dams and concrete channels.

Today's 127-acre Whittier Narrows Nature Center is but a fraction of the much larger Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, which includes Legg Lake and all manner of sports fields and facilities.

Access: From the Pomona Freeway (California 60) in south El Monte, exit on Peck Road. Pick up Durfee Avenue, south of the freeway overpass, and follow it into Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. Turn left into the parking lot for Whittier Narrows Nature Center.

Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area: "No doubt most walkers would be surprised to learn that the National Park Service is planning and promoting a trail through the middle of the San Fernando Valley," says Peg Henderson, regional coordinator for the National Park Service's Rivers and Trails program.

The agency, more often associated with the management of wilderness preserves than the promotion of urban pathways, is helping to plan and conserve half a dozen California trails, among them the Los Angeles River Trail, which in part coincides with the Anza Trail. Local trail boosters and planners, such as Henderson, hope to one day extend a river walking path from the valley to the sea via downtown Los Angeles.

One of the few semi-natural stretches of the Los Angeles River (and the only one along which the authorities encourage walking) flows through Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. A fine three-mile round-trip walk explores both sides of the river.

Begin walking on the dirt road by the river. Not long from the start, you'll notice a river crossing. You can boulder-hop across the river on the return trip if you want.

The ol' river looks pretty good along this stretch. Plenty of riparian growth and, yes, a few shopping carts. You can make your way down to the river for a closer look and even bushwhack your way upriver through the jungle that thrives on the riverbanks.

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