So you’re in LA, short on time, and want an activity-packed day where you can take in iconic movie backdrops, get a bit of L.A. history, get in a hike, a bike, a boat, and to top it off, see something exotic, say, oh, six acres of Japanese gardens. Then you, my over-demanding friends, have come to the right place: the Valley.
The Valley is famous for cars, boulevards and housing. It’s far less known as having one of the largest undeveloped areas in the city. This is all thanks to something most people would never associate with Los Angeles — floods. True, L.A. is a city built on borderline desert, but it’s also built on a wide, flat river basin. Winter flooding has historically been a serious problem. After the Los Angeles river broke its banks in a devastating flood in 1938 that killed 144 people, the citizens had had enough. They called in the U.S. Corps of Engineers to tame the river. By 1941, the river banks were confined into concrete channels. And on the then-outskirts of the city, the Sepulveda Dam was built to hold back the waters.
Today the dam is more famously known as a backdrop for the film industry. It’s been used in commercials, music videos, photo shoots, and, with its sleek lines, served as futuristic locations in “Escape from New York,” “Buckeroo Banzai” and “Gattaca.”
West of the dam is the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, a two-square mile tract of fields, trees and wetlands that encompasses several smaller parks. The first is Woodley Park, located just west of the dam. Among its attractions: a large pond popular with wading birds – ducks, geese, egrets and herons can be found here. Several cricket pitches play host to some of the best players in LA. Remote-controlled airplanes buzz over the RC Field. Fans of The Hunger Games can fill up on archery classes at the archery range. The Japanese gardens ($3 admission) holds within its walls a Zen meditation garden, tatami tea house and winding paths around koi ponds.
Further west are three golf courses, followed by Lake Balboa. The 27-acre lake can be used for boating, fishing, or just enjoying the view. It’s a popular place for families to take their kids and is always busy on the weekends. Picnic tables, barbecue pits, athletic fields and a dog park are also available to the public.
During the summer season, several outfits offer kayaking trips down the stretch of the Los Angeles river that runs through the basin. It’s one of the few places to see the river as it is naturally, without the ubiquitous concrete channels. Taking its entire length will lead you back down to the dam, which changed the course of a river, and a city.
Hours: The basin is open from dawn to dusk. The Japanese Gardens are open Mon-Thu from 11 to 4 and Sunday from 10 to 4 (last entry is at 3:15).
Getting There: The basin is bordered by the 101 and the 405 freeways. The east entrance, for Woodley Park and the Sepulveda Dam, is located on Burbank Blvd. Lake Balboa and the western side of the basin is best accessed by Balboa Blvd. The easiest way to see the dam is to make your way back to the Burbank Blvd entrance and follow the high earthen embankment south along one of the many paths and underpasses to the dam.
Parking: This is one place in LA where parking is a cinch. Parking lots and curbside parking are available throughout the basin.