LA River blurs urban and natural environments. This group walked all 51 miles

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The LA River and Ballona Creek Trail are seen in Culver City. Photo by Amy Ta.

Stretching from its headwaters in Canoga Park to its mouth at the port of Long Beach, the Los Angeles River is sprawling, diverse, and essential to the urban environment, connecting dozens of neighborhoods across greater LA. 

In the heat of early August, one group of adventurous souls decided to explore the entirety of it, as part of the interdisciplinary art and research project Fifty-one Miles

Made up of an ecologist, an urban planner, a heritage conservationist, and a documentary filmmaker, the group spent six full days navigating every inch of the river’s channel. Their journey took them through both the lush, soft-bottomed sections in Frogtown and the Sepulveda Basin, and the concrete-lined drainage ditches that wind through industrial areas like Downtown LA and Vernon. 

The sun rises in Burbank as the 51-mile team walks with friends. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix.

Along the way, they kept track of the diverse people and wildlife making use of the river, even where you might not expect it. 

“There are so many cracks in the concrete, and anywhere there's a crack, life is just bursting,” reported Leslie Dinkin, a USC master’s candidate who served as the trip’s ethnographer. “[It’s] so exciting how hostile this space is, and yet the second that the concrete breaks, you have this plant or water bubbling up from underneath. Every drainage hole has growth in it.” 

A lush island appears in the middle of the LA River in Glendale. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix.

Clothes drying above the LA River in the Sepulveda Basin. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix. 

They walked around 10 miles per day — and about 20 of those miles were through areas without paths, meaning they sometimes had to walk right in the river’s channel. 

“It was a space that really no Angeleno is welcome to walk without permission, but we were wearing orange construction vests, so I think we were mistaken as maintenance and engineer interns,” says Dinkin. 

A rail bridge stretching across the LA River in Maywood. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix. 

Camille Shooshani, a writer and filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the journey, says some of the most striking places were those that blurred the lines between the natural ecosystem and the urban environment. 

“There's all this trash that has been washed through, that looks and feels like it's being eaten by the plants and the river all around it,” she says. “Shopping carts that are being consumed, mattresses that look like rocks, and also people living there. You walk through this and it really feels like you're in a completely mysterious place.” 

In addition to the documentary, which will be a series of short episodes about each day of the journey, the group plans to release a book that includes maps of their findings and photos of the experience. 

The box channel lies underneath the 110 and the 5 freeways just south of Frogtown. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix. 

The goal, says Dinkin, is to help Angelenos better understand a body of water that flows alongside them every day but that they may have never really gotten up close and personal with. 

“There was one day that we were speaking to our Uber driver, and she was saying that the river — even though she lives right next to it — is as unknown as a glacier, because it's not a place that she goes,” says Dinkin. “What we're trying to do is bring people to the river, and allow people to see this space that's right in the middle of our city.”

A cargo yard is neighboring the river in Paramount. Photo by Rio Asch Phoenix.