A Diplomatic Guide to the Lakes of Los Angeles - Jaak Treiman
In America, Minnesotans are proud they live in “the land of 10 thousand lakes.” The Finns, more humbly, refer to their country as “the land of a thousand lakes.” Mongolians feature Lake Khövsgöl, with its crystalline waters and infinite shades of blue. Italians marvel at the kaleidoscope of colors generated by the sunsets and sunrises over Lago Maggiore.
Los Angeles has no comparable lakes. Yet, it does have bodies of inland waters that reflect the city’s spirit and history and belie their urban setting. Some are preferred locations for film and television shoots. Others present complete recreational opportunities, offering camping, boating, fishing, cycling, sports fields and picnic facilities. A few, with shady trails, wildlife and fauna, simply serve as a place of respite from the urban lifestyle.
There are many sizable lakes within a serviceable driving distance of Los Angeles. They offer a gamut of recreational options. These include Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, Lake Casitas in Ventura County and Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County. Los Angeles County also has its share of rural lakes and reservoirs. They include Castaic Lake, Elizabeth Lake and Pyramid Lake.
I will limit this blog to urban lakes located within the more densely populated areas of Los Angeles.
2230 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Built in the 1880s, Wilshire Boulevard now bisects what was formerly known as Westlake Park. Its southern portion consists primarily of a spring fed lake that has been featured in movies (Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang), television shows (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), songs (MacArthur Park), video games (Grand Theft Auto San Andreas) and books (Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys).
In the past, the area was well known for gang violence. When the lake was drained for cleaning in the 1970s hundreds of handguns and firearms were found. On the other hand, in 2005 the park was acclaimed for having the highest reduction of crime statistics per resident in the United States. However, it is still the site of some gang violence. Hector Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier offers a vivid picture of the neighborhood. It is also a popular protest site. Adjacent to the park is one of LA’s best-known delicatessens, Langer’s.
751 Echo Park Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90026
The lake was formed in 1868 to supply water for a downtown wool mill located at Fifth and Figueroa streets. Water from the Los Angeles River was brought to a dammed up natural basin through a ditch at the reservoir’s north end. It exited from the south end through a canal that stretched to the mill. In the 1890s the city of Los Angeles acquired the reservoir and made it into a park.
There are picture postcard views of the Los Angeles skyline from the lake. It is still used occasionally for filming, perhaps most famously in 1974’s Chinatown, where Jack Nicholson rows out on Echo Park Lake to photograph a marital scandal.
Before being supplanted by Hollywood, the Echo Park district of Los Angeles was the city’s cinematic center. After a period of neglect, it is now considered one of the trendier areas of Los Angeles. A festival is held each summer when the lake’s lotus plants bloom.
3200 Canyon Lake Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Because of a high, chain link fence there is no lake access. The path that winds its way along the fence’s outer perimeter is asphalt and bears no resemblance to a hiking path. And yet, if “nicest” is defined as emulating wilderness, Lake Hollywood is perhaps LA’s second nicest urban lake, second only to Franklin Lake.
Within close viewing distance of the Hollywood Sign, a 3½-mile trek around two bodies of water will take you past oaks, pine tress and lush vegetation. Mulholland Dam (featured in the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake) is at about the halfway point. Walking across the dam offers a clear view of the larger of the two lakes with its several inlets on one side and, to the rear, a panorama of Hollywood.
2600 Franklin Canyon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Created in 1914 by William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power as a distribution site for water brought from the Owens Valley via the newly constructed Los Angeles Aqueduct, Franklin Canyon Lake is located just south of Mulholland Drive off Coldwater Canyon. Franklin Canyon, with its Beverly Hills postal address, is a place you would expect to find in the Angeles National Forest, if not the Sierra Nevada mountains. Chaparral, grasslands and oak woodlands surround a three-acre lake. There is also an adjoining duck pond used by a myriad of different birds. There are numerous hiking paths.
6300 Balboa Boulevard
Van Nuys, CA 91316
Lake Balboa is located in the middle of Anthony C. Beilenson Park in the Encino/Van Nuys area of the San Fernando Valley. In addition to cycling paths the park offers fishing, boating and picnicking. A portion of the lake’s run-off is channeled into the Los Angeles River, a stretch that looks like a wild river.
According to some fishermen this portion of the Los Angeles River offers some of the best fishing in California. I think they are serious. They did concede that, while some people fished here for subsistence, they would not personally eat the fish because of pollution fears.
6660 Esplanade Place
Playa del Rey, CA 90293
In 1769 the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola camped next to the Los Angeles River. His journal describes the Los Angeles Basin through which the river flowed as essentially an extensive wetland, interspersed with islands of forested land and dense shrubbery. The river emptied into Santa Monica Bay at what is now Marina del Rey.
Following an epic torrential rain in 1825 the river shifted course and now empties into San Pedro Bay at Long Beach. Today, the primary vestige of the wetlands seen by Gaspar de Portola is in the Marina del Rey area. The Del Rey Lagoon is a remnant of this time, located just south of Marina Del Rey in Playa Del Rey.
The lagoon has some picnic areas, a play area and not much else. Besides the historical background, what I find most interesting are some of the quaint eating establishments along Culver Boulevard just before arriving at the lagoon and Playa Del Rey Beach, located no more than 200 yards from the lagoon.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.