A river runs through it

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Have you heard about the newest wilderness park being built in the San Gabriel Valley:

On June 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the Watershed Conservation Authority will unveil the Proposed Park Plan for a new, 75-acre River Wilderness Park at the entrance to majestic San Gabriel Canyon where the city of Azusa meets the Angeles National Forest.

This may be the first wilderness park that once was a biker bar. The Canyon Inn was razed in 2005, not long after the Bruce Willis movie “Hostage” was shot there. The final scenes, which I’m told included a bloody shoot-out, were filmed at the old biker bar. You may remember the brown sign with the white lettering.

Also, the former El Encanto restaurant, just off Old San Gabriel Canyon Road, is part of the park. The building was remodeled to house the offices of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy. The new park will include an extension of the San Gabriel River Bike Trail, along with new trails, picnic areas, group camping and even a cafe and store for tired and hungry bicycle riders, hikers and sightseers.

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I went up Azusa Avenue-San Gabriel Canyon Road to check it out on Thursday and met up with Jane Beesley, acting executive officer for the Watershed Conservation Authority, which is designing the park.

The selling point of this park is its location at the entrance to the Angeles National Forest and at a S-curve in the churning San Gabriel River.

“That sycamore tree is actually in the forest property,” Beesley pointed out, illustrating how the park is literally at the juncture of civilization and wilderness.

While that presents some planning and design challenges, such as encouraging a river view but not river swimming, it’s the perfect place for a wilderness park. Plus, there is no other river park on the San Gabriel until you drive down to South El Monte and reach Whittier Narrows. Not even the duck farm park will have access to the river itself.

So often, most people’s “view” of the San Gabriel River is out of their car windshield. Beesley said she’s working to design a park where “most people can contemplate the river … through benches to sit on, paths to walk on, through picnicking and even at a cafe where you can get a meal.”

Plans that have come out of the heads of landscape designers as well as members of the public who’ve attended meetings, include extending the bike trail through the park and under Highway 39 at the bridge. To slow traffic down, designers envision a roundabout on 39. A new trail would follow the western bank of the river, including a lookout from where you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

The WCA and city of Azusa are working to preserve the Taylor House, an old home that was part of property north of El Encanto, and use it for composting classes or perhaps a farmer’s market.

To complete the park, along with road improvements, an extended bicycle trail and hiking trails, will cost between $10 million and $12 million — money the WCA does not have. It hopes the attractive design will put it in the running for state, federal and private grants.

Until then, the park is open. Beesley said some folks are walking the dirt road from the parking lot down to the river and the base of Morris Dam. It is a nice walk and one that is easy to accomplish.

To get to the park, take San Gabriel Canyon Road toward the mountains. Just beyond Mountain Cove, turn right onto Old San Gabriel Canyon Road and into the parking lot of “El Encanto.” Best of all, since the park is outside the forest limit, you don’t need an Adventure Pass. In fact, the parking is free.