Whittier Narrows Natural Area Park and Nature Center is located in the southern portion of the San Gabriel Valley near the westerly edge of the San Gabriel River.
This area is a low flood basin where the water table is relatively high and the rich soil supports streamside plant growth. Whittier Narrows derives its name from the "narrow" gap between the Montebello and Puente Hills in an area located just south of the facility.
The first human inhabitants of this area were the Kizh people named for their dwellings built from willow tree branches and brush. They were named "Gabrieleño" by the Spanish. Originally part of the Shoshone tribes of the Great Basin area, they were hunters and gatherers , who first walked to this spot over six thousand years ago. One of their settlements was located on the banks of the San Jose Creek, just east of the facility grounds.
In 1542 Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first stopped off of the coast of what is now California near what is now the city of San Pedro. For the next 200 years visitors from Spain and other European countries would continue to sail up the coast, trading with the Mexican settlers who, over the years, established many large "ranchos" in the Southern California area. In 1769 Fr. Junipera Serra founded the first Catholic mission in San Diego, followed in1771 by the San Gabriel Mission, part of what became a string of missions throughout California. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, mission lands were returned to the various Native American tribes for a short period of time, but much of that land was eventually taken over by the "Californios" and after 1847 by the Americans.
In 1841 two of the first eastern American pioneers to settle and build homes in the valley were John Rowland and William Workman. They were granted over 48,000 acres in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley paying one thousand dollars for the land. Both built homes along San Jose Creek and their "Rancho La Puente" was one of the largest ranchos of the Mission San Gabriel land grants. Both of their homes are preserved today as historic landmarks.
In 1939 the property where the nature center is located was purchased by the National Audubon Society, who operated the center for thirty years. The property was designated a wildlife sanctuary and the Audubon staff conducted tours for school children and the public. Native and introduced vegetation was planted in various locations throughout the property.
On July 1, 1970 the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the sanctuary and nature center. Our goal is the education of adults and children on the natural environment, while preserving the grounds as a sanctuary and reintroducing historically native plant species.
Whittier Narrows Natural Area encompasses an area of over 400 acres. The elevation varies between 210 and 220 feet above sea level.
The primary plant communities found in this area are riparian (streamside), woodland, and coastal sage scrub. Common plants found here are willows, sycamores, cottonwoods, Mule fat, Blue elderberry, California sagebrush, Toyon, and Coffee berry. There are over 250 species of plants found in the facility that are a combination of native and introduced species.
Watch out for poison oak which is present on the grounds. This plant has shiny leaves in the spring and summer, red leaves in the fall and bare branches in winter that can give you a lot to scratch about. Remember, leaf of three...let it be.
Several species of amphibians and reptiles can be found here including the California king snake, Gopher snake, Western fence lizard, Southern alligator lizard, and Western toad. Rattle snakes have not been spotted on the grounds for many years. But still... keep your eyes open.
Of the many species of mammals that are found here, you can often spot California ground squirrels, Audubon cottontail rabbits, opossums, raccoons, and the occasional coyote. Keep an eye out for animal tracks on or near trails.
More than 300 bird species have been observed in the park, including the protected White-tailed Kite, the endangered Least Bell's Vireo, and the California gnatcatcher. Northern Cardinals released nearby in 1923 still thrive in the area and can be spotted regularly on the grounds. The Natural Areas are home to many varieties of raptors including American Kestrels, Cooper's hawks, Turkey vultures, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks.