With Hwy 39 to Crystal Lake Recreation Area being reopened in March 2011 after more than eight years of closure, the trails are now accessible to the general public. In September 2002, the Curve Fire destroyed more than 20,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, including much of the Crystal Lake basin. The following year I hooked up with the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, who had special access to the Crystal Lake area to restore trails. I was haunted by the horrific fire damage. What used to be a mature pine forest with huge trees reaching to the sky was turned into a moonscape with charred sticks. It was in that context where I made my first hike to Mt. Islip via Windy Gap Trail on September 6, 2003, one year after the raging inferno. The scene I saw was surreal and eerie. I was overwhelmed with sadness to see such a terrible loss.
Over the years since than I’ve been on numerous work days with the Trailbuilders restoring and maintaining the trails. And I have watched life return. Today there is still an eeriness to the area as thousands of dead trees lay strewn upon the mountainside as from an explosion of giant pickup sticks. But the breathtaking landscape of the Crystal Lake basin and its towering ridges and peaks provides a rewarding experience. So today I set out to re-conquer 8250-foot Mt. Islip (pronounced “eye slip”).
7:43 AM - Arrive at the visitor center at the hub of the Crystal Lake Recreation Area. It’s a brisk 54 degrees. The gate for the road that continues onto the Windy Gap Trail trailhead is locked. I don’t know why that is, so I linger until the visitor center opens at 8:00. The gentleman tells me that that portion of the campground is closed and so I will have to walk the extra half mile to the trailhead. I’m bummed. That will add another mile to an 8-mile hike. At 8:05 I leave the visitor center and start walking up the paved road through the campground.
8:15 - Start my hike on Windy Gap Trail (5830’). The sign reads 1.2 miles to Big Cienega Trail and 2.5 miles to Windy Gap. I’m excited as my boots hit the trail in the solitude and coolness of the morning. Shortly, a deer poses for a picture. At 8:27 I complete my first 0.4 mile as I reach the first crossing of the South Mt. Hawkins Lookout Road. I cross the road and continue up. Without having much foot traffic on it, the trail has a rustic feel to it. The Curve Fire had spared much of the forest at the heart of the Crystal Lake campground, but as I climb higher the legacy of the fire leaves a very different landscape. Dead trees are everywhere. But there is a beauty here. At 8:53 I reach the second occurrence of the road, 1.1 mile from the start. This is the location where the Trailbuilders park to do trail maintenance. I linger for a few minutes.
9:03 - Leave the road and continue up the signed Windy Gap Trail (6560’). In a couple minutes I pass the junction to Big Cienega Trail, which I have planned for my return route. There is a beauty to the expanding views. I can see Windy Gap high on the ridge to the north. This trail brings back lots of Trailbuilders memories as I pass various places I’ve worked on. At 9:10 I encounter the first of many downed trees that are yet to be removed from across the trail. I start noting their occurrences and will have counted 19 before reaching Windy Gap. A marine layer highlights the distant horizon to the south, but the visibly surrounding me is vivid. My pace is slow as I soak in the beauty. The scant number of living trees is a stark reminder of a majestic forest that used to cover these mountainsides. I negotiate the two switchbacks that are needed to keep the trail grade reasonable for final pitch.
10:25 - Arrive at Windy Gap (7588’). It’s quite breezy here, hence the name. I have the gap to myself for one minute until the first of several runners pass coming down the trail from Hawkins Ridge and heading toward little Jimmy. It’s the annual 100-mile race from Wrightwood to Pasadena. That’s nearly four marathons! That boggles my mind. A large group of hikers arrives from little Jimmy and head east. I rest, have a snack, and study the map and trail descriptions as others come and go. The foot traffic here is a striking contrast to the solitude I enjoyed on my ascent.
10:50 - Leave Windy Gap and head to west to Mt. Islip. The sign says 0.8 mile. The Curve Fire had been stopped on this ridge, so now it feels like a real forest here. I love the smell of pine. Cars and motorcycles on the Hwy 2 below create a new soundtrack for this portion of the hike. The desert to the north comes into view. At 11:00 I reach the junction that comes up from Little Jimmy. The sign reads 1.2 to Mt. Islip, which is an obvious discrepancy from the sign at Windy Gap which reads 0.8. The trail cuts back south and soon I have nice views south from the ridge. The scenery is stunning as I ascend the ridge.
11:32 - Arrive at the junction on the south flank of Mt. Islip. To the left is Islip Ridge Trail, which I plan to take on my return trip. Other hikers pass. I stay right and continue to the summit. A switchback turns me east and shortly the trail cuts back to the north face and in another minute I arrive at the peak.
11:45 - Mount Islip (8250’). What a great peak with awesome views! Another hiker arrived a moment before me and I have him take my picture. A group of others arrive. I sign the peak register, have some lunch, study my map, and soak in the far reaching vistas. The weather is fantastic. When the group leaves I take advantage of the alone time to take a 360 degree panorama. Soon another group arrives and so I figure it’s time to go.
12:50 - Leave Summit. Pass more hikers en route to the peak. This is a popular destination today. Back at the junction on the south face of Islip I turn right (southwest) and begin my descent via Islip Ridge Trail. It’s immediately apparent that the trail gets less traffic. The white blossoms and shiny, dark green leaves of yerba santa dominate the flora scene. The rugged landscape and sweeping vistas are stunning. The fire was stopped on this ridge also, so there is a clear demarcation between the incinerated Crystal Lake basin on the left and the green-forested Bear Creek canyon on the right.
I think of the trail beneath my feet that was constructed by the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders and dedicated with a grand opening celebration on September 29, 1990. Today I am grateful for their efforts as I soak in the magnificent scenery and appreciate being able to take a different route back. II spot a group of hikers far below coming up the trail. Soon I learn that they are coming up from Big Cienega Trail. There are couple spots where I have to figure out the route negotiating fallen trees. After two big switchbacks the ridge flattens out some.
1:37 - Arrive at Big Cienega Trail junction (7580’). Islip Ridge Trail that continues south down the ridge appears to be completely gone at this location. It might reappear beyond the jumble of downed trees, but I suspect that it gets very little traffic covering the 3.9 miles from Crystal Lake. I turn east and begin following Big Cienega Trail, which travels 1.8 miles to intersect Windy Gap Trail. The path is disappearing from lack of maintenance. There are a number of downed trees that require climbing over or around. It’s easy to focus on the downed trees without noticing the dozens of trees that have been cut away to provide a clear path. I’ve worked with the Trailbuilders at various times on this trail and recognize that some of those trees were cleared with my help.
I suppose that one advantage of a tooth pick forest is that it allows sweeping views of the entire basin. After a couple big switchbacks some live trees begin to grace the landscape. It’s nice to have a little shade and see pine needles on the ground. Pass some spots with rich vegetation. Getting warm now. I reflect on the fact that I have never been on these trails without being with the Trailbuilders doing trail maintenance since general public access has been restricted for more than 8 years.
2:53 - Junction with Windy Gap Trail. In another minute I come face to face with a black bear standing in the road. What a treat! It’s only the second bear I’ve seen in the wild (the other was here at Crystal Lake in August 2003). I start shooting pictures; he poses nicely. He eyes me but doesn’t seem eager to run away. I move down to road and he moves a little further away. Finally I leave him, cross the road and start down the trail. Then I notice him moving down the road toward me. I suspect I had been positioned between him and the direction he had intended to travel. I snap a few more shots and say goodbye. As I walk I keep checking over my shoulder just to make sure he’s not coming after me. The last 1.1 mile is uneventful and the increasing shade is welcome.
3:37 - Windy Gap Trail trailhead. I made it! Now another half mile down the paved road to my car parked at the visitor center. I’m eager to have a hamburger and coke from the snack bar.
Epilog - What a great hike! Spectacular high country, amazing weather, fine trails, some solitude, a splendid peak, breathtaking views, lots of Trailbuilders memories, wildlife encounters, safe steps, a healthy body, and a hamburger and coke to punctuate the day.
See slide show of a Trailbuilders workday on lower Islip Ridge Trail - July 17, 2004
See Hike Descriptions at Dan’s Hiking Pages
(Detailed trail guides include driving directions, recommended season, map, notes, links, and photos)