Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mt. Islip from Crystal Lake Hike - July 15, 2012

It’s summertime and that means hiking the San Gabriels high country. It’s been some years since I’ve hiked Islip Ridge Trail from Crystal Lake to the Big Cienega Trail junction, so that was my choice. My only reluctance was that I would not be attaining a peak. But the breathtaking scenery should be plenty rewarding.

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. For eight years until 2011 when the area was finally reopened, I worked on trails with the Trailbuilders and watched the area slowly recover. The hard part was working on trails that people didn’t have access to use. So today I get to enjoy benefits of a trail that the Trailbuilders worked so hard on for years to maintain awaiting for reopening.

I arise at 5:20 a.m. and leave my home in Azusa at 6:27. After a 40-minute drive on Highway 39 up San Gabriel Canyon, I arrive at the entrance to the Crystal Lake Recreation Area. I turn right and another 1.2 miles brings me to a left turn on the lake road and then another 0.2 mile to the small parking lot. There are two cars here and another pulled in a minute after me. The sun is rising over Hawkins Ridge. The trail starts at the south end of the parking lot, but it’s not evident and there is no sign. It’s a pleasant 54 degrees.

7:15 - Begin hike (5575’). Within a minute a large wooden sign announces, “Islip Ridge Trail, built and maintained by the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.” This portion of the trial leading up to the ridge is sometimes referred to as Wawona Cut-off.

The trail gently climbs south through what feels more like chaparral than a pine forest. There are some pine and fir still living, but many are just blackened sticks. A couple spots provide access and glimpses down to the lake. I have memories of pulling yerba santa from the trail. The trial climbs at a comfortable rate. Views of the basin open up. Far to the south Saddleback pokes through the hazy marine layer. Feels warm now in the open sun.

7:38 - Reach a spur ridge which is the farthest point south for the trail. The route turns west then north as it continues its climb through undulating terrain accented with huge boulders. A motorcycle can be heard on Hwy. 39 far below.

One of the hallmarks of the San Gabriel Mountain Trailbuilders is its expertise in building stone features like retaining walls and steps. Islip Ridge Trail is a good showcase for that handiwork. Unfortunately during 2007, while the Trailbuilders were pinned down replacing a bridge with gabion baskets in Icehouse Canyon, the Forest Service hired a trail contractor who installed a bunch of ugly, unnecessary Sutter walls along this trail, destroying its hand-built feel.

8:07 - The trail finally achieves the main backbone of Islip Ridge and the land of living trees. The panorama to the west features the rugged expanse of San Gabriel Wilderness dominated by Twin Peaks and Mount Waterman. A strong, cool breeze feels good. I’ve really been enjoying the total solitude. My pace is relaxed as I gently ascend the board ridge. The sky is deep blue and the air fresh. I love the vanilla smell of Jeffery pine. I stroll through intermittent patches of shade and open sun. The breeze is unrelenting. The trail stays mostly to the east side of the ridge as it circumvents a steep section.

8:29 - Arrive at the bench. There were four of these splendid log benches placed along the trail at strategic locations as an Eagle Scout project led by Mylan Draganov. This bench is the only one that survived the 2002 Curve Fire. It provides a nice view of the lake if you sit up tall.

8:48 - 2-mile post. Another 15 minutes delivers me to the main ridge again with more spectacular views west. I hang out here for a bit, explore and just soak in the scenery. There is hardly anything in bloom: a few occurrences of yerba santa, lupine, California fuchsia, poodle-dog bush, bush monkeyflower, mountain lilac, southern mountain woolstar, volcanic gilia, alpine sulphur-flowered buckwheat, milkweed. The trial stays mostly on the east side of the ridge but occasionally it crests with views east. I’m loving the beautiful and solitude.

9:58 - 3 mile post. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that at near 2 hours and 45 minutes to get to here is pretty slow, but I love just sauntering along and experiencing the amazing setting...varied topographic, sweeping views, majestic trees, warm sun, cool breeze, blue sky, and serenity. As I look far to the west, San Gabriel Peak and its neighbors stand silhouetted and remind me of my splendid outing last November.

After a while the trail disappears and I have to do some route finding. It’s pretty easy since it’s just a matter of following the broad ridge up. I see a bushy gray tail disappear behind a bush. I assume it’s a squirrel, but as the creature emerges I see it’s a fox. Wow, what a treat! This is only the second or third fox I’ve seen in my years of hiking in the San Gabriels. He poses long enough for a photo.

Still off trail, I come across some scat from either deer or bighorn sheep. I saw a couple deer earlier, but I also know that bighorn sheep have been spotted in this area. I continue looking for the trail when all of a sudden a herd of Nelson bighorn sheep scatter in a flurry right in front of me! As these majestic animals frantically disperse, I’m conflicted as to where to point my camera. How do I capture it? I got several shots off and some video. There were 20 to 30 bighorns, including a bunch of young ones. What a special experience!

I proceed slowly, still in awe of what I just experienced. I’m still off trail as I climb to a high spot 7600+. The ridge drops to a broad saddle and I tangent east and find the trail again. Another 100 yards brings me to the junction.

11:09 - Big Cienega Trail junction (7580’). This was to be my destination at 3.9 miles and 2,100 feet in elevation gain. But I’m still feeling good and the sign says it’s only 0.9 miles to Mt. Islip. Oh, let’s do this. I’ve never hiked to Mt. Islip from this approach, so it will be good. I continue along the broad ridge heading north.

11:18 - 4-mile post. I came down this route last July and returned via Big Cienega Trail, so the terrain is more familiar now. Thousands of dead trees testify to the destruction of the 2002 Curve Fire. But the scenery, however, is breathtaking and even the lifeless tree trunks rising into the sky add to the beauty. My pace is still relaxed as I enjoy the solitude. In fact, it’s almost lonely here. Many millions in Los Angeles, and I’m the only one on this ridge in this magnificent high county on this gorgeous day. What a gift!!

Fractured rocks, big and small, adorn the landscape. Fresh sawdust indicates recent work to remove deadfalls from the trail. The ridge narrows and Mount Islip stands majestically in front of me. A string of motorcycles looks like tiny ants on the Angeles Crest Highway. The trail gets steeper as it curves northeast, leaving the ridge and cutting across the flank of Mt. Islip.

11:57 - Trail junction coming up from Windy Gap. I turn left (west) and in a few minutes reach the ridge where the trail switches back. I decide to go straight up the ridge. It’s steep but quite doable. I had contemplated exploring this route the last time I was here.

12:06 - Mount Islip (8250’). Humans! There are 11 of them in two parties. I don’t know why, but I always feel a little emotional when I arrive on a peak, even one I’ve climbed multiply times. There is something special about being on a mountaintop. I love this peak, and perfect weather allows a stunning panorama. The peak register has disappeared. I enjoy chatting with some of the folks. It is a pleasure to meet and chat with Luis, his wife Nina, and his sister, Tricksie, all from Azusa...practically my neighbors! Solitude is great, but sharing a mountaintop experience with others is good too. Everyone leaves and I have a few moments by myself.

Leave summit at 1:20 and head down the trail for a pleasant descent, The breeze is still strong. I reach Windy Gap (7588’) at 1:54. A man and woman are just leaving, heading down Windy Gap Trial. It’s windy here, as usual, but it’s been windy all day. There has been recent activity here in carving log benches. After a few minutes I head down Windy Gap Trail south into the Crystal Lake Basin. A little warm now. Still spectacular scenery. I am appreciating the efforts of the Trailbuilders in removing the deadfalls along this trail. I counted 19 last July. Today I encounter just one.

2:57 - South Hawkins Road. This is where I encountered the bear last July. Instead of continue on the trail, I turn right (west) toward Deer Flat. My pace is fast now as I’m eager to be done. At Dear Flat I cut through campsite 1 and find Lost Ridge Trail. It’s been a few years since I’ve worked on this trail with the Trailbuilders. It’s in decent shape but doesn’t get much traffic. I pass a young couple heading up the trail. It’s amazing to me that aside from the people at Mt. Islip summit and Windy Gap, I’ve had the entire day to myself until now. In fact, today I’ve seen more bighorn sheep than people!!

3:47 - Lake Trail junction (not marked). I turn right (southwest) and eight minutes gets me to the big parking lot above the lake. The F.S. and volunteers have done a great job of restoring the area. I climb down the rock steps to the lake and look around. A few people are here. It’s hot. The water is low and a leafy, green water plant around the edges gives the lake a swamp feel and smell. Another five minutes up the road and down to the small parking lot completes the loop.

4:15 - End hike. Wow, nine hours exactly from the start! That’s a lot of time for a 10-mile hike with 2,750 feet in elevation gain. But how thoroughly enjoyable! The car thermometer says 90 degrees, which might be a little high since the car has been sitting in the hot sun.

Epilog - What a great hike! Ideal weather, blue skies, warm sunshine, blissful solitude, remarkable animal encounters, spectacular scenery, breathtaking vistas, splendid trails...for the San Gabriels, it doesn’t get much better than this! Part of me wants to announce to the world to come and enjoy this wonderful Crystal Lake Basin. But another part of me wants to protect the solitude. I’ve definitely got to return soon! icon

See slide show of a Trailbuilders workday on lower Islip Ridge Trail - July 17, 2004

See Windy Gap Trail hike description at Dan's Hiking Pages

See Mt. Islip hike description at Dan's Hiking Pages

See Big Cienenga Trail hike description at Dan's Hiking Pages


  1. Cute fox. Plus the bighorn! Both are unexpected treats.

    Only saw something similar to your bighorn herd once, from West Baldy. Can't remember if I ever linked that one for you. If not, here it is.

    Saw a single bighorn yesterday, in Joshua Tree. Won't be posting that one for a few days, though.

  2. Wow, this is excellent, I'll post the link to Facebook this evening. :) Love seeing the wildlife!

    1. Thanks, Fred! Yeah, the wildlife really was a treat.