Crystal-Clear Views From Mt. Islip

Just below the crest of the Angeles Crest is a well-watered, cedar- and pine-forested basin. This basin has no outlet, and thus gathers rainwater and snowmelt from the San Gabriel Mountains above. A happy result of this geographical happenstance is Crystal Lake, the only natural lake in the San Gabriel Mountains.

During the 19th Century, the lake was known as Sycamore Lake. That is, until a Pasadena judge, Benjamin Eaton, visited in 1887 and proclaimed: "The water is clear as a crystal and the party found it good to drink." Crystal Lake it has remained ever since.

Crystal Lake came under the protection of the U.S. Forest Service, first as part of the old San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, later the Angeles National Forest. During the early years of this century, it was a popular beat-the-heat getaway for residents of the San Gabriel Valley. It was also a favorite summer vacation spot for Occidental College students, who built cabins near the lake.

During the 1930s, Los Angeles County took over Crystal Lake and operated it as a county park, complete with swimming, camping and recreation facilities. World War II, with its gas rationing and driving restrictions, drastically reduced visitation, compelling the county to hand the lake back to the Forest Service.

Besides offering the hiker a view of the lake, Windy Gap Trail puts the hiker within reach of two peaks--Mt. Islip and Mt. Hawkins, as well as restful Little Jimmy Trail Camp. Thanks to a great deal of volunteer effort by organizations such as the San Gabriel Mountain Trail Builders, the trail system leading through the high country above Crystal Lake is top-notch.

Drop in at the Crystal Lake Visitors Center (open weekends) to pick up maps, pamphlets and the latest trail information. If you're not in the mood for climbing Mt. Islip, a number of easy nature trails around Crystal Lake might tempt you. Leaflets keyed to these nature trails are available from the Visitors Center.

Directions to trail head: From the Foothill Freeway (210) in Azusa, take the California 39/Azusa Avenue exit. Drive north on California 39 for 24 miles to the turnoff for the Crystal Lake Recreation Area. After a mile, you'll reach the Forest Service entry station.

Continue another mile to the Crystal Lake Visitors Center (open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), then half a mile to a large dirt parking lot on your right and signed Windy Gap Trail on your left.

The hike: The footpath skirts a campground and climbs through a mixed forest of oak, pine and cedar. You'll cross paved Deer Flats Road, then the dirt South Mt. Hawkins Fire Road. Just after crossing the latter road, the trail forks. Big Cienega Trail, completed last year, swings west, connects with Islip Ridge Trail and heads for Mt. Islip.

Continue on Windy Gap Trail, which ascends east and then north, up the steep rock rim above Crystal Lake. At Windy Gap is a signed, four-way trail junction. Heading east is the Pacific Crest Trail, inviting hardy hikers to travel hundreds of miles north to Canada or south to Mexico. A more modest goal for the day hiker might be Mt. Hawkins.

Alternatively, the day hiker could walk the Pacific Crest Trail to South Mt. Hawkins Ridge Trail, joining the latter path and returning on it to the trail head. Total hiking distance: 11 1/2 miles. It's a superb hike if you're in pretty good condition.

Straight ahead, at the other side of Windy Gap, is Little Jimmy Trail Camp, a pleasant rest stop/picnic spot. After relaxing at the camp, you can loop back to Islip Ridge Trail on yet another trail.

This hike heads west on Islip Ridge Trail, which travels an east ridge, then turns north to scale the summit.

From atop 8,250-foot Mt. Islip are fine views of the middle portion of Angeles National Forest and the metropolis.

You can return the same way or loop back via Islip Ridge Trail.

Where: Crystal Lake Recreation Area, Angeles National Forest. Distance: 8 miles round trip, with 2,200-foot elevation gain. Highlights: A classic climb into the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains high country; great views of Angeles National Forest high country and Crystal Lake. Terrain: Forested slopes, rocky ridges. Degree of difficulty: Moderate to strenuous. Precautions: Pace yourself at 8,000-foot altitude. For more information: Call the Crystal Lake Visitors Center at (818) 335-1251 (weekdays) or (818) 910-1149 (weekends).

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