Postcards From L.A.: In the glow of a mountain campsite that’s closer than you’d believe

SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS, CALIF. - JUNE 7, 2019. Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine roasts marsh
We brought all the food doctors say will kill you, including s’mores. But that’s camping, accompanied here by the snap-crackle of the campfire. Ten paces to the left is a soothing creek.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Los Angeles, try to find us. Dare you.

We’re camping 90 minutes from downtown and we didn’t drop breadcrumbs along the way. When I post a photo online and ask friends to guess our whereabouts, no one has a clue.

Hint: The journey up here was remarkably watery, one of our most scenic weekend drives, surpassing even Malibu and its ocean.

To our right: a chain of lakes that brings to mind the upper Midwest, or perhaps a lush stretch of northern Arkansas. Certainly far different from the sandpaper wilderness you witness on the more renowned Angeles Crest Highway.


Not only is this an alluring drive, it’s also whine country. As in: “Why can’t I kayak those Tahoe-like coves? Please?”

Sorry. Access is restricted to protect the water in the reservoirs.

No worries, because I’m taking you past this scenic tease to a camping site high as the sky. Follow me, young deer, up-up-up twisty Highway 39 out of Azusa to the most splendid local mountain retreats you probably never heard of: Crystal Lake Campground and its beautiful baby sister, Coldbrook.

SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS, CALIF. - JUNE 7, 2019. The moon glows above the Morris Dam Reservoir and San
Even if you’re not camping, Highway 39 is worth a drive, with reservoirs and dams much of the way.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)


Breathe deep the cedar. Expel your stale urban soot. Camping is immersive — like surfing, like making your own bread. The grit gets in your hair, your cuticles. It’s not for everybody, though it probably should be.

Just don’t jabber about this mountain hideaway to anybody else, for we don’t need a stampede. As it is now, you can snag a first-come campsite if you arrive by noon on a summer Friday, unless it’s a holiday. In those cases, the wheels come off and dystopian frenzy ensues. You know the drill (think Venice on a Saturday night).

If you’re into camping, you also know how difficult it can be to come up with a last-minute spot. Most SoCal beach sites require reservations and often fill up six months in advance.

“If you’re not on it Jan. 2, you’re out of luck,” says fellow camper Julee Chui, a first-timer from the South Bay.

Indeed, I tried for three days to find a beach campsite that might have opened due to a cancellation. No go. So I turned to the first-come campsites that sprinkle the Angeles National Forest and discovered this secret garden.

Forty minutes off the 210 freeway, we pulled into Coldbrook Campground, where 22 sites surround two thrashing creeks, both fed by natural springs, so that they chatter all summer.

At noon on Friday, about half the sites were still available, and my son and I snagged No. 18, a shady spot at the edge of the creek.

There was much to love. The superbloom that graced Los Angeles earlier this spring was still in play. Most striking were the yuccas, which flash in the sun like trumpets.


The yucca is a marvelous plant that once provided soap and quill tools to Native Americans. Up and down the 39, we saw visitors stopping for photos, as if posing with golden-maned celebs.

“Not enough people take advantage of this, they don’t know about it,” says Lou Chui, Julee’s husband.

SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS, CALIF. - JUNE 7, 2019. Mountain water feeds into the north fork of the San Ga
One of the spring-fed creeks that refresh Coldbrook Campground.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The South Bay couple are walking with us around Crystal Lake, the only natural lake in these San Gabriel Mountains, with a nearby campground that is — we all agree — less desirable than Coldbrook, but with more amenities and campsites.

That campground, Crystal Lake, also offers simple cabins starting at $65. Plus, a country store where you can pick up ice, firewood, hiking tips, a deck of cards and anything else you forgot.

Up from Glendale, A.J. Zakarian and Mike Sarkisian are part of a dads’ retreat at Coldbrook, and they urge me not to mention the pristine hideaway to anyone, for fear of total saturation.

“We brought the kids up recently, and they had a blast playing in the creeks,” Zakarian says. “There’s a great family hiking trail too.”

Big plus: “No service” on your phone. People actually converse, a quaint social ritual that all but disappeared around 2012.


Looking to make some memories? Check out Windy Gap Trail, which climbs and climbs till it hooks into the magnificent Pacific Crest that zippers across the tops of California, Oregon and Washington.

To step onto the Pacific Crest Trail, even for a few miles, is to follow in the footsteps of the hiking gods.

Let’s just say that Windy Gap is not for weenies, with some rocky footing, sheer-and-skinny segments and — toward the top — a blistering sun that slings darts at your tender forehead.

Don’t forget the water and sunscreen. Gobs of it.

Back at the campsite, my son and I kick off our boots and prepare for dinner. All the stuff that doctors say will kill you, that’s what we’ve brought, plus some grapes that no one eats.

The sunlight has settled sideways into the wrinkles of the canyon. Long, inky shadows follow, like foot soldiers slipping through the trees.

Somehow, staff photographer Luis Sinco finds us in the near-darkness. We wait first for the campfire to catch, then for the perfect camera light on this gloriously long June day. Then, finally, stars.

In the background, the snap-crackle of our campfire — an American classic, like Nat King Cole at Christmas.

Camping can be such a sabbatical, a rejuvenation, a dodge. Like summer, it replenishes us. Camping seems the only thing the internet has not nearly ruined.

It is one of only four things I’ve taught my kids: camping, skiing, Miles Davis and Dan Jenkins. Only camping and skiing took.

My late son especially loved backcountry camping, and I loved him, so I endured six-hour pack trips into the Sierra, just so I could see his best smile.

Now, his little brother is starting to feel it too. He searches the starry sky.

“Look, there’s the Dipper!”

He searches the sky again.

“Look, Michael Jordan!” he says.

OK, Copernicus. Just finish your s’more.


Coldbrook and Crystal Lake are first-come campgrounds off Highway 39, above Azusa. Coldbrook is smaller, with 22 sites. Crystal Lake, eight miles farther up, offers up to 50 sites and walking access to Crystal Lake itself, where there is fishing but no swimming. Sites are $12 per night (cash or check) and generally offer fire rings, grills, tables and vault toilets. A campfire permit is required. Info: (626) 910-1149 or (626) 574-1613.