Friday, April 29, 2011

Hike 2011.031 -- Mt. Islip

Hiked Thursday, April 28.

In late March, I heard that CA-39 was now open all the way to Crystal Lake. It has probably been 20 years since I've been up that way, so I figured this was the time to take a hike out of Crystal Lake.

From the 210 Freeway, take Azusa Ave (CA-39) north. You make your way past the new Target in Azsua, and a largely moribund downtown Azusa. The Wells Fargo building is pretty cool, though.

(Picture: Just one of many views later on my trail, with either CA39 or CA2 visible along the way). Shortly after you leave the city, there's the San Gabriel Canyon Gateway Center, on your right. Large, striped area for trailers to pull up on the front, and a hardened but non-paved parking lot for cars in back. Small native plant display in the back, and small book store inside. If you haven't already bought your adventure pass and it's not a Tuesday or Wednesday, there's a fair chance the center will be open and you can buy it here. The snack bar up near Crystal Lake also sells day passes, though if it turns out they're closed when you get there, you're sort of out of luck.

Heading north on CA-39, I noted both San Gabriel and Morris reservoirs were practically filled to the brim. The water is now nice and blue, not muddy and brown like the last time I overlooked this area.

Far past the reservoirs, past the East Fork junction, past the OHV staging area, past the West Fork trail access, past the Upper Bear Creek trail access, past Coldbrook campground, the turn for Crystal Lake is around mile marker 38 (which is NOT 38 miles up from the 210 Freeway--I'm not sure where the zero mile point on this highway is, but it's at about mile marker 13 that it starts going into the forest). CA-39 is currently gated less than 1/3 mile past the Crystal Lake turnout, so if you miss the turn, at least you won't have to backtrack very far!


After the right at N. Crystal Lake Road, proceed carefully just over 1.1 miles. Just before mile marker 1.14, there's a small clearing on the right side of the road and (at least on the day I went) a gated road on the left. This is Forest Service Road 9N03. It's one-way, and paved.

I parked in the clearing, crossed the street, and walked up 9N03. About 1/10th of a mile up this paved road, there's a paved parking lot and vault toilet on your left. The paved road continues to the right here, while a dirt road with a hand-lettered sign points straight ahead to LAKE. If the road's not gated, you could just drive up here.

It wasn't until my return trip that I confirmed that the (Wawona/Islip) trail to Mt. Islip heads out of the south end of this lot. There is no sign near the parking lot, and the trail is far from obvious. However, if you walk south off the pavement and into the woods about fifty yards, there's a big sign announcing that this trail is maintained by the San Gabriel Mountain Trailbuilders. Some idiot wrote some graffiti on the sign. Idiot. Made me think, "Fool. If you want to have your name all over the place, why don't you actually do something useful, like the trailbuilders?"

But that's getting ahead of the story. On my way in, I walked down to the lake. I could see on my map that the trail appeared to come very close to the south end of the lake, so I figured I'd walk to and around the lake before looping over to the trail.

My expectations for Crystal Lake were low. My recollection was that Crystal Lake was sort of a mudhole. However, with the heavy snow and rain this year, and it still being early spring, Crystal Lake actually looks like a place deserving of the name. I'm sure the water will drop and the algae will bloom later in the summer, but, for now, the lakes seems relatively deep, and the water is clearish, a bluish-green, not too unlike the glacial lakes I saw up in Great Basin National Park.

I walked around the lake and enjoyed the view. Not necessarily a smart idea, as the south-eastern end is really not very easy to walk around. However, since I was, at the time, under the impression that the trail would start right adjacent to the lake, that's where I headed.

I eventually made my way up and beyond the south end of the lake, and intersected the actual trail to Mt. Islip. It's a very well-engineered trail, although falling trees and limbs from the Curve Fire occasionally force you off the trial. Despite the fallen timber and undoubtedly light usage this trail has seen over the past eight or nine years, the path is usually easy to follow. That's part of why I think this trail is so well-engineered: the path is generally level, rocks have been used to reinforce the downhill side on several spots (more aggressive retaining structures of steel and lumber were built in other spots), and the rocks are often lined up to delineate the route. When I lost the path (after being forced off by fallen timber), I could usually reacquire the path without too much difficulty.

Many of the fallen logs have florescent orange numbers painted on them. The numbers count down, so apparently the count began on the other side of the loop. The first one I ran into was about 40 or so, and the last I noticed was about 26, I think.

There are also thick wooden stakes at one mile intervals. The first one is pretty invisible on the way up, however. It's behind a large bush, so you can't see it unless you happen to look right at just the right moment. I managed to miss number 2 on the way up, too. But 3 and 4 were easy.

The area between miles 3 and 4 (after tree #29, if you're looking for those numbers) is the trickiest part of the hike. Here, you are running near the ridge in parts, while in others, the trail is mostly level. Fallen trees cross the trail in some places. Particularly where they fall near a switchback, it then becomes possible to walk around a fallen tree and miss the switchback entirely.

Along much of the way, this trail runs near the ridge line separating the tributaries of the North Fork of the San Gabriel River (to the east) from the Bear Creek drainage (to the west). This path is well north of the "Upper Bear Creek" trail, but some familiar sights were still visible. I could see Twin Peaks early. Near the start of the, trail, they were almost due west and above me. By the end, they were well below me, and to the southwest.

As I continued to gain altitude, the views to the west became more and more impressive.

At the 3.9 mile point (from the actual trailhead at the parking lot that I couldn't drive to today), a sign indicates a junction. Down and to the right is the lower portion of the Big Cienega Trail. That one descends to a dirt road, north of the Crystal Lake complex. By contrast, the left winds up to a ridge and continues towards Mt. Islip.

At about 9/10ths of a mile after the junction, the final spur to the summit breaks off up and sharply to the left. Alternatively, bypassing the spur would take you to Little Jimmy Campground and Windy Gap. From Windy Gap, you could theoretically continue on down to the same dirt road that the Big Cienega Trail leads to. Or, if feeling ambitious you could climb past Windy Gap to the east, up the PCT, and hit a number of peaks that-a-way.

Obviously, I took the spur. On this final push to the summit, I ran across a tiny amount of snow. I had to walk over snow the last 20 yards or so up.

There's the remains of a snow hut at the top. Of course, now, there's not roof, so it literally was a snow hut, with the interior filled with snow. With the empty door frame open to the east, it nicely framed Mt. Baldy. That's the picture at the top of this post.

Far to the east, between Hawkins and South Hawkins, Mt. San Antonio (Baldy) peeked over a crest, still covered in snow. Hawkins, South Hawkins, and Throop were closer by. Their north sides still had snow on their upper reaches, as well.

Far to the southwest, I could see the antenna of Mt. Wilson. To the south, Crystal Lake was also visible, reflecting the coniferous trees that line its shore. Closer by, below Windy Gap, I saw a whole lot of dead but standing timber.

It was a pretty hazy day, so I couldn't see the ocean. I could see the Santa Ana Mountains, off to the southeast. But I could not see San Jacinto, even though I'm pretty sure the geometry should have allowed me.


Returned the way I came. I gave some thought to returning via Windy Gap, but because I wasn't sure about that trails conditions that way. Figured it was safer to just retrace the path I took to get here.

Near the end, I looked across at a rock formation, where I thought a tiny bird was perched. I took some pictures. As I got closer, I realized he was actually a small rodent. Seems brave (or stupid) of him to be sitting right out in the open like that. If you blow up this picture, he's on the second point from the left. Another rodent is below the bright section of rock, just above and to the right of the center of the picture.

The map and signs say it's 4.9 miles from the trailhead to Mt. Islip. Given my walk around Crystal Lake at the start of the day, and the additional .1 mile each way to get from the trailhead to N. Crystal Lake Road, I'm figuring about 10.2 miles for the day.

Either before or after your hike, if you want to visit the snack bar, you would continue along N. Crystal Lake Road north, past where I parked, for about another mile. I actually went there before my hike. The snack bar has a limited menu that I get the feeling the proprietor would expand upon if he had the business to support it. Once the campground actually opens (and more people figure out the road to Crystal Lake is open), he might get that chance.

Currently, I'm pretty sure his main clientele consists of USFS employees, trail building volunteers, and Caltrans workers.

After I got home, showered, changed, and ate dinner, I became aware of an annoying pain on my waist, just above my left hip. Yep, another tick. That's three this year, which is three more than in my entire previous life. And although brush does encroach on this trail and you need to repeatedly climb over down logs, it wasn't like the past few tick encounters where I knew I was walking through tick habitat (deer bedding grounds) and needed to be extra observant. I grabbed my tick spoon and called my wife to remove the sucker. Grrrr.

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