Hiking the San Gabriel Mountains
Mount Islip is a great option for hiking the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. Lesser known than some of its cousin mountains, you can generally avoid the large crowds and enjoy a beautiful hike!
Normally, I like to plan things way in advance. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out when people don’t want to or can’t commit early on to plans. So here we were, two weeks before Labor Day Weekend 2014, trying to figure out where to go last minute for the big weekend.
We had thought about Mount Baldy, but there was a big event going on that weekend so we figured it would be impossible to get a campsite at Manker Flats. I put my planning hat on and got to making calls.
All reservable sites, pretty much throughout southern California, were booked, and finding a first-come-first-served site is always risky. I finally ended up talking with a very nice gentleman who told me about the Crystal Lake campground in the San Gabriel Mountains that would probably suit us well. The sites were first-come, but it wasn’t as popular a spot as Mount Baldy, so we were hopeful.
For our San Gabriel Mountains hiking needs, there was a peak nearby – Mount Islip – which summited at 8,250 feet. It was about 2k feet shorter than Mount Baldy, but it was a nice substitute if we would be able to find an available campground.
San Gabriel Mountains Camping: Crystal Lake Campground
There are no reservations available for Crystal Lake Campground. The campground is open for first-come, first-served basis throughout the season. The campsite is quite large – I believe there are just over 100 sites – but on holiday weekends in the San Gabriel mountains, it will fill up. I can’t speak for non-holiday weekends, but it’s always good to be prepared with alternatives.
Luckily for us, a few of my friends get off early on Fridays so they were able to head up to Crystal Lake Campground around noon to get two campsites for our group of about 10. I got off work later, waited for traffic to die down, and made it up to the San Gabriel mountains from San Diego around 9pm. It’s a fairly quick drive up the 15, and ends heading up a curvy road (duh, it’s the mountains). I personally like driving mountain roads at night for two reasons:
1) It’s easier to see headlights if there is someone coming the other direction
2) There is usually less traffic at night, so less chance of someone coming the other direction
We set up camp, sat around the fire, and opened up a nice cold beer to relax for the rest of the night. The sites were nice, and luckily we were backed up towards the trail on the outside of the loop. Some of the other loops can get cramped, but at least you’re in the wilderness!
Exploring Crystal Lake
We didn’t have much of a plan for the next day in the San Gabriel mountains. We knew that at some point some of us wanted to hike Mount Islip, but we were content being lazy for the first half of the day. It was still pretty stinking hot so we figured we would wait until the early afternoon when the sun wasn’t as high in the sky (none of us were ambitious enough to get up early and hike before the heat).
We decided to go check out Crystal Lake which was a short 5 minute drive through town. From the parking lot, you take a short walk downhill to the lake, and sadly on the way down, we got a very good view of how bad the drought was at the time. It didn’t seem to bother my dog – as soon as we got to the “lake” (it was more of a very big puddle) he ran right in and got himself all sorts of wet and dirty! But, we’re camping, so that’s to be expected.
There wasn’t much for us to do by the lake since the water level was so low, so after a rather disappointing “hike” and a very dirty dog, we headed back to the campground to relax for a bit. We set up our hammocks, pulled out our books, climbed some trees, and simply enjoyed nature.
This area of the San Gabriel mountains, in general, was a lot more crowded than I had expected for an area I had never heard anything about. I think much of that had to do with the fact that there were a few loops of the campground that were closed, so we were all huddled pretty closely together.
Hiking the San Gabriel Mountains: Mount Islip
Finally, around 2ish, we decided to get our butts in gear and get to hiking the San Gabriel mountains. We packed up our water and snacks and set off to the Mount Islip trailhead.
The hiking trail heads uphill pretty much the whole way. The loop we did is about 8 miles and you gain just under 2500 feet of elevation. About 2 miles up the trail you come to a fork – both will take you to the summit, but we chose to go left up the Big Cienega Trail and came down the Windy Gap Trail. The trail starts just under 6000 feet, so by 8000 feet, we started to feel the elevation change.
The views while hiking the San Gabriel Mountains, of course, were incredible, but there wasn’t a ton of cover from the sun so it was pretty warm. Luckily, we were hiking as the sun was starting to go down so we were in the shade for some of it as the sun was hidden behind the mountain.
By the time we got to the top, the sun wasn’t nearly as strong and we were able to hang out and relax for a bit…and refuel. Guinness found shelter in any shade he could find, and we all made sure to hydrate.
Since Guinness had torn his poor paws up so badly on our first Mount Baldy hike, I bought him little booties that I hoped would help. Heading down the Windy Gap Trail, the path is very narrow and scree-like in terms of how loose the gravel is. With the booties on, Guinness kept slipping and slipping and I was pretty convinced he was going to go over the side of the mountain…which would have meant me going over the side after him. You jump, I jump, Guinness. I ended up taking his booties off and he was able to walk MUCH better.
On this side of the mountain, you cross some small make-shift bridges and with some pebble-slide areas so it’s important to watch your step!
Unfortunately, we did not plan well with our timing and ended up coming down as it started to get dark…and without our headlamps. Only one person in our group had one (we had split into groups), but we made it back just as it got real dark. Terrible planning, I know! We didn’t know if the other groups had headlamps and were very happy to see a light finally coming towards camp as we started cooking dinner.
We finished up the night with an incredible dinner of tacos and my Italian style guacamole (basically, garlic with a side of guacamole). It had been a rather unexpectedly difficult hike and we were all ready for a beer. One friend ended up with a sprained ankle, another feeling a little nauseous from the altitude, but mostly we were all in one piece. I had bought a new 1 person Eureka! tent from Amazon and unfortunately one of the poles broke during the day, so I ended up having to share a tent with someone else. Luckily, Eureka! had me send the tent back and they fixed it for free!
For a big holiday weekend, I think we got lucky with our campsite seeing how busy the rest of the Crystal Lake Campground was, but I think this would be an awesome spot to camp at and explore in the off-season months.
Most of all, San Gabriel mountains, thank you for being dog-friendly! My dog loves hiking, but so many parks have restrictions that don’t allow them on the trails. It’s great to have such an awesome area that I can share with my pup! That being said, please be responsible and pick up after your dog – and yourself!
Tips for Hiking the San Gabriel Mountains
Over the years, I have seen the crowds grow substantially throughout southern California and hiking the San Gabriel mountains. I think it’s great that more people are getting out and enjoying the outdoors, and I also think it’s important that we all do it responsibly. Here are some tips for hiking the San Gabriel Mountains!
- Water, water, water
Seriously. This area and most of the San Gabriel mountains gets hot. You should generally plan to hike with at least 3-4 liters of water, and if you’re hiking with a dog, obviously bring extra!
- Plan for night-time
If you’re going to hike like us where you wait for the sun to go down a bit, don’t be like us – bring headlamps! We made the mistake of not bringing ours and could have ended up in a lot of trouble being stuck in the dark.
- Hike your own hike
This really applies to all hikes – hike at your own pace. Don’t worry if other people are hiking faster than you. You need to hike smart. If you’re tired, rest – but try not to take long breaks because that can often make you more tired. But, take it slow if you want, stop for 30 second breaks when you need them, and don’t forget to enjoy the view around you!
- Maybe don’t take your dog….
This is a huge one for me. When I hike Mount Baldy in August one year, it was really, really hot. I can’t tell you how many dogs I saw that shouldn’t have been up there. My dog is a well-conditioned dog for hiking and has done Mount Baldy multiple times in the non-hot seasons, and I made the decision to leave him home for that one. Not only is it really hot, but it’s super dry, and there is no cover from trees at the top. Had the sun not been behind the mountain for our Mount Islip hike, I wouldn’t have gone for his consideration.
Don’t make your dog suffer – just let them stay at home and sleep. If you hike the San Gabriel mountains outside of the summer season, you should be okay – I’ve taken him in February and October and both times were comfortable, but please leave them home in the hot summer.
- Pick up trash
Hiking the San Gabriel mountains is beautiful, and I’m sure we’d all like to keep it that way. Please don’t expect someone else to clean up after you. I pick up so much trash on my hikes – wrappers, bottles, napkins, etc. If you drop something, pick it up. If you see someone else’s trash, do your part – please. Let’s keep this mountain beautiful!
“Never measure the height of the mountain until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was.” – Dag Hammarskjold