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Hiking the Highway 39 corridor of the San Gabriel Mountains

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State route 39 has a long and somewhat infamous history among California highways. Conceived originally as a north-south connection from the San Gabriel Valley to the Angeles Crest Highway, the route has been plagued by construction problems, fires and other setbacks. The upper end has been inaccessible since 1978; the Curve Fire of 2002 closed the section below the top for close to a decade. Nevertheless, Highway 39 provides access to some of the best recreational opportunities in the San Gabriel Mountains. Crystal Lake--though modest in size--is a draw for camping and fishing; the West Fork National Recreational Trail serves as a gateway to the rugged San Gabriel Wilderness.

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Day hikers will also find plenty to keep themselves busy along this corridor. On hot summer days, Highway 39 serves as a quick escape into the higher elevation of the mountains. From short trips good for kids to longer, all-day expeditions, the San Gabriel Canyon is a great hiking resource. Here are five of the best trips in the area.

BEGINNER:

Fifty-foot Lewis Falls puts on an impressive display following recent rains. Though some rock scrambling is required to reach the waterfall, with adult supervision, kids should be fine. The distance is less than a mile round trip.

The Crystal Lake Recreation Area features many short trails. Several of them can be put together to create an enjoyable loop hike. Scenic highlights include a good aerial view of Highway 39 and the canyon below and the higher peaks above.

INTERMEDIATE:

Its lower elevation may make it a little bit hot to do during the summer, but Smith Mountain is well worth a visit on cooler days. After a fairly easy ascent on a fire road, a steep climb to the summit yields stunning views of the area.

At 8,250 feet, Mt. Islip is a popular day hiking destination from Crystal Lake. It can be approached as a loop hike using the Big Cienega and Windy Gap Trails, as described here. Highlights include excellent views to both the south and north.

EXPERT:

The 13-plus mile Mt. Hawkins Loop--visiting both South Mt. Hawkins and Mt. Hawkins - is one of the most challenging hikes in the area, but the rewards are considerable. Each summit offers its own scenic rewards: from South Hawkins, you get an excellent aerial view of the San Gabriel Canyon; from Mt. Hawkins, you can see the high desert and on clear days as far as the Santa Monica Mountains. Be sure to swing by the Crystal Lake Cafe for a tasty bite and perhaps a beverage or two to reward yourself for your efforts.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Though they're off the East Fork Road and not Highway 39, three other hikes in the area are worth mentioning. The Bridge to Nowhere, a mecca for L.A. hikers (and bungee jumpers) can be reached with a nearly 10-mile round trip hike. In a similar spirit, the abandoned Road to Nowhere is another fun trip for those with an interest in obscure history. Another hike in the area worth visiting is Cattle Canyon, a 6-mile round trip with many stream crossings, through one of the more isolated canyons in the San Gabriel Mountains.

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