South Fork Trail (Angeles National Forest)
- Location: Angeles National Forest back country on Highway 2. From the 210 freeway in La Canada Flintridge, take the Angeles Crest Highway (highway 2) northeast for 40 miles to Islip Saddle, just beyond the two short tunnels. Park in the lot on the left (north) side of the highway. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Angeles National Forest, Santa Clara and Mojave Rivers Ranger District
- Distance: 10.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
- Suggested time: 5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG-13 (Elevation gain, distance, steepness)
- Best season: Year round, but hot during the summer and possible snow during the winter (check conditions before going)
- USGS topo maps: Crystal Lake, Valyermo
- Recommended gear: hiking poles; sun hat; sun block
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield: Los Angeles County
- More information: Meetup description here; Everytrail report here
- Rating: 8
The South Fork Trail is the shortest and arguably the most scenic route between the Angeles Crest Highway and the high desert on the north slope of the San Gabriels, linking Islip Saddle with the South Fork Campground near Valyermo and Pearblossom. The hike can be done in either direction, or with a rather lengthy drive between the ends, as a point-to-point uphill or downhill. There are a few advantages of doing it as a “reverse” (down then up) hike as described here. The upper end, Islip Saddle, is closer to most of the L.A. area; going downhill first allows hikers sensitive to altitude to more easily acclimate and while the grade is consistently moderate, there are a few tricky spots where the trail is covered by rock slides; while these areas don’t require any special technical skill they’re easier to negotiate in the downhill direction on fresher legs. Almost the entire route hugs the west side of the canyon, so during a late-afternoon/early evening ascent, your sun exposure will be minimal.
As you drop farther along, you’ll start to notice more of the high desert vegetation: pinyon pines, mountain mahogany and manzanita. The trail descends a few steep switchbacks, finally meeting Big Rock Creek (4.9 miles.) This can be a good turnaround point, but if you want to hike the entire trail or have set up a shuttle at the South Fork Campground, cross the creek (water levels may be high in the spring) and follow the trail another half mile to the High Desert Recreational Trail, which continues toward the Devil’s Punchbowl. You can turn right on the dirt road and head a short distance to a picnic area, where you can sit and charge your batteries for the long ascent back to Islip Saddle.