Crystal Lake Loop (including Pinyon Ridge, Soldier Creek, Cedar Canyon and Half Knob Trails)
The popular Crystal Lake Recreation Area in the Angeles National Forest has recently re-opened, following years of closure due to the damage from the 2002 Curve Fire. Hikers know it best as the starting point for ambitious trips to Mt. Islip and Mt. Hawkins, but there are several short nature trails around the campground that can be pieced together for a very scenic hike. The route described here uses four, plus a little bit of the paved service road, to create an enjoyable trip. The campground is open only for day use during the winter, and you’re likely to have more solitude in these months. Snow can present a little bit of an obstacle, so extra care should be taken, but it’s unlikely to be too big a problem.
From the day use lot near the store, continue on the paved road toward the Yerba Santa ampitheater. Follow the signs for the Pinyon Ridge and Soldier Creek trails (to the left of the restrooms.) The Pinyon Ridge trail branches off, crosses a bridge, and comes to a split. You can hike the mile-long loop in either direction. Scenic highlights include dramatic views both above to Mt. Hawkins and below into the canyon, where you can get a nice view of Highway 39 from a bench perched on the side of the hill. Besides the pinyon pines that give the trail its name, there are some nice stands of oaks in this area.
After returning to the Soldier Creek trail, you begin a descent through the forest before coming out into the open. Shortly before the trail reaches Soldier Creek, the Cedar Canyon trail branches off to the right. Before making that ascent, you can continue a short distance to Soldier Creek and listen to its pleasant trickle.
The Cedar Creek trail climbs steeply (and remember, you’re over a mile above sea level, so those sensitive to altitude will be huffing and puffing). It gains about 400 feet in half a mile before arriving at the service road. Head right and begin completing the loop. You have an option of extending your hike on the Lake Trail, which goes to Crystal Lake itself. Crystal Lake, the only naturally occurring lake in the San Gabriel Mountains, can be a little disappointing if water levels are low, but the stroll to it (not included in the distance, time and elevation gain figures listed for this route) is pleasant enough.
Another nice addition is the Half Knob trail. It’s easy to miss (the sign is just a handwritten note on a stick, just before you reach a yellow pedestrian crossing sign). It climbs through a grove of oaks and pines, rejoining the road in half a mile. Follow the road back to the trading post and the parking area.