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Day Hike

Mt. Islip in the San Gabriels Presents Views of L.A. Area

August 27, 1988|JOHN McKINNEY

Mt. Islip (pronounced eye-slip) is not named, as you might guess, for a clumsy mountaineer, but for Canadian George Islip, who homesteaded in San Gabriel Canyon a century ago. The mountain is not one of the tallest San Gabriel Mountain peaks, but its relatively isolated position on the spine of the range makes it stand out. The summit offers the hiker fine views of the middle portion of the Angeles National Forest high country and of the metropolis.

Mt. Islip has long been a popular destination for hikers. The mountain was particularly popular with Occidental College students, who in 1909 built a huge cairn (heap of boulders), dubbed the Occidental Monument, atop the summit. The monument, which had the name Occidental on top, stood about two decades, until the Forest Service cleared the summit to make room for a fire lookout tower.

Today, the monument and the fire lookout are long gone, but the stone foundation of the fire lookout's living quarters still remains.

One early visitor to the slopes of Mt. Islip was popular newspaper cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton, well-known in the early years of this century for "Little Jimmy." By the time he was 30-something, hard-working, hard-drinking Swinnerton was suffering from the effects of exhaustion, booze and tuberculosis. His employer and benefactor, William Randolph Hearst, sent Swinnerton to the desert to dry out. Swinnerton, however, found the summer heat oppressive, so, loading his paintbrushes onto a burro, he headed into the San Gabriel Mountains.

"I wouldn't exactly call Jimmy an outdoorsman," says Swinnerton's biographer, Santa Barbara author and art dealer Harold Davidson. "But no question about it, he loved the mountains, and the clean air really improved his lungs."

Swinnerton spent the summers of 1908 and 1909 at Camp Coldbrook on the banks of the north fork of the San Gabriel River. Often he would set up camp high on the shoulder of Mt. Islip near a place called Gooseberry Spring, which soon became known as Little Jimmy Spring. His campsite, for many years known as Swinnerton Camp, now bears the name of Little Jimmy Trail Camp.

During the two summers Swinnerton was encamped in the San Gabriels, he entertained passing hikers with sketches of his Little Jimmy character. He even carved and painted Little Jimmy on a tree, but this artwork has faded away.

You can reach Mt. Islip from the south side of the mountains, the way Jimmy Swinnerton did, or start from the north side from Angeles Crest Highway. This day hike follows the latter route, which is a bit easier than coming up from the Crystal Lake/Camp Coldbrook area.

Directions to the trailhead: From the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in La Canada, exit on Angeles Crest Highway (California 2), and follow the winding road into the mountains. Proceed to signed Islip Saddle. (At the saddle, on the north side of the highway, is a large parking area. If you want, you can start your hike to Mt. Islip at the trailhead across the road from the parking area. An old trail heads west, paralleling the highway for a mile, then veers upward to meet the trail leading to Little Jimmy Trail Camp.)

From Islip Saddle, a 1 1/2-mile drive east on Angeles Crest Highway brings you to the signed trailhead for Little Jimmy Trail Camp on the right (south) side of the road. There's parking on both sides of the highway.

The hike: Your trail, at first, is a dirt road (closed to all but Forest Service vehicles). Jeffrey and sugar pine shade the route. A half-mile ascent brings you to a three-way junction. To your right is the old crest trail coming up from Islip Saddle. The forest road you've been following continues to Little Jimmy Trail Camp.

Bear left on the signed trail to Little Jimmy. The trail stays just below and parallel to the road as it ascends a mile over forested slopes to Little Jimmy Trail Camp. The camp, popular with Scout troops, has tables, stoves and restrooms. A side trail leads a quarter mile southeast to year-round Little Jimmy Spring.

At the west end of camp, pick up the signed trail to Mt. Islip. A half-mile of switchbacks through piney woods brings you up to a sharp ridgeline. From atop the ridge, you'll enjoy great views of Crystal Lake, the San Gabriel Wilderness and the canyons cut by Bear Creek and the San Gabriel River.

The trail turns east and follows the ridge for another half-mile to the 8,250-foot peak. Views include the ski areas of Kratka Ridge and Mt. Waterman to the west and Mt. Baden-Powell to the east.

Mt. Islip Trail

Angeles Crest Highway to Little Jimmy Trail Camp: 3 miles round trip; 500-foot elevation gain.

Angeles Crest Highway to Mt. Islip: 5 miles round trip; 1,100-foot elevation gain.

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