Reminders of the 2002 fire are still evident in the Crystal Lake area. (Hikin Jim )
What a difference a road makes. Highway 39, the winding mountain road that provides the only access to Crystal Lake and other recreational areas of the Angeles National Forest from Azusa, quietly reopened this spring, breathing new life into a mountain resort that dates to the 1930s.
Now forest officials are working to fully reopen trails and campgrounds at Crystal Lake, which is open for day use. The natural lake at almost 6,000 feet was closed after the Curve Fire of 2002 destroyed about 20,000 acres as well as hiking trails and campsites in the area. Storm damage to Highway 39 four years later then closed the road, which cut off access to the lake.
Repairs on the 25-mile segment of Highway 39 from Azusa to the lake were finally completed, and the road reopened March 22, said Patrick Chandler, spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. The lake opened about a week later.
For Adam Samrah, who runs a snack bar and store at Crystal Lake, the long wait to reopen is over.
"It looked like Alaska," he said when he set eyes on the recreation area after what had been a snowy winter. His snack bar, which serves homemade hot food, is now open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and Monday holidays. He says weekends have started to pick up since word of the reopened road has spread.
Steve Yamshon, recreation officer for the the San Gabriel River District of the U.S. Forest Service, says the agency opened Crystal Lake for snow play about a week after the road opened and the place was packed. But that doesn't mean everything is back to normal.
"Because of the fire damage, we weren't able to maintain the facilities, so things really deteriorated," Yamshon says. "Now we're building a whole new campground on the same footprint."
While Crystal Lake is open for day use daily and the visitor center is open weekends, the campground remains shut for overnight stays. Yamshon says he's hoping to have some of the nearly 300 sites open in late summer. He's currently working on installing new picnic tables, fire rings and water outlets.
Coldbrook Campground, about five miles south of Crystal Lake on Highway 39, has reopened, though it lacks water facilities (you have to bring your own water). Coldbrook has just 23 spaces and is available on a first-come, first-served basis for $12 a night.
The lake is open to fishing but hasn't been stocked in years, Yamshon says. Four of nine main hiking trails in the area, some of which lead to the Pacific Crest Trail, have reopened. Still, the area has come back to life amid the scorched trees and eroded trails. Here are some great recent Crystal Lake photos posted on an outdoors website by "Hikin Jim," who also notes "evidence of the 2002 Curve Fire abounds."
According to the Forest Service's website, grizzlies and mountain lions were hunted at Crystal Lake in the 1860s. The campground was opened to the public in 1932 and "became an immediate success," the website says.
For more information, go to the forest's San Gabriel River Ranger District website or call (626) 335-1251.