YOU CAN TAKE THE HIGHWAY
On June 1, 2016, I finally decided to hike that idle stretch of highway that connects Azusa to Wrightwood. It’s been officially closed since 1978 due to mud and rockslides, but more so in the fact that it cost too much to upkeep and repair damages done in by the ever falling scree and talus that is the San Gabriel Mountains. The three agencies involved, Caltrans, U.S. Forest Services and L.A County have been going back and forth with this for thirty-eight years and have come to a stalemate. Interesting enough, I found that State Route 39 has been divided into two sections, with the southern terminus starting at the intersection of PCH and Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach. Section 2 picks up in the city of West Covina on Azusa Avenue, where you can visibly see SR-39 posted along the route towards the mountains. Along that stretch of highway, it is approximately thirty-three miles to the northern terminus that intersects State Route 2, (Angeles Crest Hwy) where it ends at Islip Saddle.
A ROAD IS A TRAIL, WHEN THAT ROAD IS LESS TRAVLED
At first glance, my map had it at 4.5 mi to Islip Saddle, but it wasn’t until hours later that I found I didn’t account for the 1.5 mi between the two gates at the start of the hike. The first gate, which is located just NW of the trailhead, is not depicted on the map, so I mistook the gate referenced clearly as my starting point. The map stands correct, as the 4.5 mi starts from the second locked gate, in which I found wide open. Overall, it added up to a somewhat leisurely 12 mile out and back with an elevation gain of 2,733 feet.
My interest in this venture was twofold, in that I always wanted to see the condition of the highway, and it would afford me the chance to set foot on this forgotten stretch of asphalt for the first time. Roads that travel through mountains are realized by traversing at their base, mid-section or near the top, as is the case here. Tunnels are bored only to engineering advantages.
You couldn’t have asked for a better day, as visibility was at an all time high. The perspective from this vantage point was magnificent to say the least. I could make out the ridgelines and canyons that I’ve been too and see the possibilities of potential trips in the making.
ROCK AND ROLL
As I ventured further north I could see the exposed rocky slopes that use this stretch of highway for boulders, talus and scree to bottom out. Then there was the asphalt damaged by earthquakes that ran up for miles, with their tar filled cracks that resembled the erratic work of a black widow spider’s web. Unfortunately, California sits on the Pacific and North American plates, which are in constant motion, and when their sides slip against one another, the earth shakes. Furthermore, the San Andreas Fault is the boundary line between the two plates that run roughly north to south along the length of California, and that fault line passes through the high desert north of Los Angeles, defining the north face of the San Gabriel Mountains. In hindsight, the combination of earthquakes and the high desert exposure doesn’t bode well for the San Gabriel Mountains. This section of hwy is just a vain attempt to traverse an already deteriorating mountain due to the elements involved.
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR AWAY
With every step you take, you’re that much closer to your destination, was all the motivation I needed. If it wasn’t for the sweeping views, I’d just as soon be urban walking. Well, it’s all about the miles for me anyway. Just by observation, you could see the work to be done and the problems they present. Interesting enough are the projects Caltrans started, but never finished. As stated earlier, the agencies involved are not getting funded, as it seems like a never ending project just to upkeep the six miles of hwy to Islip Saddle.
SPRING IN THE MOUNTAINS
A great find on any trail is a mountain spring. Not surprising as Mount Islip, which happens to be the mountain I’m traversing, looms 8,250′ over this stretch of hwy and has serveral springs to its credit. By my guesstimation, you will find this particular spring about 1.5 mi south of Islip saddle on hwy 39, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Like fire, water is a great morale booster. Remember, water that travels through a mountain, in the form of a seep, is naturally filtered and safe to drink. The idea here is to harvest the seep as it drips.
When the water hits the ground and becomes a moving trickle, you can collect it by soaking a bandana and squeezing it into a bottle for treatment later. In dire straights? Use your bandana, shirt, etc… as an emergency filter over the mouth of your bottle or canteen. This will aid at filtering out debris as you drink. I’ve done it enough times in the mountains to testify that it is safe, and with every experiment, it has become a practice with me to this day. However, whenever possible, treat your collected water first. Boiling is best, but in a survival situation, hydrate. Your vital organs will not discriminate, as it could take days if you were to get sick, upon which time you would’ve been rescued… alive.
THE FINAL STRETCH
A steady incline to any final destination is always arduous, especially after six miles of hiking.
At long last, it was good to see that familiar gate, but from a different perspective.
As I made my way across hwy 2, I noticed a lone backpacker coming down the PCT from Islip heading for the saddle. Turns out to be a thru-hiker on his way to Canada. Peak season for the PCT, (Pacific Crest Trail) starts in April and takes six months to complete. It boast 2,600 miles of trail that takes you through three states, California, Oregon and Washington, where it ends at the Northern Terminus in Manning, Canada.
The lone backpacker introduced himself as Rocky from Seattle, Wa. I don’t know if that was his real name or his trail name. At any rate, he started from Campo, Mexico at the Southern Terminus and has traveled over three hundred miles to this point. He confessed that he stayed a little longer then he wanted too in Palm Springs, but has no regrets, as he had the time of his life. That’s what it’s all about… isn’t it? I told him he could always stop and start wherever he left off. It’s about defining your finish in anything you start. As kindred spirits so often do, we feel as hikers, we will all end up on this trail at some point in our lives. With that being said, it was time for us to hit our respective trails.
ROAD CLOSED TO 4 WHEEL DRIVING, NOT 2HEELDRIVIN
I would take a loop over an out and back anyday, but considering my options… there are none. So begins the long hike back. Six miles of winding asphalt…
Or if I may put it more precisely, six miles of thoughts and reflection. With every venture comes experience, as I now see the story behind the politics of Hwy 39. The problem is about as frustrating as a city that wants a new stadium, but doesn’t want to pay for it. The solution… like anything, if there ever comes a time for a real need, things will get done. Unfortunately, mother nature in the guise of the San Andreas Fault is a constant reality. Maybe it’s better left alone