Crystal Lake Recreation Area is part of the San Gabriel River (formerly Mount Baldy) District of The Angeles National Forest in California. It consists of a lake, a public campground, and Deer Flats, a group campground. It is located approximately 26 miles (42 km) north on Hwy. 39 heading out of Azusa, California at the headwaters of the North Fork of the San Gabriel River at an elevation approximately 5,200 feet (1585 m) above sea level.
The area around Crystal Lake, before there was a campground and resort, was referred to as Pine Flat. The Lake was called Sycamore Lake by R. W. Dawson who lived at Sycamore Flats down the hill. The lake has no sycamore trees, so the name was obviously derived from Dawson's place. The area was a great draw for grizzly bears as they seemed to prefer the lake waters to the stream waters down the hill. It was thus a very dangerous place for a human to be without a firearm of some sort. Frightful grizzly bear stories abound from the middle 1860's.
In 1887, Judge Benjamin Eaton, an early Pasadenan for whom Eaton Canyon is named, visited the pristine little lake and described it. "The water is clear as crystal and the [visitors] found it good to drink." The lake soon became called by Crystal Lake.
Historic Photograps of Crystal Lake and the surrounding area from the years 1907 on through the mid 1970's show that the campgrounds have been used by "singing cowboys" during the era of black-and-white television which used to feature cowboy shows. Because the campgrounds could be accessed from Angeles Crest Highway in the past, Hollywood performers and other Los Angeles celebrities and politiciuans used to frequent the campgrounds due to the easy access across the Angeles Mountains.
Crystal Lake is the only naturally formed lake in Southern California. It is snow and spring fed and has no other artificial means of being replenished. Geographically it sits in a bed of decomposed granite and a fissure at its bottom depletes its water during and after the rain and snow season. Because of this its depths vary dramatically from a mean low of 35 feet (10.7 m) to a probable high of 150 feet (45.7 m), depending on seasonal precipitation.
The Lake is settled neatly in a bowl below the granite crags surrounding Mount Hawkins. In its past it had amenities for picnickers, anglers, and swimmers. But in 1969 a severe rainy season flooded the privies on the shore line and the water became contaminated to the point that the swimming facilities were closed. Subsequent rainy seasons flooded the small cabin that served as a summer residence for concessionaires who operated a snack stand from the lower level and patio. By 1990 the facility was demolished.
Over the past four decades, budgeting has limited the Forest Service's ability to maintain the lake and its feeder pipeline. Then years of drought reduced the lake’s water levels which continued micro biological contamination of the water, putting it off limits to any type of swimming at all.
Following a good rainy season, the lake may be stocked with fish, typically rainbow trout from the government hatcheries. Despite high or low water levels, flocks of people line the lake to fish each summer. In the past the concessionaires provided boat rentals from a small dock that was attached to cables that ran onto shore. The dock could be raised and lowered during the year with the varying levels of the water. It was removed after the 1969 rains.
Crystal Lake Campground goes back to the 1920s as a privately leased concession until 1946 when it was permanently taken over by the U.S. Forest Service. It served as the largest campground in the Angeles National Forest, at its height with 232 campsites. The campground is upslope from the lake about 1 mile and a one-way paved road provides easy automobile access to and from the lake. There is also a foot trail that provides a gentle walk through the forest to the lake site.
The campground was always run by some sort of leased or contracted concession. The main facilities consisted of a general store which grew from a small tackle house in the 1950s to a fast food snack stand by the 1970s, rental cabins from the olden days, a residence for the concessionaires, service sheds and garages, an ice cream stand which opened in the summer, and a ranger station which by 1990 had become a visitors center managed by forestry volunteers.
Out and away from the main campground can be found the ruins of an old dance hall. In later years as the building deteriorated, the floor was left in open air and a small shed was put up to house a juke box. By the 1960s this was all but abandoned. Just past the old dance floor is the amphitheater where campfires programs were used to gather the campers in the evening for group sing-alongs and maybe a nature film.
Due to budget constraints, the remoteness of the area and other maintenance and logistics problems, the campground has faced closures of several camp sites reducing the number by nearly 100. In some cases the campground was completely closed. This forced the concessionaires to vacate, leaving campers and anglers no place to shop or eat if they didn’t pack it in themselves. Management contractors were brought in to help run the facility, but in 2001 a forest fire ripped through the entire canyon and over a week’s period ruined much of the forest that made the area so attractive. The whole recreation area was closed altogether. The Forestry Service is hoping to have it reopened in the near future.
The amphitheatre area is surrounded by electric lights and there are numerous electrical outlets along the walkway to the amphitheatre itself.
The theature can seat about 200 individuals and there is a central ring where large fires can be had. A drinking fountain located on the walkway to the facility provides water taken from an underground cistern fed by Soldier Creek.
Above the theature are the ruins of the large bandstand / dance floor that used to play host to Big Band Era music groups such as Benny Goodman and, on rare occasion, Elvis Presley -- among many other groups. The dance floor ruins continue to crumble however there is some hope that volunteers will restore the facility so that music groups will once again play, allowing visitors to enjoy Summer music in the open air of the campgrounds.
The United States Forest Service maintains a Visitor Center at the campgrounds, offering printed maps of available hiting and nature trails in the area as well as offering information about any questions that visitors may have. The Visitor Center is located across the parking lot from the kitchen and general store (which is run by a private individual and not by the USFS.)
In many cases the Visitor Center will be staffed by highly knowledgeable individuals from the Angeles Volunteer Association which can answer questions about the flora and fauna of the area as well as answer questions about the history of Crystal Lake.
As a recreation area the campground had many nature trails for visitors which provided scenic and educational walks through various parts of the canyon: Pinion Ridge, Soldier Creek, Knob Hill, Golden Cup, Tototgna to name a few. The Lake Trail provides a one mile walk to the lake. The Windy Gap Trail ascends the south slope of Mount Hawkins to the saddle between Hawkins and Mount Islip, known as "Windy Gap", where it connects to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Deer Flats is a group campground about one mile (1600 m) up the South Hawkins Road from the main campground. It has nine sites for groups of eight to fourteen. It provides an even more remote location for Scouting, church groups, retreats, etc. It too has been affected by the closing.
The Group Campgrounds generally require a permit from the San Gabriel River Ranger District's offices before groups may utilize the group campgrounds. This is because individuals are encouraged to use the smaller camp sites located in the main grounds so that large groups may utilize the larger camp sites.
Deer Flats Group Campground contains 25 very large camp sites, most of them with four large fire rings, many of them with concrete-and-stone ovens, and most of them with at least two large concrete tables upon which campers may cook and have picnics. Because Deer Flats is intended for large groups, downed trees are situated around the larger fire rings in most of the camp sites for seating.
There is drinking water at Deer Flats, fed from water taken from a large water tank located at the Northern edge of the campgrounds. Water is distributed to the camp sites through a system of underground pipes, through a number of distribution valves and boxes, and then to individual drinking and outflow facilities located around the campgrounds.
There are several toilet buildings located toward the Southern end of Deer Flats Group Campgrounds which have been installed after the Curve Fire swept through the area. The existing older stone toilet facilities are currently closed and will likely remain closed in favor of the newer, more environmentally friendly toilet facilities.