I’m lucky, but also cursed.
I am very fortunate with the opportunity going back and forth frequenting the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains, but you can only ride one at a time.
Both offer amazing riding, but I’ve been leaning towards the latter recently because it just gives me a larger sense that I’m getting away.
Seeing the ocean is a great payoff, but it makes me think about beach, which reminds me I’m in Los Angeles.
The San Gabriels though are a great local substitute for the Eastern Sierras, which are fabulous.
Riding up to Crystal Lake is one of those special experiences you can have without taking up a full day.
We started our ride at the intersection of Highway 39 & East Fork Rd. because the ride out of Azusa is probably my least favorite anywhere in the San Gabriels because the winds and high speed of cars.
It’s a 14.2 mile climb with over 4k feet of climbing, so if you’re new to cycling, you should probably get a few more miles under your belt.
At mile two, you’re occluded from where you’re headed and open to the elements.
The start feels like a bit of a grind as you pass your way through the lower campgrounds and Cogswell Dam.
It’s not that it’s any steeper than any other part of entire climb, but the first part has very little interaction with trees, so you’re a bit more open to the elements.
You also don’t get a clear sense of where you’re headed until near the five mile mark as you near the bridge over the San Gabriel River.
At about a third of the way, you get a sense of where you’re headed.
It may take a few trips to catch your bearings, but as you look towards the trees, you can see some switchbacks laced into the hillside.
What fascinates me about this perspective is seeing the climb develop within thousands of years of residue between the rock beds, like the Alp d’Huez or Col du Gabilier.
At this point, you’re still climbing along these long, sweeping turns, so your progress seems slow as you can’t wait to get further ahead.
Near the 6.5 mile mark, you have your last chance for a bathroom stall along the road before you have a quick descent in front of the Coldbrook Campgrounds.
After a short climb, the road fairly flattens out as you hit the halfway point and a tight hairpin turn where you can shift back into your big ring temporarily.
At almost the halfway point, you start to get an idea of how much you’ve climbed.
It is also here where you get your first view back on how high you’ve climbed and in moments, you’ll be looking straight at where you’re going.
As you approach the nine mile mark, you enter the Falling Springs portion of the climb, a fun, spaghetti light twisting section in between the trees offering you guaranteed shade in certain spots.
Trees offering certain coverage around Falling Springs.
It’s also here where some water runs down rocks near the roadside giving this area its particular name.
At the eleven mile mark, the road returns to these large sweeping turns and you definitely feel like the word “forest” is the correct definition of this area.
The final sweeping left on Highway 39.
Soon, you will see a small structure to your left signaling your final left turn before making your final push onto Crystal Lake Road.
You’ll pass the 5,000 foot sign before this turnoff where you’ll be riding through an avenue of trees.
We definitely could feel the coolness being at this height, but climbing at a steady 5% – 8% for the duration of the climb gets you acclimated to the elevation.
Crystal Lake Road covers the last two miles of the climb.
The humble Crystal Lake Cafe sits at the top where you can get reasonably priced drinks as owner Adam wanders in and out.
We got some food and water and sat down outside, striking up a conversation with a motorcyclist who happened to be a former state champ in cycling.
Before we began our big descent, we turned right coming off Crystal Lake Road up the highway to where the road is closed (about a quarter mile) to get a great panoramic of our entire climb.
One last view back down.
Highway 39 should be a ride that is on everyone’s itinerary.
It’s one of those climbs you’ll enjoy exponentially every mile you pass.
More importantly, you can say goodbye to city life and feel like you’ve vacationed with only a few hours devoted to riding.