The easygoing descent of the South Fork Trail doesn’t take much effort. You simply put one foot in front of the other and let gravity do the rest. The well-graded trail descends (or ascends if you’d rather get more exercise and reverse the directions given here) some 2000 feet in elevation, in between Angeles Crest Highway and the South Fork Campground near the town of Pearblossom in the Mojave Desert.
Narrow, but seldom steep, the trail follows a natural, swaying contour as it curves around more than a dozen ravines indenting a steep canyon wall. South Fork creek (a tributary of Big Rock Creek) murmurs far below, accompanied by the doleful trills of canyon wrens.
The one-way version of the hike is not difficult, but it does involve a car shuttle or a drop-off-and-pick-up arrangement. Here are driving directions for the two trailheads:
SOUTH END: Exit Interstate 210 at Angeles Crest Highway in La Canada Flintridge. Drive 39 miles north and east to the Islip Saddle trailhead, at mile 64.1 on Angeles Crest Highway.
NORTH END: From the Antelope Valley Freeway (Highway 14) south of Palmdale, exit at Pearblossom Highway. Follow Pearblossom Highway for 14 miles to the small community of Pearblossom. At Pearblossom, turn right on Longview Road. Go south 2.5 miles and turn left (east) on Fort Tejon Road. Drive 2.1 miles to Valyermo Road and turn right (south). Continue 2.9 miles and turn right on Big Rock Creek Road. Drive 3.5 miles more and look for the dirt-road turnoff for South Fork Campground, on the right. Continue one mile into the campground itself.
The shortest way by car between the two trailheads is via Angeles Crest Highway and Big Rock Creek Road, to the east of South Fork Trail.
From the upper trailhead (Islip Saddle) follow the trail contouring to the north, not the sharply ascending Pacific Crest Trail, which climbs northwest toward Mount Williamson. Traffic noises fade quickly as you begin descending through a heterogeneous forest of Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, incense cedar, live oak, and bigcone Douglas fir. As you descend, the high-country forest thins; pinyon pine, manzanita, mountain mahogany, and blue- and white-blossoming ceanothus clothe the dry and rocky slopes.
The trail loses elevation faster than the South Fork creek, so by 4.4 miles you’ll be traversing a sheer slope only 200 feet above the stream. A couple of short switchbacks at 4.9 miles take you down to meet the alder- and sycamore-shaded creek. Cross over to the other side and continue walking through South Fork Campground until you reach the trailhead parking area just below (north of) the campsites.
South Fork Campground is one of Angeles National Forest’s more pleasant and secluded drive-in campgrounds. During April and May, flannel bush, or fremontia, blooms on the broad, alluvial terraces along the creek, opposite and downstream from the campground. Considered one of the showiest of California native plants, the fremontias here stand up to 15 feet high and bear thousands of large, waxy, yellow flowers.
If you have time for further exploration, climb southeast from the campground on the Manzanita Trail about a half mile to some beautiful sandstone outcrops. Or, head northwest on the Punchbowl Trail to the Devils Chair viewpoint, which overlooks a vast landscape of tilted sandstone slabs thrust upward and sideways by millions of years of seismic activity.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
South Fork Trail
Hike one-way from the Angeles Crest to the edge of the Mojave Desert.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 160 miles
Hiking length: 5.2 miles