Crystal Lake at the Angeles National Forest shown here on Friday, April 1, 2011. Caltrans has reopened State Route 39 from the West Fork to Crystal Lake Road, a segment of mountain highway that had been closed since 2002. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda)
The California Department of Transportation quietly reopened a portion of the road March 22 to provide access to Crystal Lake, meeting a spring deadline following years of delays.
The newly accessible road still shows signs of the 2002 Curve Fire that led to its closure because of mudslides that followed - blackened, twisted trees visible in the canyon below.
To reopen the road, Caltrans built two retaining walls, added guard rails and made other improvements, but the work is hardly noticeable against the backdrop of mountain scenery.
"This is one of the greatest things for the public that could have happened," said Barry Wetherby, an outdoors enthusiast and Azusa Chamber of Commerce member who had lobbied Caltrans to reopen the road. "After we get this heat, they're going to see flowers like they haven't seen."
Another person thrilled to have the road open is Adam Samrah, the owner of a restaurant and snack bar at the Crystal Lake Campground.
Samrah, a former chef and banker who survived the Curve Fire shortly after buying his business, has been waiting to serve hungry campers since 2002. He's still struggling, because most people are accustomed to the lake being closed and the campground is only available for dayuse.
"I opened up, and I don't have too many people come up because nobody knows I'm here," said Samrah, who has stayed upbeat through all the problems. "I'm OK. I'm so happy, even a little bit of customers is much better than nothing."
He expects more visitors this weekend, as the clear weather attracts more people to the mountains.
Last week's heat wave melted much of the snow that had accumulated over winter, although there are still some patches of white on the ground. Samrah expected the snow to attract visitors, but now he's hoping to see daytrippers visiting the mountains for the arrival of spring. The road is popular with motorcyclists who enjoy riding the mountain curves.
Many of those who make their way up to Crystal Lake Campground are surprised to find Samrah there.
"I just went for a ride, and the next thing you know I'm up here," said Eric Orr, who teaches a motorcycle safety class at Mt. San Antonio College. Orr and a few other visitors Friday chatted with Samrah, threw melting snowballs and enjoyed Samrah's lunch specials.
But the nearby campground visitor's center remains closed, and visitors often ask when the campground will be available for stays.
The National Forest Service rebuilt much of the campground after the 2002 fire, investing $6 million on restrooms, benches, pathways and other new amenities that haven't been used until now. They also refurbished an amphitheater that, before the fire, was popular for weddings and other events.
But there's still some work to be done. The Forest Service is planning to reopen the campground and visitors center at the start of summer, possibly in May, said L'Tanga Watson, district ranger for the San Gabriel River Ranger District.
With the snow melting, workers will be able to add road striping and signage at the campground, including sites with disabled access.
Crystal Lake is one of the few naturally occurring bodies of water in the San Gabriel Mountains, but there's no sign telling visitors how to get there. There's an access road that's barred to vehicle traffic and open to anyone who wants to hike a half-mile. "It's public land, and we're going to do our best to accommodate the public," Watson said. "One of their favorite places is back up and running."
Part of the Forest Service's plan is to construct a new ticket booth at the base of Crystal Lake Road. Federal budget cuts have diminished the agency's ability to undertake such projects, so Watson is hoping to make it a project for a college design class, Eagle Scout hopeful, or the cadre of 300 volunteers in the forest district. "They're passionate about the land and other areas of the forest," Watson said. "We just can't thank them enough."
Once everything is ready, a contracted concessionaire will operate both Crystal Lake Campground and Coldbrook Campground, which was also damaged in the Curve Fire and had been accessible only by foot, an eighth of a mile from where the road had been closed.
About a mile beyond Crystal Lake, a stretch of Route 39 that connects to Angeles Crest Highway to the north remains closed.
It's been that way for decades, when the road was damaged by rockslides. Caltrans is now looking into reopening that portion, said spokesman Patrick Chandler, but the project is several years off and could cost up to $30 million.
On an average Sunday, up to 12,000 people travel Route 39, often stopping along the side of the road wherever there's water and hauling out their barbecues, according to Watson.
Samrah is ready for visitors, and believes he'll see lots more people this weekend.
"You will never leave here when you see it," said Sam Georges, a friend of Samrah's who helped open the restaurant. "It's nice and green, this wonderful thing God created, the lake, the mountains, how beautiful is that?"