South Fork Campground is a hidden gem on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains south of Valyermo, an unincorporated community in the Mojave Desert. Set deep in a canyon that descends from Mount Islip in the south to the San Andreas Fault Zone and the Devil’s Punchbowl in the north, it is a significant trailhead with destinations in every direction and one of the few campgrounds in the San Gabriel Mountains that is truly serviceable year round.
The South Fork Campground offers hiking and horseback riding to some of the most beautiful features in the San Gabriels. The South Fork Trail leads south to the Islip Saddle, climbing to spectacular vistas overlooking Crystal Lake and the Mojave Desert. To the east, the Manzanita Trail leads to Vincent Gap. The Punchbowl Trail extends west to the Devil’s Punchbowl, one of the most fascinating geological areas in the San Gabriel Mountains and a good low-elevation winter hike. Because each hike features a different physical feature of the canyon, at least one of them will be available for hiking at any time during the year. Campgrounds to the east are set at higher elevations and campgrounds to the south receive higher snowfall, which makes the South Fork Campground serviceable at any time of the year.
When not hiking, there are other options that make the South Fork Campground an alluring destination. When heavier snows are present, it is an excellent snow play area. Check with the local Fish and Wildlife authority, which may stock Big Rock Creek with trout for fishing. When in doubt, the canyon’s seclusion offers a great opportunity for stargazing with a telescope.
Campsites are large and spacious, and the campground features day use amenities, including a cluster of picnic tables and grills for cooking. There is no potable water at the site, and the day use area appears somewhat dilapidated, but the backcountry atmosphere, the intimacy of one of the most spectacular canyons in the area, and the isolation more than compensate for the South Fork Campground’s inconveniences.
Note: South Fork Campground is open year round and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.