The first 20 miles or so of driving up the Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada into the Angeles National Forest is a pleasant enough excursion across brushy slopes and past scraggly trees, but it often leaves motorists wondering, "Where's the forest?"
Mile-high Charlton Flats is where the pine forest prevails, a tranquil gathering of tall trees that includes sugar, Jeffrey and Coulter pines, as well as big cone spruce, incense cedar and live oak.
Originally called Pine Flats, the woodsy spread was renamed for Rush Charlton, who was the national forest supervisor from 1906 to 1920. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a sprawling campground and picnic areas at Charlton Flats, as well as a fire lookout atop 5,898-foot Vetter Mountain, a distinct summit rising above the flats.
Vetter Mountain offers the hiker a good deal: a 360-degree panorama of the middle of the San Gabriel range for a modest climb and elevation gain. The Forest Service and volunteer groups intend to restore the old summit fire lookout and establish an interpretive center.
Wolf Creek Nature Trail shares a trail head with the path to Vetter Mountain. The family-friendly, self-guided interpretive path tours conifer-land and delivers hikers to the "wolf tree," a forest-dominating Coulter pine. The Coulter boasts foot-long, 5-pound pine cones, the largest in the conifer family.
Winter weather can prompt the Forest Service to close Charlton Flats to vehicular traffic. Hikers can walk to the trail head if there's a modest amount of snow. More snow means great cross-country skiing or snow play at Charlton Flats.
For more information about the Charlton-Chilao Recreation Area, as it's called these days, drop by the Chilao Visitor Center, three miles up Angeles Crest Highway from Charlton Flats.
Directions to trail head: From the Foothill Freeway (210) in La Canada, exit on Angeles Crest Highway (2) and drive 24 miles to the signed turnoff for Charlton Flats Picnic Area.
Follow the picnic area access road to the first intersection, turn right and proceed 0.6 mile to a gate. Wolf Creek Nature Trail begins beyond the gate. The signed path to Vetter Mountain begins across the road to the west.
The quickest way to the top of Vetter Mountain (0.75-mile hike) is to follow the upper road (far left) all the way to the beginning of the Vetter Lookout access road. There's not much parking here, so be careful not to block the road.
The hike: Begin your ascent and you'll soon pass a junction with the left-branching Silver Moccasin Trail. The path proceeds through a diverse forest, crosses two paved roads, then switchbacks up to the summit lookout.
From the catwalk of the lookout, savor clear-day views to the east of the rugged San Gabriel Wilderness and mighty Mt. Baldy. To the north are Mts. Waterman and Williamson and to the south and west such front-range peaks as Strawberry and San Gabriel. The front range summits pretty well wall off the metropolis from view, which, for the hiker looking to get away from it all, might not be such a bad thing.
For a slightly longer (0.75-mile) return route from the top of Vetter Mountain, take the dirt road and descend east 0.75 mile to a paved road. Follow this road 0.6 mile to where Silver Moccasin Trail crosses the road, and head left on the trail. The trail crosses a paved road, then contours across a woodsy slope to meet Vetter Mountain Trail near the trail head.
For more of John McKinney's hiking tips and trails, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.
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Vetter Mountain, Silver Moccasin Trails
WHERE: Charlton-Chilao Recreation Area, Angeles National Forest.
DISTANCE: From Charlton Flats to Vetter Mountain is 2.6 miles round trip with 700-foot elevation gain; Wolf Tree Nature Trail is 0.5 mile round trip.
TERRAIN: Piney woods.
HIGHLIGHTS: 360-degree view from Vetter Mountain.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderately easy.
PRECAUTIONS: Winter snows can block vehicle access to Charlton Flats; National Forest Adventure Pass required.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Angeles National Forest, Chilao Visitor Center; tel. (626) 796-5541.