Hike to the fire lookout on Vetter Mountain for a panoramic look at the San Gabriel Mountains.

Vetter Mountain lies within Angeles National Forest's Charlton-Chilao Recreation Area -- a gateway of sorts to the high country of the San Gabriel Mountains. Here, Angelenos heading up Angeles Crest Highway from the west first come upon what looks like true forest -- stately pines, firs, and cedars.

Vetter Mountain's pint-sized fire-lookout building, perched on a rounded summit nearly devoid of vegetation, takes advantage of a 360-degree view over the midsection of the San Gabriels. But fire-watchers no longer spend lonely vigils here in cramped quarters. Smoggy air below and budget-cutting long ago took care of that. Today's ubiquitous cell phones are yet another reason why fire lookouts are becoming less used all over California.

This 3.3-mile loop hike over Vetter's summit includes pleasant passages through Charlton Flats' heterogeneous forest of live oak, Coulter pine, Jeffrey pine, sugar pine, incense cedar, and bigcone Douglas-fir. With binoculars, a bird book, and a wildflower guide, you can take your sweet time, stopping as you please to admire a soaring hawk or raven, a noisy acorn woodpecker or Steller's jay, or an unfamiliar plant in bloom.

To get to the starting point, drive 24 miles east of Interstate 210 in La Canada to the Charlton Flats Picnic Area (mile 47.5 according to the mileage markers along Highway 2, Angeles Crest Highway). Drive in, make an immediate right, and continue .5 mile to the start of the signed Vetter Mountain Trail, on your left. A National Forest Adventure Pass (good for all national forests in Southern California) must be displayed on your parked vehicle.

About 200 yards up the path, the Silver Moccasin Trail swings left -- don't take it; this is your return route. Keeping straight, you ascend through mixed forest and then scattered pines, crossing paved service roads twice. A final switchbacking stretch through chaparral leads to the lookout, 1.3 miles from the start. The old lookout building remains as an interpretive exhibit.

Looking north and east from the lookout perch, you'll spot several prominent peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, including 10,000-foot Mount San Antonio. The "Front Range" of the San Gabriels, which defines the north rim of the San Gabriel Valley and the L.A. Basin, sprawls west and south, blocking from view most of the L.A. metropolitan area.

When it's time to descend, follow the dirt road downhill instead of the trail. After 0.7 mile you'll meet a paved service road. Continue straight (east) on the pavement for another 0.6 mile, and look carefully for the crossing of the Silver Moccasin Trail. Turn left on the trail, cross pavement again in a short while, and complete the final, mostly level stretch across a forested slope.

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