Where can you get the best views of forests? Fire lookouts! Although the fire lookout on top of Vetter Mountain was lost in the Station Fire, the views remain at 5,908 feet where the tower once stood. For a hawk’s-eye perspective, take a bike ride to the summit via a mostly paved road in the Charlton Flats picnic area. The main entrance gate may or may not be open by April 1 (the small park staff wants to spruce up the area first); if it’s closed, park in the pullout outside of it, swap out your four wheels for two, roll on by, and begin a 5-mile (round-trip) ride toward Vetter Mountain, staying left at all junctions. Multiple ridges unfurl a mixture of lush, bushy trees along with matchsticks of trunks left over from the fire. Cruise past the second gate (which is always closed) and onto the semi-paved Vetter Mountain fire road for the final .7-mile push to the peak. You may feel the burn while climbing more than 600 feet on this route, but you’ll be rewarded at the summit: 360-degree views include Mount Wilson and Mount Pacifico as the forest expands below. Return the way you came and turn left on the last road before exiting Charlton. Follow this down for half a mile into a valley lined with dozens of picnic tables under magnificent Coulter pines and cedars. While many of the trees did not survive the fire, and the area may not be spiffed up by park staff yet, several pines with blackened trunks are bursting with greenery at the tops, offering hope for the future of the forest.
TIP: Keep the discoveries going with some bona fide stargazing at nearby Mount Wilson Observatory, which opens for the season in April. Check out their 100-inch telescope, astronomical museum, and exhibit hall.
Charlton Flats is located approximately 23 miles north of La Cañada on the Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2). Starting in La Cañada Flintridge, take SR-2 for 23 miles north, then look for the well-marked turnoff on your left. After parking outside the main gate, stay left at all junctions within the park to reach the gated Vetter Mountain fire road. Charlton Flats is open 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., year-round (parking inside the main gate will be open later this spring). Call the Los Angeles River Ranger District for more information at 818-899-1900. National Forest Adventure Pass required for parking at both sites; buy ahead of time at these locations. Dog friendly!