Vetter Mountain

[Featured image: A carpet of clouds near Red Box in the Angeles National Forest.]

I did not set out on Sunday to add a new chapter to the San Gabriel Trails Project. I set out to break free from my running malaise, brought on by flat and often repetitive routes that I had been running while training for the Javelina Jundred. With two weeks until race day, and having trouble finding the mental fortitude to get myself out the door, I decided now was the time to just go back to exploring the mountains, which was my primary reason for taking up trail running to begin with. The plan was to park at Chilao, go five miles out in one direction and then back, then five miles out the other direction and back. I managed to pick up new trail segments for the project on either end of the run.

The morning started cool. It was in the low 50s for much of the drive, a trek made beautiful by a carpet of clouds in the canyons and valleys below. I arrived at Chilao at about 9:15, quickly packed my running pack, and headed north along the Angeles Crest 100 course. This middle section of the San Gabriels is one of my favorite areas, at least in those sections that weren’t burned by 2009’s Station Fire.

Mt. Hillyer, and its surrounding area, is marked by an open pine and oak woodland set amongst giant granite boulders, with a mixed understory of native grasslands, various types of chaparral, and big sagebrush scrub. As I climbed Hillyer the wind increased and I had to use my Buff to cover my ears. I passed a group of climbers working on some larger boulders. They were some of the few people I saw out here today that weren’t hunting.

View to the south from Mt. Hillyer.

Upon reaching Rosanita Saddle (the location of the Hillyer Aid Station during the Angeles Crest 100), I turned right and followed Santa Clara Divide Road to Bandido Group Camp. This run was the first time I’d ever seen anyone using the camp, with a scene that looked like something out of Burning Man with a lot of tie dye, music, and hula hoops. I rejoined Silver Moccasin Trail and took it as far as the ridgeline near Angeles Crest Christian Camp, then followed a dirt road along the ridgeline for about a mile until it ended. This road was new to me and a new stretch of “trail” for the San Gabriel Trails Project. A single female Mule Deer checked me out warily, perhaps aware that it was deer season.

The return was mostly uneventful. Back on Santa Clara Divide Road, I was surprised to run into a group of three Clark’s Nutcrackers, a species normally found at higher elevations. I am unclear if their presence here is normal seasonal movement or the result of a cone crop failure at higher elevations that has apparently caused abnormal movements of other high mountain species.

I returned to my Jeep at Chilao with just under 12 miles on my Garmin. I felt tired. It wasn’t a tiredness like you feel from overexertion, but more a feeling of just having no energy. I sat in the back of my Jeep and ate a Lara Bar and drank 20 oz of water, trying to shake the urge to get into the driver’s seat and head home. I reasoned to myself like all runners do late in an ultra, telling myself I only need to go four miles. Four miles isn’t that far, right? We will ignore the fact that I have to go another four miles to return to my Jeep.

I headed south along the Silver Moccasin Trail from Chilao. Much of the first part of this is flattish or downhill, but feeling how I felt, I alternated running and walking throughout. The mental trick in getting yourself to run when you don’t feel like it is to tell yourself that you will be done much faster. It does work. Most of the time. I just needed to get myself to mile 16 on my Garmin and I could head back.

With about 1.8 miles until I hit 16, I hit a trail junction with a sign noting that Vetter Mountain Lookout was 1.7 miles away. I had tried Vetter Mountain a couple years earlier as part of the San Gabriel Trails Project, but the Vetter Mountain Trail had not been maintained since the Station Fire and was overgrown. After about a quarter mile of bushwhacking, I gave up. This time, the trail was open and in excellent condition, with new signs and benches throughout its length. The trail climbs gradually for about 1.25 miles. The last half mile to the summit is a steep approach. This felt rough to me on this day, but I pressed on until I reached the summit. There were four people at the top on fire watch. I could see why Vetter Mountain is used as a fire lookout, as the peak has spectacular views of a huge portion of the San Gabriel Mountains in all directions. Baden-Powell was covered with snow.

I rested at the top for awhile, enjoying the views, some calories, and some water. The weather was spectacular. Eventually, it was time to come back down and I made my way at a fairly slow pace back down the mountain. In the last two miles or so, much of which was uphill, I got motivated to push a bit harder to keep my average pace below 17 minutes per mile.

View from the top of Vetter Mountain.

Route Summary

  • Distance: 20.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,812 feet
  • Time: 5:38:44


I had 25 species of birds on the day. Nothing was new to the project. Reptiles were very active in the warmer parts of the day, with a lot of Tiger Whiptails and Western Fence Lizards. A Southern Alligator Lizard near the top of Vetter Mountain was a new species for the project.

Birds observed were as follows:

  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – Accipiter striatus
  • Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker – Dryobates nuttallii
  • Hairy Woodpecker – Dryobates villosus
  • White-headed Woodpecker – Dryobates albolarvatus
  • Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus
  • Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri
  • California Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica
  • Clark’s Nutcracker – Nucifraga columbiana
  • Common Raven – Corvus corax
  • Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli
  • Oak Titmouse – Baeolophus inornatus
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis
  • Pygmy Nuthatch – Sitta pygmaea
  • Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
  • Wrentit – Chamaea fasciata
  • Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana
  • Mountain Bluebird – Sialia currucoides
  • Hermit Thrush – Catharus guttatus
  • California Thrasher – Toxostoma redivivum
  • Phainopepla – Phainopepla nitens
  • Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis
  • White-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia leucophrys
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata

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