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As travelers make their way up from Los Angeles into the San Gabriel Mountains via Angeles Crest Highway, Charlton Flat is the first place they encounter true coniferous forest -- stately pines, firs, and cedars standing shoulder to shoulder. More than a hundred picnic tables with wood-burning stoves are scattered amidst the trees here. At the picnic area's edge, a short interpretive trail, the Wolf Tree Nature Trail, is a perfect little diversion for hikers of all ages.

To get to Charlton Flat from the "Foothill" area of Los Angeles, exit Interstate 210 in La Canada-Flintridge, and drive up Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) for 24 miles to the entrance to Charlton Flat Picnic Area, on the left. The entire mountain region lies within Angeles National Forest, which requires that you post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car. These parking passes are available from hundreds of vendors, and are valid in all of Southern California's national forest lands.

After turning into the picnic ground entrance, swing right at the first intersection and continue on pavement as far as you can go, past scattered picnic sites. Eventually, 0.6 mile in, you'll arrive at a gate. The Wolf Tree Nature Trail starts there, on the right.

The trail runs along a conifer-shaded draw, wet only during times of snowmelt. Among other features, the interpretive plaques point out evidence of a fire in 1878. While other woods have long since rotted away, fallen logs and standing snags of durable incense cedar are still in evidence.

The "wolf tree" -- the dominant tree of the forest -- is in this case an outsized (roughly 100 feet tall) Coulter pine. Since Coulter pine cones are the largest and heaviest of the native conifers (up to 14 inches in length and 5 pounds), you would not want to spend much time beneath that wolf tree.

Longer hikes in the area can be pieced together out of a network of trails and service roads. For example, you could use the Vetter Mountain Trail to reach the fire lookout structure on Vetter Mountain. Or you could head north on the Silver Moccasin Trail, which leads toward Chilao Campground and a national forest visitor center about three miles away.

This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.

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