The hike to Mount Hillyer is a short, meandering trip on the Silver Moccasin Trail into an historic horsethief / freedom fighter hideout featuring plenty of incredible boulder formations, pine forests, and nice views of the interior San Gabriels.
This trail starts off right next to an access road, and picks up on a short, flat, sandy stretch of the Silver Moccasin Trail, a National Recreation Trail that runs 53 miles from Chantry Flats to Wrightwood. It meanders through a short section of forest that – unfortunately – has a few telephone wires strung across it.
After crossing beneath the wires, the trail starts some gentle switchbacks through low brush. The sand gives way to some uneven, rocky ground – which is much nicer to hike across.
After a short stint through the shadeless chaparral, the Silver Moccasin Trail splits off into the Hillyer Trail, which makes its way through thicker stretches of pine on its way toward the summit. I wouldn’t call this trail ‘shaded’ by any means, but there are lots of chances to hide out beneath the shadow of a tree if you ever start overheating. It’s a nice place to gaze at the boulder-strewn Mount Hillyer in the distance.
After treading on the outskirts of the Horse Flats Campground, the trail makes a steady ascent into Mount Hillyer itself. This place used to be an old horse thief hideout, and as you make your way through the boulder maze, it’s easy to see why.
The region was most infamously used by Tiburcio Vasquez — whose name now marks Vasquez Rocks to the north of the San Gabriels.
In a city with a tendency to helplessly swoon over a charismatic criminal once in a while, Tiburcio Vasquez set the template. Born near Sonoma, Vasquez hated the gringos who seized California from Mexico. He fled the scene of a crime in 1854 and began his life as an outlaw, terrorizing Anglo settlers from Monterey to Los Angeles and eventually becoming the most-wanted man in California. As if playing the part in a movie, Vasquez was said to be charming, literate, musically inclined, and—of course—irresistible to women. He set up shop in the San Gabriels and while Vasquez Rocks was a known hideout, his base of operations was near the impenetrable boulder-strewn landscape of Mount Hillyer. He eluded several close calls in the San Gabriels but was eventually caught south of Cahuenga Pass near present-day Hollywood. A celebrity even in jail, he signed autographs and posed for photos behind bars, which he sold to pay for his legal defense. All the charm was for naught, though. Vasquez was shipped to San Jose where he was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1875.
Today, horsethievery doesn’t play as much of an active role in this part of the mountains.
I should note here that this trail seems to be pretty popular among the mountain biking set. I didn’t see any other hikers when I was up here, but I did have to dodge about a dozen bikers. They were all kind enough to give me plenty of notice as they came down the trail, but just know this probably isn’t a hike you want to take your headphones on. Especially if you don’t have good reaction time.
While the pine forest and boulders make for great scenery, the actual summit of Hillyer is pretty underwhelming. It’s just a forested bump near a flat section of the trail, with no real viewpoints worth writing home about (note that the summit is actually .3 miles southwest of where it’s usually marked on topo maps. No idea why, but there it is).
After you hit the summit, you can can continue back down the way you came, or make a trip across the mountain’s northeast side. I took this trip just because I hate doubling back on trails if I can avoid it, but the scenery isn’t all that different and you’ll be hiking on pavement for a good stretch.