Rooms with a View: 5 Northern California Fire Lookout Hikes

Mount Tamalpais, California.
Mount Tamalpais, California. Basheer Tome
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Perched atop peaks and ridgelines across Northern California, fire lookouts offer unparalleled views over some of the state’s finest National Forest land. Built primarily during the 1930s and 1940s, these towers allowed lookouts to keep an eye on the dry forests and give warning when the hillsides went up in flames, a critical role illustrated by the destructiveness of the 2016 fire season. At one time, the U.S. had over 4,000 lookouts that covered nearly every drainage of the National Forest.

Famous literary figures like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean were known to spend time as fire lookouts, drawing inspiration from the solitary and remote existence. While some of California’s fire lookouts have been retired and replaced by technology, many of these towers are still standing and available to rent for overnight trips. Promising 360-degree panoramas over forested peaks and unobstructed views of the night sky, a visit to a fire lookout makes for a great adventure—whether you go for a day or spend the night. Here is a list of five northern California lookouts to visit on your next adventure.

1. Girard Ridge Lookout

One of the few remaining lookouts in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Girard Ridge Lookout gives you panoramic views over some of Northern California’s most striking wilderness areas. The cabin—raised 13 feet above its 4,809-foot perch—faces the jagged peaks of Castle Crags State Park, overlooks the Sacramento River Canyon, and provides unobstructed views of the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Shasta and Lassen. The cabin itself is a cozy 14 by 14 foot space with minimal amenities and maximum views from walls of windows and exterior catwalk. Though it’s accessible by car, Girard Ridge makes for a great basecamp for hiking nearby trails—a Forest Service road reaches a junction with the famous Pacific Crest Trail just three miles beyond the cabin, and you can also explore the nearby trails of Castle Crags. Girard Ridge is about 4.5 hours north of San Francisco by car. The lookout is available by reservation from June through October.

2. Calpine Lookout

Mountains, wildlife, and a Milky Way #calpinelookout #tahoe

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Sandwiched between the Tahoe National Forest and Plumas National Forest, the Calpine Lookout perches at 5,980 feet, with 360-degree views of remote forest and the Sierra Nevada range. The lookout itself is an elevated cabin structure with basic amenities and a wraparound porch to take in the unending views and stargaze into the night. The lookout is reservable for overnight stays during the summer and winter months, and is accessible by car in the summer. In the winter, the lookout is often accessible only by snowshoe or ski. From Calpine, you can hike to nearby lakes and explore the foothills. Calpine is a little under four hours from San Francisco, near Truckee.

3. Pine Mountain Lookout

As the sun finished its descent, all I could do was sigh and whisper thank you to the giver of every good and perfect gift.

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In the southwestern corner of Mendocino National Forest, the Pine Mountain Lookout sits on the western shoulder of its namesake mountain. While many other towers have 360-degree views, this one is unique in that it has a western orientation for 180-degree views of mixed conifer forest from an outcropping at 4,400 feet. But you won’t be missing out—the cabin is perfect for standout sunsets. Visitors can reserve the lookout for overnight stays from May to October, and the cabin is outfitted with cots and a dining table, as well as a grill and fire ring outside. Pine Mountain is located in close proximity to hiking trails, the Eel River, and several of Mendocino’s best lakes. The lookout can be reached by driving about three hours from San Francisco.

4. Black Mountain Lookout

If you are up for the drive, Black Mountain Lookout makes for a stunning retreat. Located on the eastern edge of Plumas National Forest, the deck provides stunning views over Honey Lake, the Diamond Mountains, and Last Chance Creek. The lookout is a one room cabin elevated on a 10-foot tower and at almost 7,000 feet, you are guaranteed a panoramic view. You can reserve the lookout from Memorial Weekend until October, and has electricity. Plumas National Forest has a variety of recreational activities, including swimming and hiking. Black Mountain is about a 4.5-hour drive from San Francisco, and the cabin is accessible by car.

5. Martis Peak Lookout

Views from above Tahoe

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A popular winter snowshoeing destination, the lookout sits just below the 8,742 summit of Martis Peak, and has impressive views of Lassen Peak, Lake Tahoe, and the western Sierra Peaks. You can reach the lookout in the winter by hiking a seasonal logging road for about 3.75 miles as it climbs 1,700 feet towards the summit. In the summer, the road is open to cars and you can drive to near the lookout—hikers can also access the lookout on the Tahoe Rim Trail, which adds about a mile to journey. The lookout is staffed in the summer, but winter adventurers can camp in the lookout or around it. Martis Peak is a little over three hours from San Francisco.

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