Wildfires have scorched acres of National Forests lands in the last several dry years. Manned fire lookouts can prevent such fires, which close OHV trails and limit forest access. The Forest Service has dismantled hundreds of lookouts despite their importance. Remaining lookout towers, intriguing structures perched in precarious and remote locations, have achieved cult status. Many have been refurbished into rustic cabins and campers rent them for overnight backcountry trips.
Plumas National Forest in northeastern California has two adjacent off-road trails with a total of 5 fire lookouts to visit. Not all the lookout towers still standing are currently in use. Advancements in fire detection systems and budgetary restrictions gradually eliminated the need to man all the towers. Plumas, like most other California National Forests, still staffs lookouts in the summer.
Thompson Peak Trail starts 9 miles south of Susanville. Grizzly Ridge Trail is located about 24 miles southwest of Susanville off Highway 89. Both trails are easy dirt roads with more difficult spur trails leading up to the towers. These are just two of the trails in the area that form a network of interesting 4-wheel drive roads for all difficulty levels.
One trail climbs to Thompson Peak and Red Rock Fire Lookouts. Both are staffed during fire season, and the watchman typically gives visitors permission to climb the towers and admire the view. Constructed in 1955, Red Rock Fire Lookout fell into disuse for a short time, but rejuvenated and reopened in 1984.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built Thompson Peak Lookout in about 1931. The square concrete building beside the lookout was added in 1950 as the seat of a three-legged iron tower. A radar dome topped the 34-foot tower and scanned the sky as part of the Early Warning Defense System, created during World War II. Throughout the war, a typical part of all lookouts’ jobs included scanning the horizon for Japanese aircraft.
Not only does the Thompson Peak site serve as a fire lookout, it is also a noted observation point for raptor migration and a popular hang-glider launch site. Falcons, bald eagles, and hang-gliders ride thermals, created by warm air rising from Honey Lake below, to gain altitude.
The other trail winds through the forest with spurt trails to Mt. Hough, Argentine Rock, and Smith Peak Fire Lookouts. It is also part of a designated Forest Service OHV trail network for ATVs and dirtbikes. Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers flock to this trail in winter. Lake Davis, at the road’s end, is stocked with trout and is popular with boaters, picnickers, and campers. Remains of the Walker Mine and mill are located at the mid-point of this drive. This extensive copper mining operation once employed 600 men and maintained a sizable town for its workers nearby. Beware; the huge tailings pond and mill remains have been declared a toxic site.
Established in about 1909, Mt. Hough (pronounced Huff) is one of the earliest lookouts erected in Plumas National Forest. Construction costs totaled only $303 at the time. Plumas replaced the original lookout tower with a new structure in 1916 and another in 1934. The forest finally built the three-story structure on the site today in 1986.
With its commercial phone line directly to “civilization,” this station acts as a hub for the forest’s other lookouts. With permission, visitors can normally climb the tower during the summer to see the expansive 360-degree views. Like the site of Thompson Peak Lookout, hang-gliders also launch from Mt. Hough. The spur to the lookout continues past the tower, descending steeply to the picturesque Crystal Lake. This rough, steep descent is difficult.
Argentine Rock Fire Lookout is 10 miles from the turn-off to Mt. Hough Lookout. The forest constructed this now-abandoned structure in 1934. Budget cutbacks and the use of fixed-wing aircraft to spot wildfires eliminated the need to staff this lookout. Vandalism and neglect have made the structure unsafe.
At Smith Peak Fire Lookout, you can look back over Grizzly Ridge and overlook Lake Davis. The Smith Peak site was initially used only as an emergency vantage point. Only the most rugged watchmen manned the rock crest before the forest constructed the current structure in 1935. Forest service staff welcomes visitors in the summer between 9:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
This information and much more is available in Adler Publishing’s Backcountry Adventures series.