How to Rent a Former Fire Lookout Cabin in California
The towers are a charmingly rustic accommodation alternative and hard to get but so worth finding out about.
Photo by Jon Page
A dense evergreen forest sprawls across the valley floor, interrupted only by the beige, red, and black hues of a thousand-year-old volcanic glass flow. Mount Shasta dominates the horizon, and soon clouds painted dark orange, pink, and purple by the setting sun will drift above its snow-blanketed peak. Later, the Milky Way and countless shimmering stars will glow in the night sky.
The colorful views from the 360-degree windows of the Little Mt. Hoffman Lookout are priceless, but thanks to simple amenities, staying in the decommissioned fire lookout in Shasta-Trinity National Forest is an affordable reality. The 14-foot-by-14-foot white wooden cabin contains two cots, a small table with chairs, and a wood-burning stove, with a pit toilet a short walk away. It’s rustic, but anyone who enjoys car camping without rowdy campground neighbors will relish the tranquility at 7,309 feet for $75 per night.
Scores of staffed lookouts still play a critical role in pinpointing wildfires, but many throughout the state have been decommissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, in part because of advancements in fire-spotting technology. Nearly a dozen renovated lookouts are available for travelers to rent, minus the responsibility of detecting fires. Many of them are within a five-hour drive of the Bay Area and provide stunning mountain views and a peaceful retreat from urban living. If you’re a stargazer, time your visit to coincide with a new moon.
At each lookout, guests provide their own water, food, cooking supplies, linens, and trash bags to pack out waste. Pets are allowed at nearly all of the lookouts, with the exception of Bear Basin Lookout and Cabin in Six Rivers National Forest. Black Mountain Lookout, Calpine Lookout, McCarthy Point Lookout, and Oak Flat Lookout each have a propane stove. Black Mountain, which sits atop a 10-foot tower in Plumas National Forest, has an additional luxury: It is California’s only lookout outfitted with electricity and a refrigerator.
Some of the state’s best hiking trails are within easy reach of the lookouts. Girard Ridge Lookout, which features unobstructed views of Mount Shasta and the jagged granite spires of Castle Crags State Park, is a short drive from the latter park; slightly farther north, the trail from Castle Lake to Heart Lake rewards hikers with a closer, breathtaking perspective on Shasta. From Calpine Lookout, numerous hikes in Tahoe National Forest (Sierra Buttes and Haskell Peak) and Lake Basin Recreation Area (Bear Lakes Loop and Frazier Falls) are within an hour’s drive.
Of course, with sights this spectacular, you might never want to leave camp, and driving to and from the lookouts is an adventure some might not wish to repeat. Most lookouts are at the ends of steep, unpaved rocky roads that require SUVs or trucks with high clearance. The terrain leading to Oak Flat is so unforgiving that Sequoia National Forest requires visitors to have four-wheel drive. Regular cars can complete the journey to Pine Mountain Lookout in Mendocino National Forest and Little Mt. Hoffman, where a Honda Fit can easily — albeit slowly — reach the summit.
Most of the fire towers are rentable only from late spring or early summer to early fall, although Calpine is available year-round for only $45 per night. Reservations can be made via Recreation.gov up to six months in advance — but be forewarned: Fire lookouts are typically booked solid the first morning they become available.
Daytime hikers sometimes stumble upon these lookouts, but during your stay, you’re far less likely to see people than you are to see birds, deer, and other wildlife.
To learn more about Little Mt. Hoffman Lookout, Bear Basin Lookout and Cabin, McCarthy Point Lookout, and Calpine Lookout, visit Recreation.gov and search for the specific lookouts.