Bringing back a fire lookout
June 27, 2013
Cathy Best of Antelope remembers her youth, spending summers at her family’s cabin at property known as “Camp 19” when she would hike the six and a half miles up to the Grouse Ridge Fire Lookout.
“The Grouse Ridge Lookout was my refuge,” Best said.
She would talk to the fire lookouts hired for the season than “fish her way home” at the alpine lakes dotting the area and return with a string of fish for dinner.
Two years ago, Best was married at the lookout.
“That’s my house of God. It’s just a sacred place to me,” Best said.
Though her family lost the old ditch tenders house a few years ago, she still returns, every opportunity she can, with her two children, to camp in the nearby campground.
At 7,711 feet, the fire lookout is a favorite place of Best’s to watch Fourth of July Fireworks lighting up the night sky above the fairgrounds in Nevada County and Auburn, Roseville, even Cal Expo and Folsom and on a clear evening, as far away as Placerville.
Time has taken its toll on Grouse Ridge Lookout since it was abandoned as an operating fire lookout station in the mid-1970s.
Best was happy when, in 2009, a group of volunteers teamed up with Tahoe National Forest to restore the old lookout. She hopes to rent the lookout for an overnight stay when it becomes available next summer.
“I’m happy to see it having a second life,” she said.
Grouse Ridge Lookout was built in 1923 at a time when hundreds of lookouts were being built across the United States. In the early days, communication systems were primitive and very often didn’t include phone lines or telegraphs.
When smoke was detected, lookouts used homing pigeons and heliographs – flashes of sunlight reflected in mirrors – to warn of fires.
According to the Worldwide Lookout Library on the Forest Fire Lookout Association website, California once had 625 fire lookout towers.
Now 198 remain standing. A small percentage have been restored and can be rented as rustic vacation cabins with 360 degree views, from sunrise to sunset.
Lookouts garner a certain romantic appeal. Solitary summers spent in a Forest Service fire lookout tower attracted writers such as Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder.
In the Tahoe National Forest, more than 20 lookouts were built, according to one source, said Public Affairs Officer Ann Westling.
“Many are no longer standing. As communication systems improved, the number of staffed lookouts has decreased,” said Westling.
Three remain staffed and provide oversight during the summer months: Saddleback to the north, Babbit Peak on the east and Duncan Peak in the southern area of the Forest.
“Grouse Ridge is one of the oldest — I think there were one or two built before it,” Westling said.
Nearly a decade ago, Calpine Lookout on the Sierraville Ranger District was opened up as a rental through the National Reservation System. South East of Calpine, Sardine Lookout is also being restored for rental.
“It’s a tremendous way to enjoy the National Forest,” Westling said.
So far, the Nevada and Placer Resource Advisory Committee has supplied a grant of $3,000 for construction supplies and the community has raised $6,000 through fundraisers such as a dinner held at Cirino’s at Main Street.
Last year, radio equipment was moved to a new radio vault installed on the north side of the lookout, to allow the removal of solar panels from the lookout roof in an effort to return the building to its original 1923 style.
The detached vault toilet known as “a room with a view” has been pumped and a new liner installed. A fire crew from Big Bend will rebuild the bathroom. Volunteers removed asbestos siding and old, torn-up shelving. They poured new concrete for the propane tank pad, steps and walkway.
In the next few weeks, volunteers hope to get back to work removing the last of the asbestos walls and old metal railings.
New siding has been purchased and volunteers will paint boards at White Cloud Fire Station this summer.
Volunteer licensed contractors will install windows and put on a new roof. Cabinets for the interior, a propane cook and heat stove, a table and chairs and two twin beds will furnish the small lookout.
Though it’s not completed, people can still visit the lookout. Westling cautions people with small children and dogs to be wary of the steep drop offs. Camping is allowed at the Grouse Ridge Campground, just a short walk from the lookout tower.
It’s also a jumping off spot for multiple recreation opportunities in the Grouse Ridge Area – Think alpine lakes, granite boulders, and summer wildflowers. Trails to Milk Lake, Island Lake and Penner Lake are accessible for hiking and mountain bicycling.
“It’s a very nice way to spend the day,” Westling said.
Because of a lack of moisture this year, no campfires will be allowed in the Grouse Ridge Campground this summer, even in fire rings.
For years, Doug Jensen, of Nevada City and former bar owner of the Holiday Caberet has taken his son to the Grouse Ridge Lookout. He’s glad to know people are restoring the old building perched on the edge of the world.
His fascination for lookouts began when he was a young man working for the Forest Service in the 1970s. He has visited dozens of lookouts in California and Oregon.
“I think they are so important historically,” he said.
Some are no longer around. In his own lifetime, Jensen has watched the deterioration and loss of lookouts throughout the West.
He hopes to be one of the first people to stay a night in the Grouse Ridge Lookout.
“I’m glad it’s still there and has survived. I love being on top of a mountain. I really do. I love the fact that you can see forever,” he said.
Grouse Ridge Campground on the Web: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/tahoe/recreation/ohv/recarea/?recid=55588&actid=5
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.