MERCED — Hard work, risk, technology and determination are finally bringing the Rim fire under control. There's a lot left to do, but a lot has already been accomplished.
Technology is assisting the effort in new ways, but the lion's share of the work is still being done by actual humans on the ground. Often working long past exhaustion for days on end, they are the heroes of this disaster.
Before modern technology, fire lookout towers were the first line of defense. A fire spotted early by an alert lookout had a greater chance of being extinguished.
At one time there were more than 500 lookout towers in California. Today, many no longer exist, some are abandoned, a few are available for rent as unique overnight lodgings, some are maintained but not regularly staffed and some are still actively manned during fire season.
Although new technology and a realization that fire serves a purpose in the forest have changed the way we approach handling fires, the tremendous accumulation of brush and dead trees in many of our forests make these fires unnaturally dangerous. Until we solve the problem of accumulated flammable materials, fires will continue to be unnecessarily destructive and quick detection will continue to be very important.
Lookout towers continue to play a role in local fire control. There are a number of lookouts in the nearby hills and mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
Part of what makes lookout towers great destinations are the views. Lookouts are generally situated on top of peaks that command impressive 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape. I started working on this story before the Rim fire broke out and several of the lookouts are currently inside areas that are closed to the public.
Active lookout sites generally welcome visitors during daylight hours and the lookout on duty can usually explain his/her duties and identify major landmarks visible from the tower. Some are staffed by volunteers, others by paid staff.
Merced County has only one lookout, located on Basalt Hill above San Luis Reservoir. This lookout is not accessible to the public. Mariposa County offers several that are. Most require some route-finding on unpaved forest roads. Having a forest map or a USGS topo is a must. Road signs are sometimes present at junctions, but often not.
Signal Peak: Also known as Devil Peak, this is my favorite local lookout. At the top of the Chowchilla Range, it offers impressive views of southern Yosemite and Sierra National Forest from 6,992 feet. It is staffed through the summer months. The most straightforward access is from Jerseydale. From Highway 49, take Darrah Road to Triangle Road.
Darrah becomes Jerseydale Road at this junction. Follow it to the Jerseydale fire station. Turn right and follow Road 5S25 for about nine miles to 4S31. 4S31 climbs towards Signal Peak. When you reach a junction, make a steep left turn on 4S31A for the final climb to the top. The road is pretty rough and requires high clearance and tough tires. At times, 4WD may be necessary, though I didn't have to switch it on when I made the drive in July.
Williams Peak: This abandoned site is my favorite lower elevation lookout. Although it's only 3,205 feet above sea level, it commands a great view of the foothills of Mariposa County, Lake McClure, the Merced River Canyon near Bagby, and the western edge of the granite Sierra Nevada. It's best on a clear fall or spring day when the road isn't muddy from recent weather. The tower itself is in pretty poor shape and the views can be enjoyed without risking climbing the stairs.
To get to Williams Peak, take Bear Valley Road 8.7 miles northeast from the plaza in Hornitos. Watch for Hunters Valley Road on the left. Two miles after you pass it, you'll be turning left on Hunters Valley Mountain Road. Shortly after you turn the road downgrades to a gravel and dirt surface, passable by all vehicles unless there's been a lot of bad weather recently. After passing a few homes, you'll be on BLM land. Drive a total of 2.2 miles from the turnoff and park when you see the road split with a metal gate on the left branch. The gate has a large metal "Williams Peak" sign, so there's no chance you'll miss it. Park nearby and walk the road beyond the gate it's about a mile to the summit.
Pilot Peak: The Rim Fire is currently being fought along Pilot Ridge and this lookout likely won't be accessible for some time. From Coulterville, follow Greeley Hill Road to Smith Station Road. Continue on Greeley Hill Road to Bull Creek Road and turn left. Just past the historical marker for Bower Cave, turn left on the Old Yosemite/Old Coulterville Road (2S01). After about 9 miles a sign should indicate a left turn on 2S04 to the lookout. The remaining drive is 1.2 miles.
This lookout offers spectacular views of Central Yosemite and Stanislaus National Forest from 6,009 feet. Before the fire, the road generally required high clearance, but not 4WD. Afterwards may be a different story.
Trumbull Peak: This abandoned lookout on the north edge of the Merced River Canyon may also be inaccessible for some time after the fire. The last time I was there was before the 2011 Motor Fire, and the road had a lot of brushy overgrowth. We made it in a full-size Chevy truck without having to switch on the 4WD, however, the truck still has some battle scars.
To find the lookout, follow the Pilot Peak directions, but continue on 2S01 for about 2 miles instead of taking the Pilot turnoff. At Five Corners (an obvious 5-way junction), take 1S12. After about 6 ½ miles, turn right on 2S20 for about 5 miles. There's a short walk to the lookout from the parking area. The drop-offs around the lookout are very steep and the tower and former lookout residence are unsafe to enter. Although the lookout is only at 5,004, the steep landscape makes it appear much higher.
Signal Peak is the best bet to visit this time of year. Williams Peak is an excellent fall destination. If you plan to visit the Pilot or Trumbull lookouts, call the Stanislaus National Forest for current conditions they probably won't be accessible again until next year or possibly even longer.
Stay tuned for additional nearby lookouts next week!
Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.