Blauert on Outdoors: The view from Smith Peak is worth the trip

02/18/2014 8:38 PM

02/18/2014 8:40 PM

Last April I wrote about hiking to the top of 7,751-foot Smith Peak in western Yosemite. Later in the year the Rim fire burned over the area and it likely will continue to be off-limits for some time to come.

There’s another Smith Peak in our area and you’ve seen it if you’ve ever driven Highway 120 between Groveland and Yosemite National Park. This Smith Peak is also no stranger to fire. It was close to the perimeter of the Rim fire and the 1987 Stanislaus Complex fire burned it, destroying the fire lookout tower that crowned its 3,877-foot summit.

The tower since has been rebuilt and you can spot it from the south side of Highway 120 as you approach Buck Meadows. During much of the year you can follow a well-maintained gravel road almost all the way to the summit. A 10-minute walk will take you the rest of the way to the top.

Two weekends ago, I was itching to get out and do some exploring, despite the rain. This year, rainfall has been so exciting that the best way to appreciate it is to get out and enjoy it. For a long time Smith Peak had been on my list of places I wanted to check out, so I decided to do it after visiting the Eagle-Shawmut Mine (last week’s story). I took Denali, the German shepherd, with me because she doesn’t mind the rain.

To find the lookout, follow the signs for the Groveland District Ranger Station (between Groveland and Buck Meadows). Continue past the ranger station toward Pines Campground. Turn into the campground and follow road 1S16. If the weather has been good, the road should be open. Most winters, however, you are likely to find it closed. If that is the case, park outside the campground and you can walk the 1.7-mile route to the top.

That’s what Denali and I ended up doing. I had expected the road to be closed because of the weather, but I was surprised to find that it wasn’t. We’d already parked and I was had been looking forward to stretching my legs, so we kept on going.

The rain was light but steady most of the way up. The road climbs for just about a mile and a half before coming to a five-way intersection. When you get to the intersection, choose the direction that both continues in the same direction you were already going and also climbs more steeply than any of the others. You should be able to see a locked green gate that blocks traffic not too far beyond the intersection. If you’re driving, park at the intersection without blocking any of the other roads and continue on foot.

Smith Peak is one of only three lookouts in the Stanislaus National Forest that is still staffed during fire season. Generally, you can walk to the top of the tower by obtaining permission from the on-duty lookout personnel. The rest of the year the tower is closed, but the view from the base is nearly as good.

The total elevation gain from the campground to the summit is about 600 vertical feet. As Denali and I walked the muddy road to the top, we saw many deer tracks and some bear droppings, though no actual animals. They were probably being smarter than us and staying out of the rain. They were missing out on an exhilarating hike, however, on a route well-suited to wet conditions. There were only a couple of spots that were steep and muddy enough to make them slippery. Throughout most of the route it was easy to maintain good footing. If the weather is wet and the gate isn’t closed, consider parking and walking instead of driving in order to prevent damage to the road’s surface.

By the time that we reached the top, we were pretty wet. The open area under the skeleton of the lookout tower provided a bit of shelter. Although we couldn’t see very far because of the low storm system, there was something almost as beautiful about being lost in the clouds. I haven’t had a chance to head back up there since the recent storms, but I plan to do so very soon. I've been told that the view is especially astounding after a cold storm drops snow on the lower slopes of the Sierra.

To check current conditions at Smith Peak, or for more information, call the Groveland Ranger Station at (209) 962-7825.

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