Blauert on Outdoors: Tahoe’s Calpine Lookout is worth the trip

03/04/2014 8:18 PM

03/04/2014 8:21 PM

Generally located on summits of regional high points, fire lookouts are designed to take direct lightning strikes. In addition to being equipped with lightning rods and grounding systems, even the beds and chairs have glass insulators on their feet.

Knowing this, I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by the violence of the wind during a recent stormy weekend at the Calpine Lookout in the Tahoe National Forest. Throughout our first night in the 80-year-old wooden tower, a storm shook and rattled the structure to the point where the metal framework designed to hold the heavy storm shutters in place came apart and one of the shutters came loose and swung wildly for the rest of the night. The damage was challenging to fix and I wasn’t able to find a way to jerry-rig it back in place until the next day.

Despite being awake most of the night, it was still a great trip. With windows on all four walls, the tower provided 24-hour, 360-degree views of the mountains surrounding the town of Sierraville.

Even during the storm it was possible to see snow falling on the slopes around the tower. The following night the full moon provided so much light that we could see for 10 to 20 miles in every direction.

I hesitated to write about another fire lookout since I’ve written about several recently, but this was truly an exciting experience.

It was supposed to be a snowshoe trip. During normal winters, the 2-mile trail from the small hamlet of Calpine to the historic tower on Calpine Hill usually has 1-4 feet of snow. When I booked the Presidents Day weekend dates back in the late summer, I was sure I’d picked the right three-day weekend for guaranteed snow.

About 2 inches of snow did fall on the bare ground the first night, but the rain and sun that followed melted them away.

Planning for a winter trip without significant snow meant that we could leave behind some of our snow gear, but it also meant preparing for a trip without a water source. Without snow to purify into drinking water by boiling, we had to carry all that we would be using for the three-day trip. Weighing in at 8 lbs/gallon, it increased the weight quickly. If I do a trip like this again in the future, I’ll plan on packing less food that requires water for cooking and cleaning up afterward.

The Calpine Lookout has been available for rent since its restoration in 2005. Nine years later, the inside is rustic, but still very comfortable. The outside, however, is ready for another overhaul. Nine winters of snow, wind, ice, and rain – followed by the long sunny days of summer – has done some serious damage to the woodwork and paint. Tahoe National Forest is finishing restoration work on the Sardine Lookout this summer and hopefully when they are done they will be able to give the Calpine tower some attention.

While U.S. Forest Service rentals are usually affordable, Calpine is one of the cheapest. The 14-by-14-foot lookout cabin rents for only $45 a night. Two twin beds, a small table with three chairs, a counter with a dry sink, and propane lights, heat, oven, and stove are all included. Windows on all four walls provide unforgettable views. An outhouse is a short distance from the base of the tower. Dogs are allowed, though we discovered that ours was frightened by the open risers between the treads of the stairs. After several failed attempts to teach her the skill, I ended up having to carry a 70-pound German shepherd up and down the stairs of the three-story tower several times every day. Before I take her to another lookout, we will be doing a lot of stair practice!

The Calpine Lookout is about 35 miles north of Truckee via Highway 89. Other historic fire lookouts available for rent in California are Oak Flat in Sequoia National Forest, the Bear Basin Lookout in the Six Rivers National Forest, the Hirz Mountain, Girard Ridge, and Little Mount Hoffman Lookouts in the Shasta-Trinity National Forests, and the Black Mountain Lookout in the Plumas National Forest. Hopefully more will be available in the future. The Sardine and Grouse Ridge Lookouts in the Tahoe National Forest are currently being restored. Closer to home, the Trumbull Peak Lookout in the Stanislaus National Forest has been approved for restoration, but funding has not yet been found for the project.

For reservations at any of these lookouts or other USFS rentals, go to www.recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777.

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