You might think that technology has supplanted the need for a human being to actually keep watch over the forest for wildfires — but sometimes, what we really need is a warning that something might be amiss.
With how quickly these conflagrations can spread, we need to catch them before things really go wrong.
And that’s where fire lookout towers come in pretty handy. But sadly, most of our forested fire detection facilities have been replaced by aerial surveillance.
Fortunately, there are a number of organizations devoted to preserving the heritage of our historic fire lookouts, like Southern California Mountains Foundation, Angeles National Forest Firelook Association and Forest Fire Lookout Association (including a local chapter for San Diego-Riverside).
But not all of them have been preserved. Hundreds have burned down, succumbed to weather conditions, or been demolished or otherwise destroyed.
So, here are five of the best remaining “firelooks” in Southern California that you can visit, the last vestiges of a dying breed that are in various stages of restoration and disrepair.
If nothing else, you’ll get a spectacular view from up there. And that, of course, is by design.
1. Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout, San Bernardino National Forest
Maintained by the Southern California Mountains Foundation, this 30-foot tower that overlooks Rimforest — just off the Rim of the World Highway — was built in 1933 by the Civil Conservation Corp (as part of FDR’s New Deal to stimulate the post-Depression economy) to replace an 80-foot one that was damaged by lightning and heavy snow. It gets its name not from the Strawberry Peak near Red Box in Angeles National Forest, but rather from a nearby strawberry farm from the 1870s and ’80s. The volunteers who run Strawberry Peak Fire Lookout welcome visitors from Memorial Day through the end of the year — though, depending on their availability, they could open it early or keep it open later in the season. It’s an easy drive up a paved road to 6135 feet above sea level, no parking pass necessary. Take some time to take in the scenery and learn a bit from the interpretive areas that have been installed around the tower. Since this is still an active site for keeping watch over the forest, the volunteers’ official duties as “first reports” are key to fire response and take precedence over tourism. But, in general, the tower’s cab (which measures 14 by 14 feet) can accommodate up to five people at a time from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Just make sure you can climb three flights of stairs.
2. Tahquitz Peak Fire Lookout, San Jacinto Wilderness
If you really want to get off the grid — if being in the middle of the mountains isn’t quite remote enough for you — head to the Tahquitz Peak Fire Lookout above Idyllwild, the only Southern California lookout located inside a designated wilderness area. What does that mean for your experience? Well, besides having to hike to it — between 8 and 9.5 miles, depending on which trailhead you head off from — you’ll also need a wilderness permit in addition to your Adventure Pass (or some other such interagency pass). (Note that from Memorial Day to Labor Day, there is a maximum quota of 30 wilderness permits per day on weekends.) In fact, the San Jacinto Wilderness is so wild that all power tools — even cordless ones! — are still prohibited within its boundaries. So, when its fire tower was built in 1937, it was done entirely by hand. Apparently, they built it to last, because it’s still standing and in service 80 years later! You can find it in the San Jacinto Ranger District of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa National Monument, not far from the PCT — an area that’s also popular for rock climbing. Your options for getting there are either a relatively strenuous hike via Devil's Slide Trail (starting at Humber Park) or the more direct but steeper South Ridge Trail (starting in Idyllwild). Whichever path you choose, keep your eyes open for the endemic species in the rose family called Tahquitz mousetail (Ivesia callida), which you may find growing in the cracks of rocks once you get up past 8,000 feet elevation. Fortunately, the lookout is the highest in the San Bernardino National Forest, at 8,846 feet. Finally, beware the demon spirit of the peak’s namesake, Tahquitz — the “banished shaman” of Native American lore who makes a cave near the top of the mountain his home. Though feared and revered by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Tahquitz doesn’t usually cause any mayhem until after nightfall. Then, you might see him as a green fireball or feel the tremors as he shakes the ground. He’s also been known to eat the wanderers he’s found and captured.
3. Castro Peak Tower, Henninger Flats
Along the Old Mount Wilson Toll Road, north of the Eaton Canyon Natural Area Park and Nature Center, you’ll find a unique parcel of land at 2,550 feet of elevation that’s now appropriately run by the County of Los Angeles Fire Department, known as Henninger Flats. The toll road is a popular hiking trail into the front country of Angeles National Forest, and the “flats” — a basin named after William K. Henninger, a gold prospector who settled there in 1880 — provides a welcome, shady respite for weary visitors who pass by on foot. The fire lookout tower here has been restored into a kind of museum for fire lookouts, having been relocated from its original location at Castro Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, where it was in service from 1925 to 1971. Henninger Flats is one of five forestry units of the L.A. County Fire Department, which runs an experimental nursery there and gives away tree seedlings to the public free of charge. The hike to it is just over five miles round trip, although you can extend your journey by hiking up the toll road all the way up to Mount Wilson — the same route that building materials and equipment took during the construction of Mount Wilson Observatory. That, however, would mean practically quadrupling your hiking distance, since the round trip clocks in at 18 miles. Alternatively, head up the Idlehour Trail and set up camp at the Idlehour Trail Camp.
4. Frazier Park Tower, Los Padres National Forest
About two hours north of L.A., at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, you’ll find a historic fire service lookout tower that’s been taken out of service and now stands abandoned on top of Frazier Mountain. It’s a relatively easy drive up to the peak — which is probably why scavengers have taken anything of value out of there, leaving only an empty shell — but you wouldn’t want to do it in the snow unless your vehicle is properly outfitted with four-wheel drive and snow chains. Built in 1936, the tower has actually stood in this location since 1952, when it was related here from Santa Barbara to replace the original one from 1905 that, in a fateful twist, burned down in a forest fire. While you’re up there, your formerly 360-degree view is somewhat obscured by all the communications towers, but fortunately you can hike along plenty of dirt fire roads surrounding the tower to get a clearer perspective in multiple directions. Keep your eyes open for some California condors, which are not only endangered and protected but also unmistakable — if only just for their enormous wingspan. This peak in the Mt. Pinos Ranger District of the national forest is a known perch location for them, which isn’t surprising considering the Sespe Condor Sanctuary is located just over 20 miles southeast (at least, as the condor flies).
5. Old Topanga Fire Lookout, Malibu
If urban exploration is more your thing, you’ll delight at the concrete monolith of the old Topanga Fire Lookout at Rosas Overlook, sandwiched between Stunt Ranch State Park and Topanga State Park and just off the Backbone Trail. Find the trailhead where Stunt Road meets Schueren Road and Saddle Peak Road, by the Lois Ewen Overlook (which is worth the drive into the Malibu mountains, even just for the view). Walk along the Topanga Tower Motorway, which is a paved fire road until it splits off to the left and becomes a dirt trail. (The paved portion to the right leads into the privately owned radio tower property and becomes Radio Relay.) Stick to the main, wide, dirt trail — resisting some of the spur trail scrambles that go up the ridge to the right — for about a mile until you spot a concrete slab atop a peak straight ahead. Hikers have clawed their way to the top at the end of the trail, but you can follow a single-track trail to the right for a much more civilized climb up some old, graffitied steps. Along the way, watch for hummingbirds and plenty of scrub jays as you breathe in all the aromas of the chaparral habitat, like laurel sumac and buckwheat. You’re apt to find some wildflowers up there, too — even in the fall, when the Indian paintbrush (a.k.a. Castilleja) is still in bloom. On a clear day, it can be hard to imagine that the smog had ever gotten so bad that it rendered the lookout tower more or less obsolete. By 1972, the fire department had been relying nearly exclusively on helicopter surveillance and reports from nearby civilians.