I spent six whole months dreaming of the Calpine Fire Lookout, and I will likely spend the next six whole months wishing I was still there. Yeah—it was that good.
When my friend Paulina first suggested booking a few nights in the 85-year-old wooden tower for a long weekend this spring, I jumped at the opportunity; staying in one of these historic structures, only a fraction of which are available for rent, has been an enduring item on my outdoor bucket list. It would be six months before we were able to take our perch, since the place books up that far in advance, but as I suspected, the experience was well worth the wait.
Sure, I had cell service the entire time, but I chose to stay blissfully disconnected—or, at least, I chose to only stay connected to the kind of things that truly mattered.
As part of the infrastructure programs supported by FDR’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed over three thousand fire lookouts in national forests across the country (albeit heavily concentrated in western states where wildfire was—and is, of course—typically a larger threat). The Calpine tower skirts treeline on a forested bump at 5,890’ in the Tahoe National Forest, ancestral homelands of the Washoe people who’ve inhabited the area for at least two thousand years.
The three-story, “windmill-style” structure, only one of three of this type of lookout left in California, served as an active lookout for just over forty years; it was decommissioned in 1975, and remained closed to the public until 2005. While the bottom two levels are still off-limits, you can now rent the 14’x14’ “observation cab,” which is outfitted with 360 degrees of nearly full-length windows—perfect for ogling an endless sea of peaks and pines.
When our trip finally rolled around after a particularly tumultuous few months, I was hoping for a little peace and quiet—and aside from our near-constant laughter (and Lizzo’s incomparable Cuz I Love You on repeat), that’s exactly what I discovered, at least in part thanks to the fact that the access road that winds up to the tower was still closed, which helped keep most visitors at bay.
Upon arriving at the road, we hoisted our supplies—which included food, water, bedding, watercolors, personal items, and a few games—about a mile and a half uphill, then ascended a winding staircase to the observation deck, which wraps completely around the top floor. Inside, we found two beds and a cot, a table and chairs, an array of basic kitchenware, a sink (without a faucet), and a propane-fueled fireplace, stove, and lighting. An Osborne Fire Finder, a sighting device that helps pinpoint the location of smoke or fire in the distance, occupied the center of the tiny cabin, complete with a detailed guide on how to use it (whether we did so correctly is another story).
Once properly embedded in our cozy new treehouse, my friends and I spent several days deep in the practice of idleness, watching storms breeze through, enjoying colorful sunsets, playing endless rounds of Shithead, eating various cheese products, perusing the fascinating logbook (and its rather suspect tales of a mystical creature dubbed the “Sweet Potato Man”), drinking coffee and tea and wine, completing a very adorable cat-themed puzzle, and dancing circles around the Osborne Fire finder to said Lizzo album over and over and over again. Well, we mostly practiced idleness, save for one ambitious morning when I decided to stretch my legs on a trail run that resulted in bloodshed when I tripped over a large pinecone.
Clearly, Mother Nature wanted me to remain in chill mode.
My time at the Calpine lookout served as the perfect bonding experience with friends, fodder for future book writing fantasies, and motivation for a little physical and emotional reset. Sure, I had cell service the entire time, but I chose to stay blissfully disconnected—or, at least, I chose to only stay connected to the kind of things that truly mattered.
WHAT TO KNOW
Per night cost is $45 as of summer 2019
The lookout can be reserved year-round, but note that the access road will close once the snow flies, and you’ll need to hoof it up on foot, snowshoes, or skis
You’ll need to bring all of your food, water, and bedding; I also recommend additional lighting and a selection of entertainment options (books, games, etc.)
There is no electricity at the lookout; all appliances and lights are propane-fueled
A vault toilet, picnic area, and fire pit (check for restrictions) are located below the lookout
All photos by Shawnté Salabert