Spontaneous trips are sometimes just what you need.
I recently found out that you can stay overnight in old fire lookouts and immediately went to find one close to San Francisco. I stumbled upon Calpine Fire Lookout and luckily enough there was a mid-week last minute cancellation for Wednesday and Thursday night.
Luckily, my boyfriend and I are able to work from home on a whim, so we decided to snatch up the reservations that were otherwise all booked through next February. Let me just start off by saying how INCREDIBLY happy I am that we did! It was serene, peaceful, adventurous and at times a bit eery - with all the creaks and noises in the dark of night we usually don't hear in the city.
Calpine Lookout is about a 4-hour drive from San Francisco and about a 30-minute drive from Truckee. After checking in at the ranger station, we winded our way past cows, horses and sheep grazing in large open pastures as we peered up at the towering green mountains that surrounded us. It was refreshing to have a break from the city and be encompassed by nature.
We find our turn off and make our last 15 minute drive up a rough dirt road that felt like a roller coaster - pleased that we had a rental - and came upon our home for the next two nights.
The outside of the lookout was a weathered white and gray with paint chipping off here and there. Our room was on the observation level that had a wrap around deck and windows on all sides so we had 360-degree views. Inside it had a small propane stove, a desk, two twin beds, an old fire lookout compass and a dry sink - it was glamping at its finest.
As our first adventure, we decided to do a hike to another fire lookout - Sierra Buttes Lookout - which ended up being a 6.5 mile hike (because of our slight unbeknownst detour) that was all uphill. With the altitude and us climbing up to 8,587 elevation, let's just say we were definitely winded after the hike up. At the top of the ridge, we then had to climb 200 metal stairs to reach the actual lookout perched high over a cliff. As we climbed up the stairs, we could look down at the emptiness and tumbling mountain below us. We finally made it to the top and had a celebratory beer to calm the nerves and help us catch our breath as we took in the scenery - and it was well worth it.
Around us, there were a few patches of snow still clinging onto the last chill as summer heated the mountain side. Below us we could see a few different alpine lakes and a dense forest that surrounded them. Further down we could see yellow fields that had been carved out by glaciers and surrounded by jagged mountains. Taking this all in, feeling accomplished after the hike up and refreshed from our still cold beers, was one of those moments in life, you know you'll look back on.
When we got back to our lookout, we uncorked a bottle of wine and took chairs out to sit on the deck. We chatted, read and soaked up the nature around us. When the sun started to lower, orange streaks splashed across the sky as the mountains turned blue and the trees a dark green - it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen.
After our dinner of bacon-wrapped tenderloin cooked with pineapples and brussels sprouts, we watched the stars slowing peak out from the veil of the night as we continued to chat and drink more wine.
The first night we hardly slept, the night was so silent, the crickets were so loud and we'd hear noises that made us think that some animal was climbing up our stairs. But when the moon went down and the stars were all out, it became peaceful as I could just turn over and see the night sky. I could perfectly see my favorite constellation, Pleiades or the Seven Sisters right from my bed. On the second night, we were lucky enough to have a meteor shower and so we got up at 1am and sat under the stars watching them shoot across the sky one after the other. In the early morning, the sky was painted yellow, orange and red as the sun rose and we lay snuggled in our sleeping bags, watching the sun come up as the birds begin to chirp.
On our last day, we decided to do another hike that passed by six different Alpine lakes - starting with Round Lake. We packed sandwiches of leftover pork loin, tomatoes, and spinach and made our way through the trail, pausing at each lake. Near the halfway mark, we found a big rock along a lake to take a break and watched dragonflies hover around and lake trout splash up for a mid-day snack.
After our hike, we went to the Gold Lake Lodge for an ice cold beer and wash off from the dusty trails. An ice cold beer after a good long hike, I believe is the perfect combo. We decided for the rest of the day that we would go to a clothing optional hot springs, it was $15 for 3 hours and at that point, I'd pay $15 just for a shower. It was definitely a weird but fun experience. They had a few different pools - one for meditation, one with an alarmingly hot soak tub and a cold plunge bath, they even had random bathtubs placed along the side of the trail walking up to the main pool where people were just lounging naked in. All in all, it was a great experience, but after an hour or two, we were definitely ready for wine and the cozy solitude of our hut...and less...old naked hippies.
When we got back, we cooked a Tri-Tip steak for dinner, drank more wine and watched another sunset that never ceased to amaze me, followed by shooting stars, constellations and a faint dusting of the Milky Way.
Would I come back? 100% yes. I'd even go soak with old hippies again for the sake of a shower and relaxation after a few days of hiking.
- The Captain