Spanish Peak lookouts — guards watched for fire for nearly 50 years
The first lookout built on Spanish Peak, an outhouse-like structure, stands on the edge of the flat peak Oct. 14, 1913. The elevation of the peak at the time was thought to be 7,045 feet. Photo submitted
A fire lookout’s job can be solitary and lonely; the single “guard” is constantly on vigil to detect smoke in the often dense, unpopulated forests that surround his or her isolated abode.
Lookout structures are usually small, windy places high up on a mountaintop with spectacular 360-degree views.
Hikers who make the 4- to 5-mile trek up to Spanish Peak in the Plumas National Forest are rewarded with stunning views that look north to Lassen Peak, east to Mount Hough and Grizzly Ridge and south to Pilot Peak and the Sierra Buttes.
The site was recognized by PNF personnel way back in the early 1900s as a good vantage point for spotting forest fires over a wide swath of central Plumas County. It was last used in 1966.
A lookout job description taken from a 2013 PNF recruiting guide for temporary/seasonal fire and resource positions states, “Lookouts are the first line of defense for fire suppression efforts. Lookouts are staffed with a full time lookout and a part time lookout to cover days off. The lookout’s job is to locate emerging fires and communicate fire information to the local dispatch center.
“Lookouts also host tower visitors and provide current and historic information to forest visitors. The job is solitary in nature often going days on end without contact with people. The lookouts may be engaged in small repairs and maintenance of the lookout tower.”
Spanish Peak lookout
The top of Spanish Peak is fairly flat and the rocky ground is strewn with a jumble of pilings, concrete foundation remnants and iron stanchions. A concrete slab with a rough-built rock wall for wind protection gives visitors a clue as to what once occupied the site.
According to photographs and documents found at the Plumas County Museum (with the expert help of museum director Scott Lawson), and PNF archaeologists, there used to be a staffed fire lookout at Spanish Peak.
Prior to the first lookout structure that was built in the early 1900s, a road constructed by the Monte Christo Mining Co. around 1880 was put in from Eagle Gulch to the mine, a couple miles below Spanish Peak.
According to lookouts of the Plumas National Forest, the first Spanish Peak lookout was a classic “PNF MOD” style lookout design that evolved through several phases of redesign and reconstruction:
“Originally built in 1913, rebuilt in 1922, modified in 1933, it was finally a 19-by-30-foot standard wooden cab on the ground with living quarters.”
The lookout was not a tower, as many lookouts are. Instead, it perched on the edge of the mountain with a clear view to the north, east and south. At one point a deck extended further out over the mountainside.
Doris Rippy is reported to be the last lookout at Spanish Peak, which was closed Dec. 2, 1966, during a driving snowstorm. The lookout building was removed in 1974.
The heyday of lookout construction was in the 1930s, when many of the structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In the 1970s, technological advances made numerous lookouts obsolete for spotting fires. In the ’90s, some of those lookouts began to be repurposed as recreational rentals.
In Plumas County, one lookout, Black Mountain Lookout near Honey Lake off 395, is available to rent for $60 per night.
Beckwourth archaeologist Mary Kliejunas said that four dedicated volunteers are currently working on repurposing the Crocker Guard Station for future rental use that she estimates is a couple years down the line.
Other nearby lookouts currently available to rent are McCarthy Point Lookout in Lassen County and Calpine Lookout in Tahoe County. Go to recreation.gov or reserveamerica.com to book your stay.
For more information on forest lookouts, go to californialookouts.weebly.com or contact the Forest Fire Lookout Association at firelookout.org.