OK. This post is not quite Bay Area-centric. It’s Northern California, but close enough that Bay Area families could head out for a weekend to this locale.
You may or may not know that I am a huge fan of the Google. I love looking up new places to go, and Fire Tower Lookouts have become a Thing in several different lifestyle magazines of late. (See this article, or this one.) They are so much a thing that securing a rental is akin to getting tickets to Hamilton. Well, not quite that bad. But definitely bad enough that if you want to stay in one, you’ll have to figure out the EXACT day reservations open up and then sit on your computer, waiting for the reservations to open up. They are also cheaper than tickets to Hamilton–much cheaper.
Anyway, I revved up my obsessive planning skills and scored two nights to stay in the Black Mountain Fire Lookout in the Plumas National Forest. We looked at the surrounding area and decided we would spend the day in between the two nights of fire tower-ing at a nearby lake (nearby= 30 minutes drive, according to the website). Views, swimming, outdoor play– this sounded delightful!
We headed up to the fire lookout around 5pm, tired from a day of hiking (to another fire lookout– post on that to come later!) and swimming. What I did not really take in, though, was the line in the information that said, “high clearance vehicles are recommended.” We had considered renting a minivan because we had six people in our group, but decided at the last minute to take our two Subarus. All Wheel Drive, yes, but one of them was not especially high clearance. Note to self: next time, when the website suggests “high clearance vehicles,” listen. This means the road is pretty rough. How rough, you ask? So rough that I was SOOOOO ready for a beer once we got to the top, and so rough that I was very clear I was not doing that drive again. Mr Bay Area Families Outside pulled up and said, “So maybe we look for another campsite tomorrow? Instead of doing that drive again?” In other words, it’s not a fun drive. I suppose if you have a lot of experience with dirt roads and have a high clearance vehicle, it could be fine. We’re urban drivers who don’t spend much time driving dirt roads, which I would imagine is plenty of our readership as well. Be prepared– if we had rented the minivan, it would have bottomed out several times and maybe not made it up the mountain.
That said, it was a fairly spectacular place to sleep, and the kids (especially the 5 year old) LOVED it. There were two beds that comfortably could fit an adult and a small child each, and space outside to set up a tent. While the wind picked up considerably in the evening, the fire tower is snug and warm (and with 360° views in said snugness). There is a small table with a couple of chairs and an electric stove/oven (and lights at night!) but no water, so be prepared and bring plenty.
The other point about the lookout is that there is very little to do once you are there. It would have been very hot during the day, and there is little to no shade (because, you know, you’re supposed to be looking out over everything, not shaded underneath a tree, unable to see the fires). If I was having a solitary writing kind of day to my adult self, I could have seen spending the whole day there (an “Artist in a Lookout” program actually exists, as you can see here). However, trying to entertain children for the day might be a bit tough. There are no trails leading to & from the lookout, and any streams to play in are much further down the rough road. Staying one night and leaving the next morning, before it got blazingly hot, worked well for us.
One other kid-friendly detail? There is some very sturdy chicken-wire wrapped around the whole balcony (look carefully at the picture looking out of the door, above). The stairs are still rather steep and if I had a 3 year old or under, it would have been a bit of a worry (maybe bring a child gate kind of thing? I don’t know the exact measurements of the staircase), but the chicken wire meant that the 5 year old could wander around the balcony at will, and I’m not sure I would have been comfortable without the wire.
The Black Mountain Lookout is on the east side of Plumas National Forest, about 10 miles from Highway 395, which you can see from the fire tower, as well as the impressively large Honey Lake, of whose existence I had heretofore been unaware. We stayed at a campground the night before–it should be about a 5 hour drive from the Bay Area.
The lookout is dog-friendly, with a vault toilet.