Monday, July 17, 2017

Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail

Rugged Sierra Buttes cliffs with lookout far back on top
Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail connects the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with the lookout perched on the ridge of Sierra Buttes (8,587 feet; 2,617 m), northeast of Sierra City in Sierra County, California [1,2]. This trail may also be addressed as Sierra Buttes Trail, depending on which map, trail guide or hiking post you consult.

The 2.5 mile-long climb to the fire lookout starts at the Sierra Buttes Trailhead steel gate shown below. As you can see, the PCT here coincidences with the Sierra Buttes Trail. After about one mile you will arrive at the Y-junction, where the left-side trail, winding up from the Tamarack Lakes, meets the Sierra Buttes Trail and PCT. At the next Y-junction the Sierra Buttes Trail and the PCT split apart. Ascend the left-side trail that follows the forested ridge. At various trail points you will experience grand views of the Tamarack Lakes and, higher up, of the Sardine Lakes and Young America Lake.

Young America Lake seen from Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail

As you are getting closer to the top of the Buttes, a set of switchbacks are leading uphill until the trail merges with the jeep road, which usually is closed for motorized traffic. A few more switchbacks on the road and you will find yourself between cliffs and pinnacles. A series of sturdy stairs with handrails connect the trail-end with the lofty lookout.  A plaque honors the five Tahoe National Forest employees who made it possible for visitors to easily and safely climb up to the lookout by constructing the metal stairs and platforms in the summer of 1964. It has been noticed that parts of the stairs hang over empty space [3]—and that the stairway is not for hikers with vertigo! But safe they are.

A wooden board at the bottom of the stairs provides a basic background of the geology and history of Sierra Buttes and its fire lookout:

The majestic Sierra Buttes tower nearly 5000 feet [1524 m] above Sierra City and is the gateway to the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. The Sierra Buttes are composed of metamorphosed rock called quartz porphry [porphyry] which was exploded from undersea volcanoes about 350 million years ago. These volcanic deposits are highly resistant to erosion. Gold was first discovered here in 1849. And by the late 1800's eleven mines were operating on or near the Buttes. In 1869 a 106 pound nugget was uncovered at the monumental mine near the Buttes. A forest service fire lookout tower is perched on the Buttes. During periods of high fire danger the lookout keeps a constant watch for wildfires.

Sierra Buttes fire lookout
When I was at the lookout with a friend on July 14, 2017, we didn't notice any fire-lookout personal. But the fire danger was high. The same day, the Cold Springs Fire between Bordertown and Stead (near Reno, about 50 miles east of the Buttes) developed enough smoke such that Highway 395 was shut in both directions.

Getting to the Sierra Buttes Trailhead

From Bassetts Station at Highway 49, drive uphill on Gold Lake Highway to its junction with Packer Lake Road. Turn left on Packer Lake Road and proceed past the Packsaddle Campground to the Tamarack Lakes Trailhead, 0.2 mile past the turnoff for Packer Lake Lodge. Consider the Tamarack Lakes Trailhead as an option to hike—past the Tamarack Lakes—uphill to access the PCT and Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail. To start your hike from the Sierra Buttes Trailhead, continue on the steep and narrow road toward Packer Saddle (a PCT access point).  Past the saddle, drive south on the paved. After 0.4 mile, veer left onto the dirt road to arrive at the Sierra Buttes Trailhead after 0.1 mile. Begin your hike on the old jeep road beyond a closed steel gate, shown in the following picture. 

Sierra Buttes Trailhead


References and more to explore

[1] JoshMc: Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Hike. California Through My Lens. June 28, 2016 [].
[2] Tom Sienstra: Sierra Buttes lookout climb takes an act of faith. SFGATE, August 14, 2011 [].
[3] Stepping Back in Time. Sierra Foothill Magazine [].

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