Last Labor Day, Emily and I rented an old US Forest Service lookout tower near Mt. Shasta. It was the perfect weekend getaway with amazing views, the right amount of roughing it, vibrant night skies, and no bears.
I found out about the USFS lookout rentals from a colleague at work who spent an extended weekend at one. I remember visiting a forest service tower when visiting my Aunt as a kid, so the thought of camping out in one was really exciting. Lookout availability and reservations are arranged through Recreation.gov.
Randomly, we picked the Girard Ridge Lookout, not quite realizing that Mt. Shasta was a 6 hour drive away. I think I was operating on the notion that name familiarity was related to distance. By that logic, Mt. Shasta was a half hour away. One piece of advice is book early, we booked in May for an August reservation.
The drive up to Mt. Shasta was extremely pleasant, even for a holiday weekend. We left San Francisco, in our City Car Share Subaru Impreza, around 6:30am and beat a majority of the traffic.
The directions provided from the highway were fairly limited:
Exit the Interstate at the Soda Creek exit 726. From here, the lookout is approximately 7.5 miles over mostly dirt road. Head east towards the Sacramento River. Cross the bridge over the river and veer right until you come to a road intersection. Turn right on Riverside and follow a curvy and narrow paved road to the intersection of the Girard Ridge Road (Forest Service Road Number 38N23). Turn left, heading up hill. The road will change from pavement to dirt at the 1.9 mile mark from I-5. You will pass some microwave towers. At the top of the hill at approx 6.5 miles from the interstate look for a road intersection, this is Forest Service Road Number 39N13. It will be your first left. Turn here and travel approximately .6 mile to an unnumbered road again on your left. A sign says Girard Ridge Lookout with an arrow. Turn here and you will come to a green Forest Service gate. Open the gate and travel on this road until you reach the lookout (about 1/2 mile).
The roads up to the lookout are rough logging roads, we found that renting the Subaru Impreza was helpful, but not completely necessary, you could get by with a reliable car. I wouldn’t attempt it in an overloaded, underpowered van of an ‘early 90’s vintage. Another piece of advice, if you reach a fork in the road, take the one that looks most travelled. We made a wrong turn on a very overgrown, narrow, and steep, logging side access path, a little scary. Another bit of advice, since it is difficult to estimate time and distance on the mountain roads, pay attention to your odometer to help you identify forks mentioned in the directions.
There are ranger stations in either direction of the highway exit to the lookout. Each station has water access and useful information regarding local hiking trails. The camping experience at the lookout could be classified as car camping light, we brought coolers and a 5 gallon container of water which we refilled every time we went down the ridge. We stored food in the car in coolers, the lookout gets really hot during the day, but there is shaded space under the lookout which would be a good place to keep your perishables cool.
I was concerned about bears so the point that I was nervous about eating in the lookout, the rangers we spoke with didn’t seem to concerned about this. I would say use common sense, don’t store food inside the lookout, and keep a clean site. There are no garbage containers at the site, so pack it in, pack it out. We didn’t spot any significant wildlife outside of some really fat quails on the trail to the lookout.
We spend three nights and four days at the lookout which was just the perfect amount of time. There isn’t too much to do at the lookout site itself, but there is plenty of hiking, fishing, swimming, etc within a few minutes drive. The best part of the lookout location was taking in the night sky. Watching the setting sun and changing colors of Mt. Shasta and Castle Crags was the perfect way to spend an evening. We were lucky to enjoy clear nights that popped the stars, planets and the haze of Milky Way.
We highly recommend booking at weekend in a US Forest Service lookout. It’s the perfect prescription to recharge from this hectic modern world and regain perspective. It’s great for people who haven’t camped a lot but want to get the isolation that you experience from backpacking.