The Sierra Buttes (8,591 feet) are a striking geological feature in the Tahoe National Forest near the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. They are composed of highly erosion resistant quartz prophry that exploded from undersea volcanoes about 300 million years ago. We were attracted to them – as are many others – by the unique lookout on their high point, their presence on the Sierra Peak Section’s list (SPS List), and the fact that we hadn’t spent much time in this northern part of the Sierras. Later we would find that this lookout is billed as a major tourist attraction in just about every brochure covering this part of the Sierra Nevada. You can drive – probably not with a 2WD sedan – to within 0.5 miles of the lookout but we opted to hike up from the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) trailhead off Forest Road 93-02 (you can also do a longer hike up by starting at Packer Lake). We got to the trailhead fairly early only to find several cars already there, dirt bikers roaring along the road, and a way station for a mountain bike race that was scheduled to start soon. We would also encounter a lot of people along the trail. Our bad for doing this hike on a weekend!
Viewed from the highway on the way to the trailhead, the Buttes tower over the pristine lakes and hillsides of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area and the now out-of-service lookout on the highest point of the buttes is clearly visible.
From the parking lot, we headed toward the PCT sign, through a much abused metal gate, and on to the dusty trail, which is actually an old road.
The road/trail climbs fairly steeply through pine trees for 0.5 mile before flattening out and providing nice views of the hills where miners used to search for gold. The fire lookout is visible to the southeast. Here we had the option of following part of the PCT – an actual trail.
A little further along, the summit trail – which is obviously heavily used – widens, departs left from the PCT, and starts climbing again. It’s a little confusing here in that the PCT beckons to the right as a trail but the actual summit trail looks more like an ATV track. If you follow the PCT, you’ll eventually have to make a sharp left turn on yet another old road and climb steeply back up to the summit trail.
After ascending an exposed slope, the summit trail went back into the trees and continued to climb steeply. The day was starting to heat-up already and going back into the cool forest was a welcome relief from the heat and sun. Along in here is a small parking area, which is the start of the hike for off-roaders who drove up the OHV road from the trailhead. This road is not accessible by regular vehicles.
After narrowing into more of a trail, going through the forest for awhile, and ascending several long switchbacks, the summit trail merged with the service road to the lookout.
This road took us up to the base of pinnacle on which is perched the 1963 lookout, now reached by a series of stairs with 176 steps. These stairs were built in 1964 by Forest Service employees. One assumes that the heights were reached back in the day (this has been a lookout site since 1908) with some combination of truly scary wooden ladders and maybe some rock climbing!
Climbing these stairs is the truly exciting part of this hike, surpassed only slightly by the stunning views from the airy lookout. If you’re afraid of heights, these stairs might be a deal breaker!
The site was first used for fire detection in 1908. In 1916 a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin was constructed followed, in 1933, by a 9 foot by 9 foot cab on a six foot base. By 1945, the lookout had evolved into a metal structure perched on stilts. The current CL-100 metal 14 foot by 14 foot live-in cab, on a cinder block foundation, went into service in 1963, followed by the stairs in 1964.
Despite some haze, the views from the lookout’s catwalk were magnificent all around – the Lakes Basin area to the northeast, peaks in the Desolation Wilderness to the southeast (details), and Lassen Peak to the north. The fact that you can see several hundred feet down through the grilled bottom of the lookout’s catwalk only added to the thrill.
We had passed or had been passed by a few people on the way up but now we could see many more folks making their way up the road, so it was time to head back. We passed lots more people on the way down and, once back at the trailhead, had to extricate ourselves from the mountain bike race that was now in progress. In fact, the road to the trailhead was now closed for the race and late arriving hikers had to hike an additional 0.5 miles to reach the trailhead. A short (5.0 miles round trip, 1,600 feet of elevation gain) but really fun (those stairs!) hike, probably best done on a weekday if at all possible.