Room with a View … And Not Much Else – Booking a Fire Lookout Rental in California

Next Level Camping is what I was looking for when I discovered you could rent fire lookouts. I’d been a member of the Forest Fire Lookout Association for years because I lived close to the Butler Peak Fire Lookout while up in Big Bear, and thought that I’d eventually be able to volunteer at the lookout. Solitude is always a draw for me, and the forest is my church. So going up to the steeple seemed like a pretty cool idea.

But my on-again/off-again relationship with Butler Peak has been mostly “off-again” because the fire roads to get there (2N13 and 2N13B) were closed after the Butler II fire in 2007, not reopening until 2016. And then those roads are – I swear – the first roads closed every winter. And, currently, the roads are closed to vehicle traffic because of major winter storm damage until October 31, 2020.

I drive a Jeep. “Major winter storm damage” to me means “4-Low” and maybe – maybe – kick on a locker or two.

But I digress.

Back in January I wrote a bit about Pine Mountain Lookout up in Mendocino being reopened in April. As it turns out, there are quite a few fire lookouts available for rent at ridiculously reasonable rates – $50 – $90 a night, with the rate at most running right around $75. That is a HELL of a good price for a 360 degree view and no loud bangin’ neighbors next door!

The best news is that you can reserve these places on Recreation.gov, and the pages there will give you an overview of the lookout, some pictures, and even tell you what amenities are available.

Here are links to fire lookouts you can rent in California on recreation.gov:

Bear Basin LookoutGirard RidgeMcCarthy Point 
Black MountainHirz MountainOak Flat
CalpineLittle Mt. HoffmanPine Mountain

There are other fire lookouts in other states you can rent. You can check availability and reserve then in the same way – fire lookouts on recreation.gov – or you can call up and talk to someone at recreation.gov toll free at (877) 444-6777

There’s a reservation fee in addition to the rental fee, you can cancel or change your reservations (for an additional fee), and there are rules and policies in place fo canceling early, no-shows, early departures (most of these rules involve fees).

I use the recreation.gov site, find the place or adventure (or, in this case, fire lookout), click on the Book Now button to check on availability using my preferred dates. If you find a place at the time you like, reserve it. If not, you can always back out before making a reservation (no fee involved).

The recreation.gov setup is pretty slick. I’ve used it to make reservations for cabins, campsites, and even reservations to hike Mount Whitney. You make your reservation, pay up, and they send you a confirmation letter that includes your confirmation number and other information that is going to be important about your stay.

Make sure you contact the local Forest Service office to find out when you can pick up the keys and any gate numbers you’ll nee ahead of time. You’ll get contact numbers and the Ranger District office info that is responsible for the lookout you’re staying at. 

There’s also a slight chance that you can pick up someone else’s cancellation (this is rare, unless there’s a weather change) by contacting the Ranger District Office. Usually this is a short-notice thing; you’ll have less than a week to plan your trip if there’s an availability.

Camp safe! See you out on the trails!