Covid-19 Escape: Oak Flat Fire Lookout Tower

By Paul Gipe

The Castle Complex Fires in Sequoia National Forest have put a damper on our Covid-19 escapes. We had planned to drive deep into the forest for a hike to the Baker Point Botanical Area. That’s off the table for now. It’s too close to the fire, too smoky, and the forest is now officially closed to visitors.

Instead we headed 25 miles northeast of Bakersfield toward the Oak Flat fire lookout tower off Rancheria Road. That sounds simple enough but 15 of those miles were on an “improved” dirt road. This is a bone rattling trip over a rutted and washed out road that gave both the Bolt and its passengers a good beating.

When we arrived at the “unimproved” portion that calls for a “high-clearance vehicle” in the Forest Service’s vernacular we took one look at the road said in unison, “Let’s walk.”

It was only a mile or so to the summit and once we started up we were glad we chose to walk. The Bolt may have made it with a driver skilled on such roads. I am not. I don’t think my nerves would have held out.

The lookout tower is rented by the Forest Service for overnight stays. Later we learned that friends had driven their passenger cars up there decades ago. They are either very bold drivers or the road has changed in the intervening years.

As with many of our other Covid-19 escapes, we were the only people there and had the summit to ourselves. Of course, we could hardly see the view for the smoke, but it was a treat to get out of hot, smoky Bakersfield.

Nancy found some wildflowers so she was happy.

I scaled the lookout tower for what view there was. If you’ve never been in a NFS lookout tower it’s important to note that the outhouse is on the ground and it’s a long, very steep flight of stairs to navigate if you respond to the call of nature in the middle of the night. A “chamber pot” might be an important piece of gear to bring if you plan to spend the night there.

Once back at the car we continued up Rancheria Road until we got out of the oak woodlands and reached the Jeffrey pines. That was enough for us. We knew that somewhere up ahead the road was closed so we decided to call it a day and head back.

The entire time we were on Rancheria Road we saw only one other vehicle–a big Ford truck.

It was a good if not dusty day. It took hours later to clean the dust out of the Bolt’s nooks and crannies.