Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout Hike: A Historic Lookout & Crazy Stairs

For over two years this hike has been on my “to do” list, but I had not been up to the Tahoe / Sierra County area to do it. The Reader’s Digest version of the hike is that it is a 6-mile roundtrip hike to an old fire lookout, that is only accessed by a pretty sketchy set of staircases, to a bluff with 360-degree views. You can even see Mt Lassen, 100 miles away on a clear day. I finally got the chance to check it off my list and let me tell you; it is in my top ten hikes I have ever been on. Read on for all the information and check out the video at the end.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 4

Details

  • 6 miles
  • 1800 feet of gain
  • Intense stairs at the end if you are afraid of heights. Make sure to be careful!

Getting There

From Highway 49 at Bassetts, you take Gold Lake Highway North and turn left onto Sardine Lake / Packer Lake Road. Stay right at the fork that goes to Sardine Lakes then continue on this road for a few miles till it passes a turn off for Packer Lake lodge. There will be a dirt road that you drive on for about a quarter of a mile and signs for the Pacific Crest Trail and there is a small parking area that will have a Sierra Buttes sign (this is from memory so it could change, make sure to get the GPS coordinates before you go as you will not have service).

History

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 17

The lookout itself was built as a vantage point for fires in around 1915, one of many in the Tahoe area. The actual completion of the stairs though was done in 1964 by five Tahoe employees during the summer, and it made it possible for people to visit the top safely.

The Hike

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 34

After driving up from Tahoe, you will be on Highway 49, Golden Chain Highway, which will take you past Sardines Lake and up to about 7000 feet, where the trailhead is.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 23

From here you will begin your journey by setting out on the well-worn trail. We got there at 7:30 in the morning and were the only car in the parking lot but on the way back we passed 40 people, so go early.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 25

The trail is uphill almost right away, as it starts the elevation gain necessary to climb 1800 feet in only 2.5 miles. That being said it still feels pretty gradual except for a few steep parts near the end where you will be feeling the elevation for sure. You should be in decent shape to enjoy this hike though as it is taxing enough.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 26

After the first steep stretch, the trail levels out for a quarter mile as you meander along the ridge and see beautiful wildflowers during the springtime.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 11

From here it starts the second steep section which takes you through a beautifully shaded grove of trees.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 14

When crossing through the forest, there is a bend in the trail that leads to the cliff side; you should take it as it will take you to an overlook of a majestic lake. It was even crystal clear from our vantage point, and I want to figure out how to hike to it in the future.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 31

Continue onward up through the forest until you reach a set of switchbacks. These will let you know you are getting close. Soon they will dump you on a four-wheel drive access road, that is now closed, which you will be hiking on for another quarter-mile.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 16

As we neared the top, we even spotted a marmot, but luckily he didn’t try to take our food like on Half Dome.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 9

After rounding the bend, you will be at a saddle and can walk out to get a good vantage point of both the lookout and the stairs leading up to it. This is where the pictures start to not do justice to the craziness of the hike.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 38

After photographing the lookout, we headed around the backside to the base of the stairs.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 32

These 180 stairs will lead you to the butte that the lookout sits on and I started up.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 21

I have done some crazy hikes like Half Dome and Angels Landing, and while this is nowhere near as scary as those, it still induces a little vertigo as you head up.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 1

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, you are now 10 feet below the lookout on a small 20′ x 40′ rock outcropping.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 2

Proceed up to the fire lookout, and you will be treated to one of the best views in the entire area. Sardines Lakes (upper and lower) are below you, and Mt Lassen is off in the distance, it is majestic.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 6

It all seems pretty safe up here except for one corner where the grate below showcases a 300-foot drop. It is pretty intense to stand there and stare through the grate to the rocks hundreds of feet below.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 22

The interior of the lookout was closed, but you could see a fridge and an oven in there for whoever stayed there back in the day.

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Here are some pictures of the lookout, stairs, and view.

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 3

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 37

Sierra Buttes Fire Outlook 5

After spending 30 minutes up there in with no other visitors, we headed down the trail and passed about 40 people coming up. If you want solitude, then make sure to go early.

Here is a video of my time on the hike.

All in all, this is one of my favorite hikes in California. Please let me know if you have done it and what you think in the comments.

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  • Nate

    6 miles and 1800 ft is a relatively small price for the huge payoff of the views on top of the fire lookout. Just try to keep those knees from wobbling as you are climbing the stairs!

  • lkm

    So how long was the hike round trip?

    • Its about 6 miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain round trip.

  • kyacker

    In the late 60’s, while a teenager, my family camped at and swam in the Sardine lakes, Sand Pond and Snag lake. At that time a 4 wheel drive road to the Sierra Buttes file lookout was open to the public and you could drive all the way to the lookout tower. Beautiful drive, stunning views, and memories that have lasted a lifetime. Thanks for the photos, and bringing back the memories. I recall watching the rangers plot a fire from the table in the center of the lookout

    • Thanks for sharing that story, it sounds like a fantastic memory!

  • Julie

    I have hiked this beautiful trail four times in four consecutive years. In July of 2014 was my last hike at age 70. I did it first by myself and then again twice with a grandson and then last year with my grandson age 18 and a granddaughter age 11. We all loved it and hope we can do it again soon. We hiked trails to many beautiful lakes and also fished and camped for two weeks near Sierra City. It was all great!!

    • Thanks for the comment and for sharing your story about the hike! I agree, that area is magical!

  • Stefanie Garden

    I did this hike with my two dogs (the stairs were almost a deal breaker!) in 2006. There was a woman that lived there at the time and she would let you come into the house/room, talk history and tell you about her life. She baked cookies for all the hikers that visited too! It really added something special to the over all experience.

    • Wow, that is a super fun story!

  • JCF

    This is the second time in about a month that Google has brought me to your blog! [First was re Eagle Lake, above Emerald Bay, Tahoe]

    I was just staying in this area this past week. We didn’t do this climb, but did hike around the Lakes Basin. Eating dinner at the (really wonderful) Sardine Lake Resort, looking up at the Buttes, I wondered what it would be like to climb up to the lookout. Now I know! Gotta do this sometime…

    • Thanks for the comment and glad Google brought you back! This is a fantastic hike, the views are spectacular. Def add it to your list to check out

  • Kim

    I plan to do this hike in a couple of weeks. I am very impressed that you have done both Half Dome and Angels Landing. I did Angels Landing just up to that Scout Lookout (before the chains). I hope I won’t be too afraid to climb these stairs!

    • Thanks for the comment Kim, I think you should be fine! Let me know how it goes!

  • Danielle

    I will be visiting CA next week and breathtaking pictures like these make me wish I could spend a month instead of only 9 days. Thank you for all your wonderful posts so I can at least live vicariously through you. Keep exploring and sharing!

    • No problem, hope your 9 days are fantastic!

  • Kurt

    What time of the year did you do this hike? I just took at stab at it in the last day of March, but the road up was closed due to snow. Went over to the Sierra city side and took the OHV road up about a mile and parked before it got too rocky. Began hiking up but it was obvious the lookout was easily around 3000 above and decided to turn back. Talked to a few locals in town after we got back down and they thought we were crazy, saying the only way to possibly get up there would be with a snowmobile. Even though we couldn’t make it up, I’ll definitely be heading back once the snow starts to melt.

    • I did this hike in July so there was no snow and it was easy to drive to the trailhead. I imagine it being pretty crazy right now with all the snow they have had!

      • Laura

        Do you (or any readers) think this hike will be possible Memorial Day weekend? I’ll be in the area and it’s at the top of my list, but as an east coast native, I just can’t fathom the snowpack.

  • Mike Lee

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been planning on this hike for a few years and I’m hoping this is the one!

    • No problem, be sure to wait until the snow melts!

      • Mike Lee

        Yep..I’m leaning toward end of June-4th of July timeframe.

        • Sweet, let me know how it goes!

  • Charann

    My husband and I hiked to the fire lookout yesterday, June 8, 2016. This hike has been on my hike list. We were not disappointed! The views from the top are amazing! There still is enough snow on the majority of the trail that it made keeping on the trail and finding it challenging. Happy hiking!

    • So awesome! Glad you guys made it to the top and thanks for sharing the photo!

  • Kyle Guensler

    Hey the lake you have labeled as tamarack, is actually young America. Climbed down to it last year, there is no trail. Tamarack has its own trail head and you can actually start the lookout tower hike there, making it a 14 mile round trip hike.

    • Thanks for the comment and fix!

  • Charlie B

    Did it yesterday (7/24/2016). Fine hike. The Bernese Mountain Dog was fine with lots of water. He even went up and down the stairs without help. It was a clear day and Lassen was plainly visible.

    • Awesome, I bet it was a fantastic hike!

  • Yea, I have been there it is a beautiful waterfall! Have fun climbing Sierra Buttes when your daughter is ready!

  • Carol G

    I first climbed up to the lookout in 1959 as an 8 year old who was spending 2 weeks at the Girl Scout Camp Sierra Woodlands. It was the first of 3 trips up at different times, the last being in 1968. Before the current stairs, the way up the 60 ft pinnacle was via wooden ladders with rungs, not steps, with rope handrails. Health and Safety had not been invented then. The couple had a small dog that virtually ran up and down the ladders. We were always lucky enough to have people working in the look out who always warmly welcomed
    visitors. On a clear day one could see for a 100 miles or more.
    There were no set out trails then, and we would walk to Packer Lake, then head up to Lower Tamarac Lake and camp by the river joining Upper and Lower Tamarac lakes. A trail was forged up the right hand side of the Buttes, then around the back, 2,000 ft in about 2-3 miles. The winter snow would always destroy the trail. There was a dirt road that was used by those that worked in the fire lookout, I believe it started from Sierra City, but can’t remember for sure. I travelled up this with a friend in the early 70s and it was a hair raising road.
    Just more memories from this part of the world, which has always been a favourite place. There was a shack between upper and lower Sardine lake, at the top of the waterfall – I was told that this was where the Young American Mine was, and the lake above Upper Sardine is named Young American Lake. Is anything still there?
    I had a scary swimming experience in Lake Saxone, fell in love with the peacefulness of Dugan Pond and had a wonderful evening and morning at Volcano Lake. The horseshoe ridge around the lake faces east, and the only place to camp is on the far side of the lake. At night, once the fire was put out, the lake was so still that the tree on the ridge, and the constellations in the sky were reflected in the lake. It was profoundly beautiful. The sunrise in the morning was stunning. The Sierra Buttes continue to live in my heart and form part of my soul.

    • Thanks for the great comment Carol, so many fun memories along the trail and I appreciate you sharing them!

  • Awesome post with great photos! Glad you made it!

  • Thanks for sharing the photo it looks awesome up there!

  • When you’re at the lookout, check out the labels on the inside of the glass – looks to me like they’re indicating prominent landmarks and their distances.

    • Awesome, thanks for the comment!

  • Stuart

    I stumbled across this site and the photos and posts made me want to do the hike myself. We’re visiting from Australia in November though so I’m worried that snow could be a problem? We’ll be in this area around 17th-20th November …

    • Thanks for the comment, I would say snow could definitely be an issue at the end of November. Watch the forecasts but I would probably plan on something else to be safe.

  • Amy Hagstrom Whitley

    One of my favorite hikes as well. Grew up in that area and we hiked it a lot. I miss it!

    • Thanks for the comment Amy, good to hear from you! Hope you and the family are having a lot of fun adventures and that our paths cross again one of these days!

  • Kristi

    How long would you say it took you to complete this rountrip? I know we all have different paces but can you shed some light on your experience. Btw love this and can’t wait to do it this summer. Thanks for sharing!

    • It took us 3-4 hours but that was with stopping for a bunch of photos as well. I usually plan on 1-2 miles an hour when going uphill like this.

  • Sanjaya Purnomo

    Hi Josh, Thank you for posting this. This will be on one of my hiking list this year. I have a question, Can we reach the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout trailhead with regular sedan. I read in some blogs that there are some dirt road and some people use OHV/truck. Thanks.

    • When I went in the summer it was fine with a high clearance vehicle and we didn’t need 4WD to get to the trailhead, but I haven’t been in a few years so I am not sure what the road conditions are currently.

  • Jonathan Zaragoza-Granados

    Is mid june a good time to hike this trail?

    • It totally depends on the snow levels on the trail. This year there is a good chance that it could still have snow but I am not 100%

  • Debbie Kehret

    Our family has been going to that area for over 40 years, a group of cousins and aunts and uncles goes every year on that hike. I finally got to take that hike this year. I’ve been overweight for most of my life and have lost over 200 lb and I’m 59 years , I finally got to join that group this year. We usually go during July and it was awesome, still ran into a few patches of snow. My family was thrilled, and so proud of me, as I was with myself!

    • Congrats on the weight loss and on completing the hike, such an accomplishment!