California Trails

Sacramento, CA: Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout

Climb to the top of the Sierra Buttes for sweeping views from an old fire lookout. BY CHELISE SIMMONS

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Formed by glaciers, the rugged Sierra Buttes tower over the pristine lakes and hillsides of the Lakes Basin Recreation Area. Look closely: Balancing atop the highest point of the buttes is a disused fire lookout—the end point of this out-and-back dayhike through some of the best scenery in the Sierra Nevada. Climb roughly 1,800 feet in 2.5 miles before taking 178 stairs up to the fire lookout.

From the parking lot, head toward the Pacific Crest Trail sign, through the metal gate, and onto the dusty trail. The path climbs through pine trees for half a 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. From here the trail heads back into the trees and continues to climb steeply. Begin to see massive boulders all around the path at about 7,800 feet in elevation. These are remnants from ancient glaciers. At mile 1.5, a spur trail heading north offers expansive views over Young America and the Sardine Lakes.

Another half a mile from here is the junction with the Sierra Buttes Trail. Head southeast (left) at the junction to leave the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail winds up the backside of the buttes to 8,300 feet. Pass a spur trail to the south which leads to a small parking area. This 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.

A series of long switchbacks deposits you to the base of the stairs that lead to the lookout. These stairs were built in 1964 by Forest Service employees; the old lookout tower has been there since 1933. Walk around the lookout on the see-through metal grating for views of the Lakes Basin area, peaks in Desolation Wilderness to the southeast, and Lassen Peak to the north.

Random Info:
– Head out early to beat the other hikers who have this on their bucket list.
– Big sections of trail are not shaded and you can overheat pretty quickly in the summer.
– Wildlife: black bears, eagles, osprey, deer, marmots.
– Post hike: Grab a burger at Bassets or dinner at Sardine Lake. Better yet, cook dinner at your campsite. There are loads of Forest Service sites along the Gold Lake Highway.

Directions to Trailhead:
From Sierra City, head northeast on Highway 49 for about 5 miles. Turn north on Gold Lake Highway. After 1.3 miles, head west on Packer Lake Road (621). Follow signs for Packer Lake, northwest (right) where road splits from Sardine Lakes. Before Packer Lake turn left on Rte. 621 (Sierra Buttes). Follow steep road to junction (Packer Saddle). Turn left (south) on Butcher Ranch Road for 0.6 more miles, ignoring the split to the right. The trailhead has a wide dirt area for parking and is marked with trail signs for both the Sierra Buttes Lookout and the PCT.

01 Trailhead

The lookout is on a trail that splits off from the PCT. [photo by Chelise Simmons]

02 Trail Flattens Out For a Quarter of a Mile

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

03 No Shade

This section is exposed to the sun. [photo by Chelise

You can see the fire lookout all the way on the top right. [photo by Chelise Simmons]

You can see the fire lookout all the way on the top right. [photo by Chelise Simmons]

05 Mossy Pine Trees

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

06 Steep Incline

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

07 Giant Boulders

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

08 Young America Lake

Upper and Lower Sardine Lakes in the background. [photo by Chelise Simmons]

09 Alpine Lakes

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

11 Junction Sign

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

14 Cool Wildflowers

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

10 View From Bottom of Stairs

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

12 Stairs to Top

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

13 View From Stairs

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

18 Signature Rock

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

15 Flag at Lookout

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

16 Panorama

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

17 Panorama

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

20 Sardine Lake

[photo by Chelise Simmons]

Trail Facts

  • State: CA
  • City: Sacramento
  • Distance: 5.0
  • Contact:
  • Land Type: National Forest


Location: 39.611704, -120.665395
From parking lot head towards the Pacific Crest Trail sign, through the metal gate and on to the dusty trail.

Location: 39.607318, -120.663998
The next half a mile is fairly flat and un-shaded.

Location: 39.599281, -120.660779
The trail climbs back into the trees on a soft trail.

Location: 39.597191, -120.656179
Wander through a giant boulder field. Just east of this section is a short spur trail that leads to gorgeous views over the lakes below.

Location: 39.595362, -120.654247
Trail splits from the PCT and breaks off east towards the fire lookout. Begin a series of steep switchbacks.

Location: 39.594960, -120.653446
Trail joins with OHV trail. Another way to get to this point is to drive up the OHV trail which begins back in the parking lot on an adjacent road. People in OHVs would park here and begin hiking on the hiking trail.

Location: 39.593886, -120.650371
Begin switchbacks above the treeline.

Location: 39.593768, -120.647205
You’ve reached the base of the 178 stairs that will get you up to the fire lookout.

Location: 39.593722, -120.646311
Fire lookout. From this point turn around and head back the way you came.