Sierra Buttes Hike: 178 Stairs to the Fire Lookout
Updated: Aug 1, 2022
It is becoming ever more apparent that the close to this year's hiking season can be seen on the horizon. Of course, it all depends on when the snow flies and when the temperatures drop. But for now, we are enjoying the warm sunshine and daytime mild temps that are pretty typical here during the fall.
Easily one of our top 5 – if not top 3 – hikes we've done to date is to the Sierra Buttes fire lookout. We don't aim to do this hike every year, but it's one we try to fit in every few years. And we try to talk some of our relatively fit guests into doing it while they are here, as well. 😉
We had a busy weekend, so we ended up planning to hike after church on Sunday. With the sun setting earlier and earlier (my least favorite thing about this time of year), that meant we couldn't drive too far away or take on a particularly long hike. We just wouldn't have the time to make it out before dark.
After surveying our options, and not feeling particularly psyched about them, my husband said, "Why don't we just do Sierra Buttes?"
Yes! We haven't been up there in a few years now. It's time we do it again, and we think the air would be relatively clear up there, so the views from the top should be decent.
So, we got our gear together and jumped in the Jeep to head up to the Lakes Basin area. Depending on traffic through Tahoe, it takes a little over an hour and half to get there. The trailhead only had a few cars at it, so we easily found a spot and wasted no time heading up the trail, starting out at 6,951' elevation.
The buttes with the fire lookout perched on the top is located on the rocky crag in the distance, just to the left of me.
At 4.76 miles round trip, it's not a long hike, but you're climbing the entire way up – to the tune of 1539' of elevation gain. As we're swiftly making our way, a thought crossed my mind that this hike is a little harder than I remember. Since it had been a few years, I kind of forgot how steep and unrelenting it can be.
Me: "You know what I forgot to bring on this hike?"
My husband: "What."
Me: "A horse. Or I'd settle for a donkey or even a large dog."
Honestly, though, the views along the way are pretty awesome.
This is Young America Lake and Upper and Lower Sardine lakes taken from various points along the trail.
This sign to the left of the rocky trail is sort of a welcomed sight on this hike. Once you reach this point, the final stretch up the very rocky forest road to the top the of buttes is just ahead. The hike is far from being over at this point, but psychologically, you can trick yourself into thinking it's nearly done. All you need to do is get yourself to the top of the road. And then climb the stairs.
As you wind your way up the switchbacks of the forest road, you are rewarded with some incredible views that seem surreal and never-ending.
I mentioned there were stairs. 178 of them to be exact. Yes, these stairs are quite the adventure in and of themselves, especially after the steep hike you just did to get there. In order to get to the fire lookout structure, you have to climb maybe 150 feet up a series of stairs built on top of the rocky buttes. And today, it was extremely windy across the exposed ridges, so climbing the steep stairs with gusts of wind blowing you around was an extra-special challenge!
Then, once you get to the top of the stairs, you navigate across some large boulders and climb the metal steps up to the fire lookout – for some of the most amazing views you'll ever see. We made it to the top (8,505') in about an hour and enjoyed the views for several minutes before we descended all of the stairs.
If you're curious what it's like from the fire lookout, this video gives some perspective. Did I mention it was a little windy at the top?
We carefully made our way back down the stairs and found a small area between two boulders that was protected from the wind. Here, we sat for a few minutes, enjoying the sunshine, and had some snacks to refuel for the steep descent ahead of us.
The descent to the trailhead took us around 45 minutes, but the steepness is a little hard on my knees, so I don't go as fast as I would like. We got back to the Jeep, which was now completely alone in the parking area. As we headed back down the narrow road that leads us out to the highway, we stopped at this trail junction and I added a sticker to the sign.
It was a wonderful hike, even though it felt tougher than the last time. I think it's easy to see, however, why this is one of our favorite hikes.
Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout