The tower, a boxy wooden structure with peeling Army green paint, was built in 1936. Today it sits abandoned, a former shell of itself on top of Frazier Mountain.
Sometimes I come across places I had no idea even existed.
Such is the case with this beauty, the now abandoned Frazier Mountain Fire Lookout located high on a peak above Frazier Park, CA. I just happened to be driving by the area on my way to visit Working Wildlife when I spotted a sign along the road that said “Fire Lookout.”
I’ve had a weak spot for lookouts ever since my dad took me to one as a child. So on my way back from visiting the celebrity animals, I decided to take a little 7 mile detour up Frazier Mountain to see what this lookout was all about. The road quickly turns to dirt as you wind your way up to 8013 feet to where the old tower is located.
The tower’s location near the border between Kern and Ventura counties used to help keep watch over the rugged ridges of Los Padres National Forest.
On a clear day, the tower offers up 360-degree views of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Bakersfield, Palmdale, the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles and even Santa Catalina Island.
In the 90’s, before it closed down for good, it required $10,000 a year to operate.
Budget cuts, technology, urban sprawl and smog eventually killed the Frazier Mountain Lookout along with most of the other ones that used to dot California’s ridges and peaks. While most of the other lookouts have been preserved and kept up by volunteers, Frazier was left out in the cold to die a slow, painful death.
This was the first abandoned lookout I’ve ever encountered, so of course I had to slip through the only opening in order to gain access to the usually off limits area below the second story and have a look around.
This section was usually the place where they stashed away the things they didn’t want the general public to see when they stopped by for an unannounced tour. Like this Sears branded water heater…
…or the radio equipment they needed in order to make contact with the outside world below.
Some lookout towers, like Frazier, even had a shower in them…
…but these were generally only found in towers that were in the most remote locations…
…which required the lookout to live onsite.
Most people loved the solitude of staying up on the mountain all by themselves…
…but others just couldn’t handle it.
There are stories about one lookout who, perhaps unable to handle the boredom of duty, got drunk and randomly fired a gun all over Frazier Mountain. The lookout radioed his superiors to report that someone was shooting at him. He didn’t last long.
Today, that same solitude is only broken by the occasional stray hunter, hiker, ATV rider or random person who decides to check out the place for themselves.
The site, about seven miles west of Gorman, has been a fire lookout since 1905. The current tower was built in 1936 in Santa Barbara County and then relocated after a forest fire destroyed the original tower in 1952.
It was once equipped with a small bunk, a television set, a stove, and a contraption called the Osborne Firefinder, which was used to plot the exact coordinates of a fire.
It also included a small insulated stool that the lookout could stand on during an electrical storm for protection.
There’s not much left after being abandoned all these years. I did find an old mattress up in the attic that looked like it may have been a good place to take a nap if it wasn’t for all the mouse droppings everywhere.
It had definitely been used.
At one time there were 8,000+ fire lookouts in 49 states according to the national inventory completed by Forest Fire Lookout Association or FFLA and partners in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. Today fewer than 2,000 lookouts remain and FFLA’s goal is to recognize, help maintain and restore as many as possible.
Currently there are nearly 1000 lookouts registered on the National Historic Lookout Register, and most have received some kind of maintenance…
…but less than 400 are staffed by paid observers or volunteers.
To permit 360 degree observation, the main observation deck of the lookout (called the “cab”) was designed with large windows on all sides…
…and typically, a wraparound observation deck outside of the cab.
It’s amazing that Frazier lasted as long as it did. During the 1960’s and 1970’s most fire lookouts and their dedicated watchers were phased out. With increased emphasis on using airplanes and helicopters for fire detection and suppression, a “let-burn” policy in many wilderness areas and a growing number of visitors and residents in the forests, attitudes towards staffing lookouts have changed.
All of these issues are bringing these iconic towers across the country almost to extinction.
How much longer will they be around?
Hopefully we’ll be able to protect at least some of these historic and iconic structures just like we did with our nation’s lighthouses.