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August 17, 2009

Carmel Valley Fire Tower

"Set up high I'm strong enough -

to take these dreams and make them mine -
Can you take me higher?"

- Creed, "Higher" (video after post)

One of the most prominent structures in Carmel Valley is a fire tower at the top of the ridge line:

Click to enlarge - it's much easier to see

Its formal name is the Sid Ormsbee Lookout, although most locals just refer to it as the tower or the lookout (my 5-year-old daughter used to call it Frog Mountain, because she apparently thought the tower looked like a frog – but that’s a separate story). For most of the 20th Century, it was an inhabited post manned by the California Department of Forestry, to keep watch over the Los Padres mountains and communicate an early warning in the event of wildfires.

Modern technology such as aerial surveillance and satellite imaging eventually rendered the station obsolete, and the CDF stopped staffing the lookout more than twenty years ago. Today the tower stands boarded up and abandoned as a relic of an earlier time.

Still, the empty tower remains visible from nearly every point in Carmel Valley, stubbornly keeping its lonely sentry high atop the ridgeline. When I first moved here, it seemed to beckon me every time I looked at it, like a siren’s call that I couldn’t get out of my head. When I finally hiked up to the lookout see the sights and visit the ghosts of days gone by, it was one of my coolest first memories of living in this valley.

A decade and a half later, my 11-year-old son heard the same siren call.

For the past several months, he’d been asking if he could hike to the tower, so my wife and I took advantage of a perfect weather day on the last weekend before school started to escort him there.

The most direct route to the tower is via the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park. Starting from the Carmel River bridge at the park’s entrance, we would eventually climb 2300’ over almost 4 miles to reach our destination. Elevation is gained pretty quickly in Garland Park, as you can tell from this shot shortly after starting the hike. The open area is known as the mesa, and sits at about 700’.

The views get better and better on the way up, but they were obscured slightly on this day by drifting haze from a forest fire in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. There has to be a little bit of irony in seeing smoke while hiking to an abandoned fire tower, right?

After about two hours of hiking, we arrived at the tower. There’s still a dignified air about this building, like its importance shouldn’t be forgotten just because time has passed it by.

The tower is also the official end of the trail, which seemed like a good spot to kick off my shoes and cruise around barefoot on top of the valley for a while.

(Incidentally … do you recognize the hydration pack? I reviewed it here.)

View from the tower looking west, towards the Monterey Peninsula. When you’re up here on a clear day, you can see the outline of the peninsula into the ocean, and even the town of Santa Cruz across the bay. Even with the hazy fog and smoke, it’s still a pretty sweet view.

There are various grassy footpaths around the tower, so I jogged around for a bit and ultimately followed one to a rocky outcropping looking over the valley to the south.

That’s where we took a brief rest.

Looking at this picture afterwards, something occurred to me: if I’m going to keep showing pictures of my bare feet, I need to pretty them up a bit. A shave and a good clipping, at the very least. I’ll work on that for next time.

Eventually it was time to put my shoes back on and begin our return trip downhill. From the lower ridgeline, we took one last look back at the tower before it dropped out of sight from the lower canyons.

I don’t know if my son was affected in the same way after his first visit to the lookout as I was after mine; afterwards, he mainly just reported that his legs were tired. I have a theory though: that every time he sees the tower from now on, he’ll remember that he was able to hike there, and be reminded that difficult tasks aren’t so hard once you make up your mind to do them. It might also give him the same appreciation of this area that his mother and I have always shared.

Of course, when I explained my theory to him, he just shrugged his shoulders - so I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Music note: There weren't many bands who rose higher and fell quicker in a short period of time than Creed; they're a cautionary tale to any band who has a few hits and starts believing they're the second coming of U2. It's almost an embarrassment today to admit you were a fan ... but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a big Creed fan. This song still bounces through my head sometimes in the midst of a long hill climb.

Creed, "Higher" (click to play):


Jo Lynn 8/17/09, 10:09 PM  

Oh yes, PLEASE fix those feet. Pfft! You should see mine.

Mark 8/18/09, 5:29 AM  

I'm sure your son took home a great memory...Dad running around barefoot! Beautiful spot!

trailmomma 8/18/09, 10:50 AM  

I've seen worse feet . . . maybe just a tan and some polish and they'll be picture perfect! :)

firefighter08 8/18/09, 2:40 PM  

I have visited that tower, and another near Auburn. The Auburn tower appears in a novel I wrote about a young kid from MI who joins CDF (CalFire) and ends up living in the tower during a summer.
Its called One Foot in the Black, about wildland firefighters in Ca.

1010wellness 8/19/09, 3:36 AM  

I can pretty much guarantee you that your son will remember that hike forever. Way to go Dad for planting such a wonderful seed.

1010 Chris

Deene 8/19/09, 1:50 PM  

this looks like a nice hike. there is the Jersey Jim lookout tower in southern colorado that can be rented for an overnight campout.

Anonymous,  2/24/12, 12:07 AM  

Can you please tell me how you reach the fire tower? I've gone up several times to the top of Snively's and we tried to go as far as we could, but would always hit a halt. Do you access it by summiting Snively's or is there another path lower? Thanks!!

Donald 2/24/12, 7:49 PM  

@Anon: that's the way to do it. The trail does fade out and branches in a few different places (and passes through some poison oak) on the downside to the base of the final climb, but eventually all of the footpaths will lead you there. From the base of the final climb, the path is well-defined, but super steep. Have fun!

Anonymous,  11/19/12, 5:17 PM  

A buddy of mine just sent me a note about the times we used to hike up to good old Sid's tower. The location where you took the picture of your feet is where the old outhouse used to sit. It had no door, but it did have a beautiful view. There also used to be a plaque honoring Sid's life near the tower, as well as a beautiful rock that Sid had carved while he lived there. At least I believe he was the one who carved it. When the "Preserve" took over the property, they bulldozed the area around the tower; and the plaque and rock carving disappeared. I feel that this was very dishonorable of the "Preserve". I wonder what they did with the rock. It's high time that they replaced the plaque, and returned the rock from wherever they stashed it. If not, someone should get some people together to replace the plaque honoring Sid. He was a great soldier, and Forest Service worker.

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