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Carmel Valley Fire Tower

Posted Aug 17 2009 11:17pm
"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 to 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 abigCreed fan. This song still bounces through my head sometimes in the midst of a long hill climb.

Creed, "Higher" (click to play):

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