Our destination was the Shuteye Peak lookout at 8,351 feet above sea level and, yes, there actually is a four-wheel drive road to the seasonally manned tower but Mark and Betsy Blum and I were looking for a hike.
We traveled on Road 222 to Road 274 turning onto Beasore Road until we reached Central Camp Road to the right. We then turned left onto the road toward Little Shuteye Pass. From the turnoff onto Beasore Road, we were able to drive about 17.5 miles before the ruts in the road, the washouts and a little space where we could get off the road to park helped us make the decision that this was a good place to begin our hike.
We hiked up the road about 2.1 miles to the gate and from there the 2.9 miles to the lookout tower in 2.5 hours. It took us the same amount of time coming down as there is a lot of sand-covered rock on this road.
Richard Bushnell, a seasonal U.S. Forest Service employee, staffed the tower the day we arrived. He began his career in 1992 as a “feet on the ground” firefighter in Washington state before moving to the Sierras in 2000.
For the past four seasons, he has worked five days on at the Shuteye Lookout, five days at the Signal Peak (formerly named Devil’s Peak) lookout and then four days off.
The drive to work at either fire lookout is two plus hours from the Batterson Fire Station in Oakhurst. The trip to Shuteye is only about 25 miles but ruts, potholes the size of mini craters, washouts and bare rock surfaces make it a slow one.
Bushnell invited us to take in the view from the tower. The day before, he could see the coastal range but today, the tower was shrouded in a cloud when we arrived and in the distance, smoke from the Butte, Quartz Mountain and South Fork fires could be seen.
Later in Aug., his were some of the first eyes on the Railroad Fire. He spotted three to four acres of dark smoke. “That’s not good,” he told dispatch. “It’s not just a ground fire. It’s going to get big if you don’t get there quick. [There] were so many resources that weren’t available. Everybody was stretched thin ... especially the aircraft.”
Visitor numbers vary from zero to 80 in a day and the adventurers arrive in 4-wheel drive vehicles, side-by-side quads, on dirt bikes, motorcycles, mountain bikes and on foot.
Certain questions Bushnell gets asked over and over: “What mountain is that?” “Where is Bass Lake?” “Can you see Mt. Whitney?” “How cold does it get?” “Do you get lonely?” “What do you eat?” “Where is your vehicle?” The answer to the last one is that the vehicle is driven down the mountain by the lookout employee who is being relieved from duty.
We were not the only lookout visitors this day. As we approached a series of folded rock strata formations, a mountain bicycler caught up with us. Andy Medley was enjoying his last day of summer vacation before heading to his teaching job at Yosemite High School.
“I started from the bottom of Central Camp Road near the Bass Lake dam and had been planning a different ride that was both shorter and easier,” Medley said. “With the end of summer vacation and my imminent return to work, I made an impromptu decision to make an attempt at Shuteye Peak.”
“I’d been to the summit before, but had never ridden all the way from the lake. So that being said (and as you quickly learn), I was poorly prepared and had an insufficient amount of water and food for the ride (two bottles of water, one CLIF bar). When I passed the Subaru on the road and saw the footprints, I was hopeful that I would be able to get water from whoever it was that I crossed paths with. Fortunately, it ended up being the three of you.”
His bike that day was a Yeti ASR carbon hardtail, “efficient for climbing, but a little rough on the rocks along the way to Shuteye,” he said. “I also have a road bike and a full suspension mountain bike (which I would have ridden if I had set out with the plan to do that ride originally).”
“The ride ended up being an even 40 miles with just over 5,000 feet of elevation gain,” Medley added. “It took me three and a half hours to reach the summit and about 90 minutes to ride back down.”
It turns out that Bushnell lives in the neighborhood where Medley grew up. “I had met him once before at the lookout but never made the connection,” Medley said.
Bushnell shares a story about one of the most famous visitors to the lookout, Donald Trump before he ran for president. The story was told to Bushnell by his co-worker, John Dossi, who was on duty that day.
Trump was visiting the area in an attempt to build a casino and did not want to fight the crowds in Yosemite National Park so he made arrangements to rent a Humvee, a driver and a body guard to take him to the Shuteye where he signed the visitor log.
Bushnell’s seasonal work at the lookout is weather dependent. The tower usually opens mid-May but heavy snows this year pushed it later. It closes mid-November, depending on when the area receives its first good, wet rain signaling the end of fire season.
One especially dry year, the tower was even staffed during Thanksgiving. And so, another question for the seasonal employee in the lookout, “Can you cook a turkey up here?”
Note: This hike was done Aug. 15. Before entering any forest areas, check for possible closures due to fire mop-up activities.
NorCal Cycling League
Medley shares his passion for cycling and spending time on mountain trails with the cycling club he has started at YHS. “I’m hoping to get kids involved in the NorCal Cycling League, (www.norcalmtb.org) which is a series of cross-country races throughout Northern California,” he said.
“The majority of the teams seem to be from the greater Bay Area and Sacramento area, but I was able to register the YHS team late in the season last year to get our foot in the door. We had our first club/team meeting last week, and should be able to get to a few of the races in the spring of 2018.”