Martis Peak Fire Lookout

The fire lookout on Martis Peak can be reached from both Martis Peak Road and the Tahoe Rim Trail. We had a limited amount of time, so we opted to go up the paved road which is a slightly shorter route. This hike is 8 miles roundtrip, with about 1700-ft of elevation gain.

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It’s been way too long since we got out and hit the trails.  We had some spare time before the holidays, so we decided to head up to Tahoe for the weekend.  There’s not much snow yet this year – 2013 was the driest calendar year on record (though water is usually summed by water year: Oct-Sep).  California is going to have some serious water problems if we don’t get crazy amounts of rain/snow in the next couple of months.  We wanted to use our snowshoes, but the road looked pretty bare so we left them in the car.  (Of course the road was completely covered in snow as soon as we turned the first corner.)  This hike was 8 miles roundtrip, with about 1700-ft of elevation gain.

Looking up the road from the parking area along the highway.
Looking up the road from the parking area along the highway.  Not too much snow here…

Directions to Trailhead:  The fire lookout on Martis Peak can be reached from both Martis Peak Road and the Tahoe Rim Trail.  We had a limited amount of time, so we opted to go up the paved road which is a slightly shorter route.  Martis Peak Road is on the north side of Hwy 267, less than a mile before Brockway Summit when coming from Truckee.  There is a large turnout with plenty of parking.  Alternatively, the Tahoe Rim Trail crosses Highway 267 at Brockway Summit.  The TRT route is a couple miles longer.  I’m not sure how well travelled the TRT is, but the road was very easy to follow – there were footprints and ski tracks all the way to the lookout.

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Trail Description:  In the winter, Martis Peak Road is covered in snow and you would never notice that it is paved.  We were there on a weekend but we only saw three people the entire day.  Two of them were learning to cross country ski somewhere near the beginning of the trail.  We could have used our snowshoes but the snow wasn’t too deep and we were okay without them.  The forest was peaceful and quiet: the relatively low snow levels kept the snowmobile rental place shuttered.

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More snow than we expected!

We headed up the trail past the snowmobile rental area.  We reached a fork in the road at about 1.3 miles from the trailhead.  We turned left (there was a gate to the right) and continued upwards.

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After another mile or so we took a short break on a dry log. The snow was about six to eight inches deep.  It was just icy and solid enough to walk in the footsteps of earlier hikers. Pavement was exposed in a few spots between the deepest drifts of snow.  The snow was nice, but the views were not terribly epic – we were just in the forest.  At about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, we reached another fork in the road.  We turned left and headed towards the peak.  The road seemed to get a bit steeper on the final leg up to the lookout.

As we neared Martis Peak, views began to emerge between the trees to the north. We couldn’t see the fire lookout until we were almost upon it.

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Martis Peak Fire lookout is a nice structure with sweeping views in every direction except to the east, which is blocked by Martis Peak itself.  You can see much of Lake Tahoe, from Desolation to Donner Pass.  Allegedly you can see Mt. Lassen, but it was not clear enough to see that far… or we just didn’t try hard enough to spot it.

A useful map of the visible mountains is drawn in Sharpie above the windows.
A useful map of the visible mountains is drawn in Sharpie above the windows.
Relaxing on the balcony.
Relaxing on the balcony.
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Gorgeous view of Tahoe

After a short break and some snacks at the top, we followed our tracks back to the bottom.  It was much easier going down, but I did completely eat it on the ice.  (Trying to kick a pine cone, I lost my balance and went down.  Pine cone: 1, Christa: 0.)

All in all, it was a five hour trip: three hours up and two hours back to the car.  Just some light traffic heading back to the smoggy valley.  Finished the day off perfectly with a cheese fondue.

A little more about Martis Peak Lookout…
The lookout was built in 1914.  It was added to the National Historic Lookout Register in 1998.  It was deactivated in the 1970’s, then sadly it was badly vandalized in the 1990’s. Thanks to the CA Department of Forestry and volunteers, the lookout has now been restored and is staffed during fire season.  There is a pit toilet and picnic table outside the lookout.  The outhouse floor was absolutely covered in mouse shit.  I guess the rodents use the same facilities.  The lookout is unlocked and as far as I know, it’s possible to sleep there (on a first come first served basis).

6 thoughts on “Martis Peak Fire Lookout”

  1. Nice report, thanks. You can get micro spikes that slip over trail runners or light boots for $20, made in the USA. Can’t recall if I ever was to the lookout, we skied the peak coming from Mt. Rose highway once, there’s the North Tahoe High Route, the best ski tour about that part of the Sierra by some. Private land at the time we did it, you now have access by the Rim Trail. Meant to do it in summer, but never anyone to share the shuttle!

    1. That sounds like a great ski tour! A lot of it is still private land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries (logging I think). There are a number of ‘no camping’ signs in the area. The Tahoe Rim Trail does provide great access, and there is some national forest mixed in. I haven’t hiked the route to Mt Rose, but Rob did it last year as part of the TRT.

    2. When we were hiking the north section of the TRT a guy came running down carrying nothing but a couple bottles of water. How silly of us to carry so much food water and shelter when it’s possible to run the 20 mile section. Skiing sounds like a fun and scenic trip though – hopefully I can get comfortable enough on skis to do it.

  2. No one bothered us back in 1978 or so, but the land about where we started is private. We parked in an obvious fashion and weren’t ticketed or vandalized. Now you can start at the Mt. Rose TH and go over Relay Peak, a bit more work, but we had the time and energy to ski some north slopes while doing the High Route. Reading your accounts of the JMT and TRT, it brings back some memories. I did long range backpacks back in the 1970’s, and need to do some again for my health, I think, but for lack of transportation ops. I think that I’d go in September when the mosquitoes are mostly gone.

  3. Hike/snowshoe today just shy of the lookout tower. Part of the time it was better without snowshoes. Your information on the hike was very helpful!! I will go back thru TRT. thanks for your post.

Any thoughts?