In the land of the giant sequoias, perched on a granite dome at 8,502 feet, Buck Rock Lookout offers a spectacular 360 degree view stretching from the coastal ranges across the San Joaquin Valley to the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Buck Rock is not only a romantic symbol of a bygone era, but also a working home for fire lookouts who call in numerous fires and lightning strikes every summer.
Located in the Giant Sequoia National Monument between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Buck Rock is a short drive off the General’s Highway along a dirt road 8 miles east of Grant Grove.
From a distance the lookout appears to be a small shack teetering atop a rock hundreds of feet above the surrounding forest. A trail from the parking area leads to the base of a partially suspended staircase that zig-zags up the side of the rock.
After ascending 172 steps and an elevation gain of 300 feet, visitors can catch their breath and admire the view from an outside catwalk that surrounds the cab. To the north, Spanish Mountain looms high above the wild and scenic Kings River, the elevation difference the greatest of any canyon in North America. Looking eastward, the Monarch and Jennie Lakes Wilderness Areas appear as foreground to the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Great Western Divide. To the southeast lies the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, home to the giant forest and the craggy Mineral King.
Looking down upon the forest below, one can see the rounded tops of giant sequoias scattered throughout the mixed conifers and alpine meadows. It is not unusual to look a falcon in the eye as it soars high above the trees. The longer one stays, the more one sees.
Fire lookouts were originally developed to help protect our nation’s forests from devastating wildfires. Established as early as 1912, Buck Rock was one of the first permanent fire detection locations in the Sierra Nevada. The current building was constructed in 1923 and is historically significant as one of the earliest live-in style cabs. Prior to this building stood an open platform situated on top of the rock, which a ranger would climb onto to scan for smoke using only binoculars, a compass and a map. Spotting a smoke, he would quickly descend, hop on his horse, and chase down the fire. Still in active use, the lookout is fully equipped with modern radios and a telephone used to report fires and other emergency incidents. Except for some minor modifications, the lookout remains true to its original design. A visit to Buck Rock is like stepping into the past.
Until just a few years ago, the lookout was abandoned, used only for emergencies during the fire season. Before it was closed in the 1980s, annual visits to Buck Rock had become a tradition for families near and far. Unwilling to see this historic treasure lost for future generations, a local grass roots organization was formed to save it. Working with the Forest Service, the Buck Rock Foundation obtained grants, recruited volunteers and continues to renovate the lookout. It was finally re-opened in 2000, and today Buck Rock is staffed seven days a week during a fire season that can stretch for 6 months.
Hours and Activities: Buck Rock is open to the public from 9:30am to 5:30pm daily during fire season, usually June to October, but may be closed due to fire activity or adverse weather conditions. A sign below the lookout informs visitors if the tower is open. No more than 6 people at a time are recommended on the lookout as there is very little room on top. Please keep in mind that the lookout is used as an office and residence for the fire watcher on duty. Rock climbers are permitted to test their skills on any of the eight established routes during visiting hours. The Buck Rock Open House and Barbeque is held annually, an interpreter is usually on hand during weekends, and a hitching post is available at the base of the rock for those who make the trek on horseback. Recreational opportunities abound in the nearby Big Meadows area, with three developed campgrounds, hiking and horseback riding trails, creeks for fishing and giant sequoia groves to explore.
Getting There: From Fresno, take Hwy 180 east into Kings Canyon National Park, then head south on the General’s Highway traveling 8 miles to the Big Meadows Road. Turn left onto FS 14S11. (From Visalia, take Hwy 198 into Sequoia National Park and continue 30 miles to the Big Meadows Road, turning right onto FS14S11.) Drive 3 miles to Horse Camp campground, and turn left onto FS 13S04, a well-maintained dirt road. Follow the signs to Buck Rock, approximately 2.5 miles. Park in the parking area, walk past the gate and using the road as the trail walk 300 yards to the lookout. Picnic tables and a restroom are available. A jacket and hiking shoes are recommended. There is no water available on site.