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Historic fire lookout now open for overnight stays

By CARY ORDWAY

If you're the type of traveler who truly likes to get away from people — who puts a high premium on quiet, uninterrupted peace, and who will not go into withdrawal if you have to go a night without television — then have we got the place. The Morton Peak Fire Lookout is now booking overnight stays for people just like you.

You could hardly find a more unique getaway than staying in a working fire lookout. During daytime, the lookout is staffed by volunteer lookout hosts who have attended classes to learn just how to spot forest fires. Most likely you, too, will gain a little insight into this valuable Forest Service activity, as well as learn about the animals, plants and features of this particular part of the forest.

The U.S. Forest Service views the lookout rental program as a way to generate a little good PR at a time when they have to keep telling people that services may be more limited or more expensive due to tight budgets. For just $75 a night ($85 on a weekend) you get your own "cabin on stilts" with a zillion dollar view and solitude to match.

We reserved our night by calling the Big Bear Lake Resort Association, which handles bookings for the Morton Peak Lookout, the only such facility in Southern California that is available for rentals. The lookout actually is just at the edge of the San Bernardino Forest and, if you're coming from the Los Angeles area, it will save you about 45 minutes off the normal two-hour drive to Big Bear.

We picked up our keys and signed our waivers at the Mill Creek Ranger Station in Mentone, only about five miles from the tower. The forms tell you that a trip to the tower is "inherently dangerous" — although if you can climb a steep set of stairs, you've eliminated about the only real danger we could see.

The last three miles up to the lookout were on a steep, rutted road — perfect to at least get some use out of your SUV's 4-wheel drive — you know, the 4-wheel drive you paid thousands extra for just because it seemed cool. We should admit, though, it probably wasn't even necessary to kick it into 4-wheel; 2-wheel drive will get you there, too.

At the end of our journey was a small clearing on a mountain top with, as advertised, a 30-foot tower and a 14X14 "cabin" on the top. Maybe a more apt description would be an aircraft control tower on stilts, as the cabin had windows running the length of every wall, looking in every direction.

We climbed the short two flights of stairs — they're steep, but not especially challenging — and were greeted by Jeff Palmquist, the Morton Peak Lookout Leader. It's Jeff's job to recruit and help train an all-volunteer force that operates this lookout in addition to six other towers in the San Bernardino Forest. We learned from Jeff that this particular tower, elevation 4624 feet, was built in the 1930's, then burned down and rebuilt in 1960. It eventually went out of service and into disrepair as the Forest Service cut back on its paid lookout program, but was rebuilt in 2001 with a $5,000 government grant and a volunteer work force.

On our visit, Palmquist was part lookout host, part activities director as he prepared us for our night in the wilderness. He talked about the animal sightings in the area — ground squirrels, mountain lions, bobcats, road-runners and "a bear that we think lives right over that knoll" — many of which have migrated to this area because of fires in nearby parts of the forest. He showed our six-year-old the fine art of chasing tarantula spiders from their ground holes. He demonstrated the use of the Osborne Fire Finder, a device used to plot on a map where you are seeing smoke or a fire. He showed off a compost outhouse that he calls "the best toilet in the national forest." Oh, and he showed us how to secure the lookout so no person or animal could ever visit us in the middle of the night.

Soon we were ready for our night at the edge of the world. About 5 p.m. — the end of his shift -- Palmquist drove down the windy road, locked the heavy tubular gate behind him, and we were on our own in the forest. There was an awesome silence, then a slight breeze rustling the two pine trees next to our tower. As the sun dipped slowly, the nearby mountains darkened while, at the same time, the city lights below us came alive. The juxtaposition seemed unusual ' here we were perched on a mountainside all by ourselves, yet below us were the lights of nearly the entire Los Angeles basin.

The lookout is small, but comfortable for a couple or perhaps a couple with one or two small children. There are just two twin beds, but space enough to roll some blankets out onto the floor if you need to. There's no running water in the cabin, no refrigeration, no power. Cooking is restricted to the picnic table outside and you must haul in your own gas stove because fires and charcoal briquettes are not allowed.

As the sun set, we found ourselves playing a family game, a rewarding alternative to the usual time spent in front of a television. Soon it was dark — or as dark as it was going to get with nearly a full moon — and we spent some time studying a sky where constellations and planets were as clear as we could ever remember. A satellite moved slowly overhead. Soon it felt like time for bed, even though it was just 9 p.m. With cool summer air flowing through the many screened windows, we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.

Morning came early to a lookout with shade-less windows on all sides. We were up and hiking by 6 a.m., enjoying the 70-degree temperatures that on this August day were sure to reach the mid-90's later in the day. Soon it was time to pack up and head down the long, winding dirt road to the bottom of the hill just as the next day's volunteers were headed up to the lookout to act as sentinels for yet another day in the forest.

In a half-hour we were back in busy city traffic — we had felt like we were so far away, yet we never really left civilization.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Morton Peak Lookout is located off Highway 38, overlooking the cities of Yucaipa and Mentone. It has views of Mill Creek, Forest Falls, Mt. Gorgono, San Bernardino Peak, Keller Meadows, Keller Cliffs and the San Bernardino Valley.

WHAT: A fire lookout station that is still used to watch for forest fires in the San Bernardino Mountains.

WHEN: Year-round, weather and fire-permitting.

WHY: If you're looking for a totally remote location, an unusual getaway experience and spectacular 360-degree views, you'll understand why as soon as you arrive.

HOW: For more information on reservations at Morton Peak Lookout, call the Big Bear Resort Association at 1-800-4-BIG-BEAR or visit www.bigbear.com. Costs are $75 on weekdays, $85 on weekends and holidays. If you are interested in volunteering for the lookouts, contact Jeff Palmquist at 323-567-1479. Lookout volunteers take 16 hours of instruction and sign up for two four-hour shifts each month during fire season.

Photos: Jeff Palmquist helps Melanie find tarantulas; sunset at the tower, view of L.A. basin; lookout interior

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway; Sunset photo courtesy of Jeff Palmquist

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.

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