Take a peek at the lookout

This article first appeared in the Wednesday, June 26, 2013 edition of the “Ojai Valley News” on page A5 under the “OJAI VALLEY HIKING TRAILS” section. It is reprinted here with their permission. Perry Van Houten is the author.

Take a peek at the lookout
Perry Van Houten

Nordhoff Lookout sits atop the oddly shaped Nordhoff Peak, at an elevation of 4,850 feet. The wooden house on top is long gone, but the metal superstructure still remains. Hikers who make it as far as the lookout are rewarded with almost endless views in all directions.

The rural, rugged view from Nordhoff Lookout hasn’t changed much in decades. (Photo by Perry Van Houten)

The best way to get there is up for debate, but I’ve always preferred the five-mile-long Pratt Trail over Gridley Trail. Pratt might be a little steeper, but it’s a mile shorter than Gridley. That’s a factor when you are faced with a final, one-mile uphill slog from the top of both trails, on Nordhoff Ridge Road.

Either way, start early and be prepared to hike all day. There is no water once you reach the ridge road, so bring plenty. Ample sunscreen is a good idea, as shade becomes hard to find about a mile into both routes.

It’s a right-hand turn on Nordhoff Ridge if you climbed Pratt. If you ascended Gridley, turn left and enjoy a brief stretch of level walking, before climbing again. Tell yourself the ridge road can’t possibly be as steep as the trail, if that helps. I believe the mile of dirt road from Gridley to the lookout is steeper than the mile from Pratt Trail.

Nordhoff Lookout was built in 1935 and was destroyed by the disastrous Wheeler Fire in 1948. The lookout on duty the day it burned had to walk down the Gridley Trail to escape the fire. He lost everything he owned in the blaze, except his dog. The tower was rebuilt, and burned again in the 1970’s.

But wildfire wasn’t the only catastrophe to strike Nordhoff Peak.

In 1945, a USAAF pilot crashed his P-51D Mustang fighter plane into the peak, while attempting an emergency landing in bad weather. Since the crash, debris from the wreck has been found, scattered all over the mountain. In 1980, a U.S. Forest Service controlled burn in the area accidentally ignited un-exploded ordinance from the aircraft’s high-caliber machine guns, leaving the work crew wanting for flak jackets.

You can still climb the steel and concrete steps to where the 14-foot-by-14-foot cabin used to sit. Once furnished with a bunk, wood stove, cooking stove and telephone (with a 646 number), the lookout was also equipped with the Osborne Fire-Finder, used to determine the location of and distance to wildfires.

Sometimes the rangers would report car crashes on Highway 33, then known as Highway 399.

The heyday of the fire lookout ended in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as the use of aircraft to spot wildfires proved more effective and economical. Many lookouts were eventually deactivated, destroyed or removed. Today, you can camp beneath the old Nordhoff stand at Lookout Camp, complete with a fire ring and picnic table.

The fire lookout fell into disuse in the ’50s and ’60s. (Photo courtesy of Fred Johnson)

The Pratt Trailhead is located near the north end of Signal Street. For Gridley Trail, follow Gridley Road north to a cul-de-sac and park along the shoulder.

Nordhoff Lookout is also 4WD-accessible from Rose Valley using Chief Peak Road, with special permission from the U.S. Forest Service.

One Reply to “Take a peek at the lookout”

  1. I was pricey to visit the wooden structure before it was torn dow. Just a kid then. My brothers and I broke in and looked around. A bed, stove, binoculars, sink, food were some of the things we found. Brings back memories!

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