Ever wondered what it's like to sleep in a fire lookout tower? At 4,900 feet high and 40 steep steps off the ground, Oak Flat Lookout, in the Greenhorn Mountains of the Sequoia National Forest about an hour's drive northeast of Bakersfield, is basically a campsite in the sky. The tower, built in 1934, has not been operational since the mid-'80s, but it's available to rent now through November. After months of trying (you usually must book six months in advance at recreation.gov), my husband and I were able to reserve two nights last July. The tab: We spent about $350; $75 a night for the rental, $116 for a rental car and the rest for groceries and activities.
This is not where you go if you're looking for luxury. But if you're up for an unusual and slightly upscale camping experience, renting Oak Flat gets you two twin beds, basic amenities and an incredible view of the Kern River Valley. Bring your own sleeping bag and pillow. Also, the restroom is a single vault outhouse 100 yards northwest of the tower, so pack toilet paper.
Because of the remoteness and self-service nature of this facility, you'll need to arrive with food, cooking tools, utensils, garbage bags and paper towels. There's a propane range and an outdoor barbecue ring but no fridge or running water, so bring a cooler, ice and ample drinking water, especially during summer. Stop for supplies in Bakersfield because there's nothing closer. Remember that everything you pack will have to be carried up 40 stairs or pulled up using the lookout's pulley system.
Word to the wise: Bakersfield is hot in summer. As a way to cool off, we drove to Kernville (1½-hour drive) to go river tubing. We bought inflatable tubes (about $5 each) and water shoes ($9 a pair) and sent ourselves down easy rapids near the center of town. (I've also done a three-hour rafting trip with SoCal Rafting Co., which provides a more structured experience for those who prefer guided adventure.)
THE LESSON LEARNED
Rent a car unless you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle. We hemmed and hawed about it, and thank goodness we did. Our Prius would not have made the off-road drive to the Lookout.
Oak Flat Lookout, lat.ms/oakflatlookout. No wheelchair accessibility. The tower is closed June 10-16.