Saturday, September 3, 2011


Robinson’s Flat to Duncan Peak LO (Placer County, CA)

THE OTHER DAY I took a copy of Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn up to the fellow manning the lookout on Duncan’s Peak. Two reasons: 1) Egan’s book presents a compact history of the early days of the US Forest Service along with its earliest great challenge, and B) any day one gets to ride a Beemer or Guzzi (or a KLR) up Foresthill Road from Auburn to Robinson’s Flat is going to be a really good day.

I tossed some hiking shoes into the Jesse’s on the GSA, leaving the Breva home in case I was tempted to ride the gravelly mile and a half from Robinson’s Flat up to the lookout. I wasn’t. The walk would be a good one and watching the scenery unfold at my feet never ceases to steal my breath.

FORESTHILL ROAD departs I-80 just east of Auburn; just a short jaunt up the hill from Sacramento. It crosses the North Fork of the American and traces the high ridge into Foresthill. These 17 miles are gorgeously engineered and heavily patrolled.

Climbing above Foresthill, the road creases through mixed forest as it gains elevation. Eight or ten miles further on, a side road leads to Sugar Pine Reservoir, thence off to Iowa Hill and Colfax back on 80. Continuing east, one rides through the yellow pine belt past little dirt tracks that lead to gold rush era locales lost to history.

The last ten miles of pavement lack a centerline. Through stands of forest and clearings, the shoulder drops off inviting the rider to pay close attention in and through the wondrous twisting curves. [Click on Foresthill Hill Divide in the “tag” section to learn more about this magnificent route.]

File photo from my KLR days
AT ROBINSON’S FLAT, I rest the bike on its sides stand and change footwear. A nineteen-teens era guard station has been resurrected and sits as a monument to the early foresters who watched over the resource.

A stroll to the nearby high forest meadow and a few cranks on the hand pump there, rewards me with some of the world’s purest waters. Good to remember on a day when, hiking at 7500 feet, the temperature may touch ninety.

THE WALK TO DUNCAN PEAK can be accomplished via trail or via road. I choose the gravel and dirt extension of Robinson Flat Road for the climb, opting for Little Bald Mountain Trail for the return. Either way, the final two hundred yards to Duncan Peak is a delight, as the entire world seems to unfold at my feet.

Once there, a nice conversation with John, the ranger on duty, ensues. He points out area promontories and talks about the various hikes he’s taken on his off days.

“See that outcrop?” About a mile north, a small white dome rises above the forest. “That’s the site of the original lookout.”

I’d been up this way easily two dozen times and didn’t know there had been a former lookout anywhere in the area.

“Seems they built the thing, had a great view of everything except what lies beyond this ridge right here.” He pointed at the ground below the current tower.

“Wouldn’t they have figured that out before they built the thing?” I asked.

We shook our heads in concert and both said, “Government work.”

I WALKED A BIT of the Little Bald Mountain Trail, because that’s what I planned to do. Along this ridge east of the peak, views stretch to the south and southeast. French Meadows Reservoir lay at my feet and the ski runs at Mount Rose are visible about 25 miles off.

Fire had devastated this area around thirty years ago. The short high country-growing season makes reforestation a long process.

HAVING RECEIVED DIRECTION from Ranger John, the hike over to the old site was an easy one. “Just turn right when you get to the cattle guard and park there.”

I had nothing to park.

The trail John indicated was actually a passable but unimproved dirt road. Keeping my bearings about me, I followed my nose and came upon the base of the dome.

A trail coursed between the pine-mat Manzanita and climbed the slope. Long ago workers had hewn steps through a fissure in the granite.

A few out-of-breath minutes lead me to the remains of the fire lookout: A sixteen by sixteen foot splintery wooden platform perched atop solid rock.

One has to wonder how they got materials up here for this structure, and how they got them to stay grounded over the years of its use.

The view to the north included the abandoned tower at Grouse Lakes – some thirty miles away; and beyond that, another score or more, the tower on the Sierra Buttes appeared as a mere speck.

To the south, the current lookout gleamed in the mid-day sun. I stood next to the platform and waved for a moment or so, thinking Ranger John might like to know I’d arrived.

Lunch involved some dried beef and bottled water on a sun-silvered, splintery perch with a 360 degree view that most will never see. I took some notes and started back down.

BACK AT THE PUMP at Robinson Flat, I drenched my head before donning my helmet. As the vents carried the cool air through, I considered this a good ride, a good walk and a good new discovery. Therefore a really good day.


Photographer Keith Sutter offers some great shots of the Duncan Peak Lookout.  Find his work on line by Googling Duncan Peak Photos.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. Loved your descriptions and the granite steps photo. Very jealous of your outings. Maybe someday, when I retire......