The American Camp Fire Lookout is located on top of a peak between the North Fork and South Fork of the Stanislaus where they join at the east end of New Melones Reservoir. The tower is no longer used, but what’s left of it is still standing. There are no 360 views from the ground, but the peak has great views especially to New Melones and the river canyon. The tower is visible from points along the ridge to the east and north of Columbia.
The tower is at the end of Forest Road 3N15 north of Columbia. It’s convenient to start the bike ride at Columbia State Historic Park; there’s parking, restrooms, food, and water. This ride is an out-and-back, so the comforts of town await you at the end. (Also see short loop option for kids/casual below.)
Head north out of town on Main Street which turns into Italian Bar Road as you pass the St. Charles Saloon. Italian Bar climbs for about two miles before it starts descending into the South Fork Stanislaus River canyon. At 2.5 miles the pavement ends and gravel starts.
Italian Bar gets a moderate amount of traffic for a gravel road that seems to be heading out to nowhere. The trip down, across the river, and up out of the canyon on the north side has some steep parts. The road is fairly wide and maintained, but it has areas with loose gravel and washboarding. Watch your speed, and look for smoother traveling on the outside edges of the curves.
After crossing the river and passing the sharp switchback and the climb to the American Camp Station site look for Forest Route 3N03 on the left (~7.5 miles from start). All that’s left of American Camp Station are some large boulders on the right side of the road blocking the removed bridge and a clearing across the creek.
After a short climb on 3N03, look for a hillside with lots of evidence of shooting and off-roading on the left adjacent to the start of 3N15 (~8 miles from start).
Forest Route 3N15 keeps on climbing with a couple of short level sections. The higher it goes the better it gets with some nice meadows and an area of blue oak woodland that seems out of place for the elevation. There are usually cows out there clanging through the brush.
Eventually the road comes upon a clearing with a great view out over the lake and the Blue Mountain Minerals quarry. The photo doesn’t come even close to doing it justice. Maybe I’ll get a better picture some day.
The tower is up a last steep section of the road. Your cell phone may work at the tower. If you’re so inclined, try to give someone a call to let them know where you are and they aren’t.
Don’t forget about the climb back out of the river canyon on the way back. Once you hit the pavement, it just gets steeper. This ride always seems longer than it really is when climbing up Italian Bar on the way out.
Shorter ride for casual/kids: drive out Italian Bar, park at American Camp Station, and ride out to the tower and back. This shorter ride might work for more mature, adventurous, and somewhat studly kids (and grown ups) if you bring lots of treats and they bring some off-road skills and a good attitude. (About 7 miles round trip, 1,300 feet climbing.) Keep in mind this is still a good bit of climbing!
Sometimes people go out to shoot along this route. If they’re close enough to be of concern, a good loud holler of “On the road” couldn’t hurt.
There’s also a very nice trail out past the tower to an overlook of the North Fork and Melones. It’s essentially a continuation of the road out to the tower, but it narrows considerably. From the tower, backtrack a hundred feet or so to find the trail on the east side of the road. There is also a trail continuing straight ahead from the tower, but it travels straight down the ridge and is quite steep. The two trails join up further out on the point.
The overlook provides a perfect bookend to the Melones Dam overlook on the Peoria Mountain post. There are fine views toward the high country, east along the river canyon including the Camp Nine bridge, across the river to Calaveras County, and west to Melones and the Blue Mountain Minerals Quarry. The tower looms overhead to the south.
The trip out to the overlook adds 2 miles roundtrip and 500 feet of climbing.
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- Downside—Out-and-back, some washboarding on the steep sections of Italian Bar Road.
- Upside—Very scenic with a mix of pines, oak woodland, lake, river canyon, great views and tower at the end.
- Bring a good (better than Google) paper map of Stanislaus Forest Roads. See the page of Stanislaus Forest tips. Ride is in Columbia and Columbia SE quads.
- 21.4 miles out-and-back from Columbia to the tower
- About 4,000 feet total climb
- roads: paved 5 miles, dirt and gravel 16.4 miles
- terrain: mountainous
- tires: cross to mountain, most folks will prefer mountain
- seasons: all, with precautions for summer heat, possible winter snow.
- current weather