195. The Fire Lookouts of Oregon

The Fire Lookouts of Oregon: I hate to be braggy, but here’s one reason why Oregon is probably better than your state – because you can sleep in a working fire lookout. Although high-five if you live in Northern California, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Washington or Wyoming because these places also offer the uniquely American opportunity of trekking through pristine national wilderness, often through thick winter snows, to the top of an isolated butte or mountain top where awaits a single-room, glass cabin in the sky. Actually I don’t know if this experience is uniquely American, but after spending last weekend perched in Umpqua National Forest’s Pickett Butte lookout I can say with absolute authority that it is uniquely awesome.

Indeed I was smitten within minutes, from the first step on icy wooden stairs that climb forty feet to the heavy metal hatch above, to the initial glimpse of the encircling wilderness from the creaky catwalk outside. I arrived in Southern Oregon on the tail end of a mean Spring storm that wind-whipped our faces and dumped new feet of fresh powder on the north Cascades. Expecting to find an impassible road to the lookout, I packed chains, snowshoes, poles and a backpack for lugging my food and water the last miles on forest service roads. Instead I arrived to a swirl of new snow not quite cold enough to accumulate on the clear road to the top. That easy passage meant that my most difficult task was figuring out how to hoist the lookout’s pulley basket full of food and water in gale force gusts.

This lookout, like many of its kind, was built on some other nearby mountaintop sometime long ago, then moved to its current location for strategic or practical reasons. Put into service in 1934 to scan the horizon for wisps of smoke after dry lighting strikes, the bombing of Pearl Harbor transformed the Pickett Butte lookout into a dual purpose structure – watching for fires by day in the summertime, and watching and listening for invading foreign aircraft twenty four hours a day through every other season. The great fear of the Northwest during the war, it turns out, was that the Japanese would drop incendiary bombs on our precious woods. As a result, this particular lookout was stuffed not only with the tools of the firewatching trade – like the Osborne Fire-Finder that sits in the exact center of the 12×12 flat roof cabin – but also volumes of written recollections of the men and women who staffed the tower throughout its history. I read almost every tattered page of these, my back against the orange glow of the heater, the hiss of the propane mantle overhead, while the weather swallowed the jagged ponderosa horizon and spit it out again, frosted in white. Magic.

It’s not even summer yet and I’ve already declared this the Summer of a Hundred Fire Lookouts, even though so far I’ve only actually been able to reserve three. The decommissioned lookouts that can be rented in the summer are well known and weekend availability is understandably tough to come by. But I’ve cobbled together the few that I could find in the farthest reaches of Oregon and we’re counting down the days. More pictures coming this summer.

Here’s where you can reserve lookouts in Oregon and Washington.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sloan Schang, Michael Born. Michael Born said: Jealous…wish that was my office! RT @swelldone I spent last weekend in a 75-year-old working fire lookout. Pictures! http://bit.ly/9AAfhZ [...]