Four Nights in Two Fire Lookout Towers


Blood, sweat, and tears go into planning my backpacking trips. Well, ok maybe just hours and hours of hard work; sometimes taking up to weeks or even a month to plan the details. Time goes into tracking weather conditions, narrowing down the general area that offers amazing views, determining whether or not permits are needed, calculating driving and hiking distances, and weighing how remote the location is because—I don't know about you, but I crave solitude in the back-country. I started with a list of a dozen or so trails and narrowed them down to fit my criteria. I even made a spreadsheet to save myself some time—grad school skills put to good use.


It was that time again—that time to cave into the urge to drop everything and spend some quality time outdoors. So, straight away I took to planning my next adventure. I camped out on my couch fantasizing, organizing, and strategizing. But this time, I was spending hours clicking through calendars to find an open spot—a spot that allowed me to rent a fire lookout tower! Booking one of these beauties is no easy feat. In fact, I felt like I had put more hours trying to find an open reservation than planning my traditional backpacking trips. My eyes were glued to the screen; refreshing and searching through dozens of towers until magically I got one, and then another! I didn't care if I had to work those days, these lookout towers took priority. With due diligence, I was able to nab a couple, and it seemed that flexibility during the week was a major key to booking them.


There are a number of lookout towers throughout the Pacific Northwest, some are fully functioning lookout towers only to be rented during the off-season, while others are available year-round. Two of the towers I booked were 40ft towers with incredible views of the mountain ranges above Oregon's popular Douglas Firs.

Packing this time around was a different experience. I've spent a lot of time learning how to pack exactly what I need, so reversing that habit was a challenge. It wasn't quite backpacking and not exactly like staying in a hotel either. Do I bring my comfy lounge clothes and splurge on cooking ingredients or just wear the same clothes for both days and bring my trusty dehydrated meals? How many cans of cider and boxed wine should I pack? These were serious questions.


Lookout Tower #1. The first tower was equipped with 360-degrees of phenomenal views, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams in the background. Photographers paradise! I took my time soaking in the cozy tower, about the size of a master bedroom, looking in every drawer and peeking out every window. After the wood burning stove was roaring and bags were unpacked, it hit me—I'm staying in a freak'n fire lookout tower! After the excitement wound down, just a touch, time was spent being completely unplugged, listening to the crackling fire and the creaking boards shifting from the wind. Reading the guest logbooks was a must—Oh man were they better than the reading book I had brought. Pouring over every detail from previous entries: laughing over the pesky summer mouse that feasted on haphazardly stored food, indulging over bonding time between siblings and friends, engagement memories, moments of soul-searching, and the amusement over the residential game of Gubs in which every nook and cranny was searched to find this ah-mazing game, with no luck. And of course, reading about the glorious use of the "pee bucket" which brought on some mixed feelings. Those two days seemed to have flown by.  I was certainly not in a rush to leave the tower and head back to reality, but then I remembered I'll get to enjoy this experience all over again!


Lookout Tower #2. The second time around, brought a snowstorm to the scene, not ideal timing given that the previous few days were bluebird skies, but that's the nature of the game when fighting tooth and nail to book these reservations, or at least picking whatever is available. What made this adventure different was the snow, part of which was the ice on the stairs making it treacherous—boy did that "pee bucket" start to make sense. The snow brought tranquil seclusion, especially spotting a weasel and counting the snow-shoe hare tracks. Having learned from the first experience settling in was done in record-breaking time, it didn't hurt that the tower layout was nearly a spitting image to the previous one. It was time to relax, so I "popped" off the screw-capped lid on a box of Pinot Grigio and took in the views—except there weren't any. The tower was totally socked in by dense fog. Being optimistic there were still 42-hours left, the fog had to go away eventually. Needless to say, two full days went by with only a few meager glimpses of the mountains and the nearby lakes, just enough of a view to know that I was missing out—big time! Eventually, reality settled in, and I knew the relentless fog was here to stay. Nonetheless, being surrounded by snow-covered Douglas Firs and drifting fog, it felt like being in my own personal castle, protected from the chaos of the world. Putting my camera in its final resting place, barely touched, I settled in once again to indulge in the guest logbook with a roaring fire.

I never thought I would have gotten the opportunity to stay in a fire lookout tower, let alone two of them.  The competitiveness to book them was something that never appealed to me, but perseverance pulled through, along with dumb luck, which made it possible for me to mark the experience off my bucket-list. 



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Melanin Base Camp blogger Rebecca Ross is a mountaineer, backpacker, and photographer, based in the Pacific Northwest. Her current interests include wolverine survey tracking for Cascadia Wild and volunteering with her local search and rescue! Check out her page to learn more!