In the prime of fire suppression, Oregon had over 800 fire lookouts and Washington had 750 fire lookouts topped on almost every high peak in both the states. Many were dismantled, destroyed, or burned down in a blaze of glory. But remains of the foundation can usually be found on the summits as a reminder to what once stood. Below lists 4 popular hikes close to Portland, OR that have a history in fire detection and lookouts.
Beacon Rock State Park – Columbia River Gorge
Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.
1.5 miles RT
Beacon rock is one of the tallest monoliths in North America and stands at 848 feet tall. It is also considered one of the most distinctive geological features in the Columbia River Gorge. The route follows a mostly blasted and bridged trail on the exposed west side of the rock. Parts of the trail have been paved over throughout the years and is completely lined with handrails. It is basically just a series of short continuous switchbacks to the summit. The history behind Beacon Rock is extensive and interesting. The feature itself was once the core of a volcano and what remains is what was able to withstand the force of ice-age floods. It was noted and named as Beacon Rock by Lewis & Clark during their voyage in 1805. Though I’m sure it had a different name for those native to the area. It was even slated for demolition at one point for either railroad construction or a new jetty on the Columbia River Gorge. Henry Biddle bought the rock and surrounding area before this happened. He is also the one who originally built the trail between 1915 to 1918. His property was later offered to the Washington State Parks by his estate for $1. The Washington State Parks originally refused this offer until Oregon expressed interest in maintaining it as a park. It was purchased by the Washington State Parks in 1935. Although you won’t find any remnants of a former lookout structure on the summit of this rock, it does have a history in fire detection. Given the height of the rock, it was used as a fire detection camp from the 1930s up until the 1950s when it was abandoned. I’ve hiked this trail more than any other trail and with more people than any other trail I’ve every hiked. It is a good beginner trail or trail for showing your out of town friends to a quick hike.
The top of Saddle Mountain offers expansive views from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Mt Hood. It is no question why they would want to have a lookout on this summit. The trail switchbacks through an old growth forest until you reach the last push up the rocky slope. Parts of the trail are covered in mesh wiring to help with erosion and traction. It is a steep 1,640′ gain in elevation over 2.5 miles to the summit. Saddle Mountain was established as a fire camp in 1913 with a log cabin situated below the summit. In 1920, a frame cabin with observation platform was built. It was replaced in 1953 by a 2-story live-in cabin. The lookout structure was destroyed in 1966. I have been on this summit a few different times but didn’t take the time to look for any remnants of foundation.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest – Columbia River Gorge
Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.
6.5 miles RT
Dog Mountain is a very popular hike in the Columbia River Gorge due to its proximity to town and being right off of HWY-14. In the spring, between March 31st and July 1st, permits are required to hike this trail on the weekends. This is due to the hazardous conditions created for the cars on the highway by the overflow of people during wildflower season. There are a few different routes and loops that can be done to reach the summit once at the trailhead. My friend and I completed this hike on a hot July day before the permit system was in place. We arrived to the trailhead early to give us enough time to reach the summit and attempt to beat the crowds. We took the “less difficult” route which is the newer trail and offers more views on your steep climb up. We made it just past the former fire lookout site, also known as the Puppy Dog Lookout site, before turning around. I vaguely remember there still being some foundation there. The trail originally was developed to service this fire lookout that was destroyed in 1967. The original lookout was constructed in 1931 as a gable-roofed L-4 cab with windows only on three sides. It was replaced in 1953 by a standard L-4 cab. Both structures were located 1/4 mile from the actual summit of Dog Mountain. I used to have more pictures from this hike, even one of us standing on the former lookout site, but they have been lost in multiple phone transitions since 2017.
Mt. Defiance is one of the more brutal hikes I’ve done. It is the highest peak in the Columbia River Gorge and offers views out towards Mt Hood NF as well. This made it the perfect candidate for a fire lookout site. I recommend starting this hike early if you want to make it to the summit and back before dark. Or at least hike a lot faster than I do. We didn’t start this hike until mid-morning and ended up getting back to the car after dark. The hike starts out paved and passes some pretty waterfalls. Once you have reached the junction with the un-paved trail you will start to go up and continue to go up the rest of the way. There are still some communication buildings on the summit and I’m sure there are foundation remnants if you spend some time looking for them. We didn’t spend much time here since it took me so long to get there. The trail had recently re-opened after the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017. The ashy portions of the trail made for un-stable ground and was hard for me on the hike down. By the time I got back to the car my feet felt like they were going to fall off completely. The first fire lookout on this site was a crow’s nest and tent in 1925. A more substantial structure was built in 1934 as a 40′ pole tower with L-4 cab. This was eventually replaced by a 41′ treated timber tower with L-4 cab in 1952. In 1959, the lookout was destroyed by a windstorm. The Forest Service didn’t build a replacement lookout until 1962 which was a R-6 flat top cab and 41′ treated timber tower. It was completely removed from the summit in 1971.
Sunday was our last full day of the trip. Our only set plan was to attempt to locate the Pumice Springs crows nest. I was given the choice to add on East Butte or Fox Butte since my partner had already been to both last year. I decided Fox Butte made the most sense since it was closer to our camp and recently slated for decommission. My partner’s dad decided to hang back at camp instead. After breakfast and packing a lunch, we headed out on NF-23 to NF-550. It didn’t take us very long to get there from camp. There are three water bars along NF-550 that will need caution if you are in a lower clearance vehicle. We obviously had no issues in the truck and parked at the signed junction for Fox Butte. There is a locked gate up the road that doesn’t have a pull out or turn around spot. We were well aware of this gate beforehand and didn’t attempt to drive up. The lookout is about a mile or so road walk from this junction. As we headed up the road, we were surprised to find the gate was actually open. I speculated that maybe the Forest Service was on top of their plan for once and had already torn down the lookout. Luckily, I was wrong and someone had just cut the lock. We made sure to close the gate on our way out in hopes to deter at least some vandals. The weather was clear and it felt like summer as we hiked the road. Once on the summit we checked out the L-4 ground cabin that had seen better days and climbed part of the Aermotor tower. My partner climbed all the way to the top, but I stopped on the second landing. It seems to still be in somewhat decent shape, but be wary to climb at your own risk. We spent some extended time on the summit since this would most likely be our last time up here before it’s gone.
After hiking back down to the truck, we headed out on NF-23 towards Sand Springs Campground. We were following directions based on a Geocache that was supposed to take us to the area of the crows nest. We turned left at the four way junction near Sand Springs Campground than right on to NF-900. The cache and crows nest were supposed to be right off the NF-900 road according to the coordinates. We wondered around the area for 2 hours trying to find the tree but all existing pines looked too young to host a crows nest. It was definitely not down this road. Another source had mentioned it was located half way between Pumice Springs and Sand Springs. We drove out towards Pumice Springs and kept an eye out for significantly taller trees in the area. I assume it is probably farther off the road than the eye can see but we didn’t have the hours to spend hiking off of every road in the area. We were unsuccessful in our attempt which was disappointing. This just means another trip to the area is in our future.
Fox Butte started as a lookout site in 1919 when a heliograph was set up on the west point. A year later, in 1920, they ran a telephone line to the butte from the Cabin Lake Ranger Station. A standard D-6 cupola was built on the western summit in 1924. The lookout was later destroyed by the Fox Butte Fire in 1926 that burned over 15,000 acres of timber. They started to rebuild a new lookout tower the following year. This was noted as a pole tower with ground cabin for living quarters. In 1933, they started construction on the eastern summit of the existing 80′ steel Aermotor tower. The living quarters from the western summit were moved to the eastern summit for use with the new tower. A 16×18 wood frame garage was added in 1934. The living quarters were eventually replaced with the L-4 ground house moved from Sixteen Butte in 1948. There is record of it being consistently staffed up until the late 1950s. It could have been used for longer but I wasn’t able to find a definitive date on when it was abandoned. The Forest Service briefly used the lookout for a season in 1995 while the East Butte L.O. was being reconstructed. It is now apart of their proposed plan to be removed.
We woke up Saturday with a plan to make a day trip to Fort Rock, Green Mountain, and Crack in the Ground. We headed out of the Deschutes NF via NF-18 passing Cabin Lake Guard Station and made our first stop at the Fort Rock State Natural Area. This large semi-circle rock that now sits in Oregon’s high desert used to be an island in what was once a shallow sea. The oldest sandals dating back to 9,000-13,000 years old were discovered in this area. We hiked the short loop around the rock before moving on. We had to make an unexpected pit stop in Christmas Valley for gas and propane. For some reason our propane connection to our larger propane tank wasn’t working when we tried to make breakfast that morning. We had a half used disposable Coleman propane bottle that got the job done but it wouldn’t last us the remainder of the trip. We were relieved to find Christmas Valley was stocked with both despite one of the stores mentioning a supply shortage. Crisis averted. Just outside of Christmas Valley is a scenic byway aptly named Crack in the Ground Road that takes you directly to Green Mountain and Crack in the Ground. It is a rough and bumpy road but should be passable to most vehicles with caution. We drove past Crack in the Ground to Green Mountain Campground first. The small primitive campground is situated at the base of the lookout. From there it is only a few hundred feet up to the lookout. It was locked behind a barbed wire gate and still closed for the season. You still get a pretty good view from just the base. There were only a couple people camping in the campground, so we used one of the picnic tables for our lunch. On our way back out towards Christmas Valley we stopped at Crack in the Ground. This hike takes you through an old volcanic fissure that is roughly 2 miles long. We were running out of day again so we only went part way into the crack before heading back to camp.
A fortress. A tower for a high-security prison. The tower that kept Rapunzel locked away. The current structure on Green Mountain hardly resembles what we would typically recognize as a fire lookout. The 50′ enclosed cinder block tower with observation cab was built in 2010. This lookout was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The recovery work consisted of demolishing the existing lookout, building the new lookout, and associated site work. The original 2-story lookout was built in 1963 with a 10′ concrete base and wooden live in cab.
My partner had planned a 4-day camping trip to the Deschutes NF with his dad and myself to celebrate his birthday. We had an ambitious plan to see Spring Butte, Green Butte, Green Mountain, Pumice Springs, and Fox Butte while in the area. This trip we had the luxury of taking his dad’s truck. Which meant what we didn’t have to worry about in road conditions were replaced with high gas prices and low gas mileage. We left Portland as early as possible to see if we could get to Spring Butte and Green Butte before setting up camp. Luckily, my partner and his dad had been to this area before and knew where there would be dispersed camp spots. This helped cut down on the travel time that we would normally have to allot to searching for a spot. The amount of Forest Service roads in this area are extensive and unmarked due to the OHV traffic. I strongly recommend having a ranger district map of the area if you plan to go down more than just the main roads. Never rely on GPS for navigation within the forest. We came upon a lost couple on our drive out of the forest on the last day of the trip that flagged us down to ask for help. They thought if they continued down the road long enough it would eventually turn to pavement and had ended up there due to their GPS. We warned them they were headed for more miles of gravel and should turn around since they were still close to the edge of the forest. Luckily, they took our word for it and followed us all the way out to La Pine.
On the ranger district map the most direct route to Spring Butte looked like NF-2220 off of HWY-31. I think under normal circumstances this road would be a good route to take but since it was still early season we ran into a lot of debris and downed trees. I also wouldn’t recommend this route as the best way for lower clearance vehicles. We were able to drive down NF-2220 until it’s junction with NF-600. There was a large downed tree blocking the road that, even if we had remembered to bring our buck saw, would have been too big to cut without a chain saw. We noticed NF-600 basically paralleled NF-2220 and decided to attempt that route instead. NF-600 is a rocky spur road that doesn’t see a lot of use. On the map it appeared to connect back to NF-2220 via another spur road, but we quickly found out it was barely even a jeep track up a rocky slope. We continued on NF-600 until it met up with NF-2420. This took much longer than expected since we constantly had to stop and move downed trees out of the way. Thankfully they were all small lodgepole pines. From NF-2420 we took a left and headed towards NF-2430. You will turn left and stay on NF-2430 until you reach the spur road NF-830 that will take you all the way to the lookout. NF-2430 crosses NF-2220 before you reach the spur which is where we were hoping to come from originally. There is a sign for the turn to Spring Butte L.O. from NF-2430 as well. From this junction it is only a mile. If we had been driving my Civic this is where I would have parked and started to road walk. We drove the truck a half of a mile up the road but decided to walk the rest of the way after a particularly rutted section. The road is gated near the lookout so you would have to get out and walk no matter what. It looked like someone had been here recently prepping for the start of their fire season since the shutters on the lookout had already been removed. We spent a short time on the summit since we were pressed for time and still wanted to attempt to find Green Butte. This lookout completed our set for all the lookouts with octagonal cabs in Oregon.
Once back at the truck we started heading towards Green Butte on the map. This meant taking NF-2430 back the way we came. You will want to stay on NF-2430 until you reach NF-2222 on the left. It looked like there were multiple connecting spurs that would take you to Green Butte but the most direct route is from spur NF-700. This spur unfortunately wasn’t signed. We were able to guestimate the turn after we went too far and met a different spur that was signed. Once you’re on NF-700 you will turn right on to NF-720 which is in fact marked. My partner’s dad didn’t feel like road walking with us and parked the truck at the junction. From here my partner and I walked up NF-720. We made the mistake of not taking our map or taking a picture of the map before we left. We thought NF-720 would take us to the summit but quickly found that there were multiple spur roads heading towards the butte while NF-720 paralleled it. The two spurs we had to choose between were NF-725 and NF-550. We started up NF-550 first and it appeared to be headed in the right direction. I’m a significantly slower hiker than my partner and I was worried we wouldn’t have a enough time in the day to make it back to the truck and camp before dark. I turned back before the road got too steep but my partner continued on in hopes of finding the lookout. I made it back to the truck around 6PM and we waited for my partner to return. He was lucky that we had guessed the correct spur road to reach the summit and was successful in finding the lookout. From NF-550 you turn on to NF-555 that will take you all the way to the platform lookout. I’m bummed I didn’t make it this time but now I know how to get there in the future. My partner made it back to the truck around 6:30PM mostly because he ran the rest of the way after I turned around. We ended up setting up camp much later than expected but it was worth it.
If you are wanting to reach Spring Butte L.O. with a lower clearance vehicle, I recommend starting on NF-22 which leaves directly from La Pine. It is marked as Finley Butte Road in town but eventually turns into a Forest Service road. From NF-22 you can take the other side of NF-2220 to NF-2430 to NF-830 or you can go to NF-2222 to NF-2430 to NF-830. Since I can only speak on the roads I’ve been on, I’d recommend NF-2222 to NF-2430. I would consider these portions of the road passable to lower clearance vehicles.
Similar to Sisi Butte and Calamity Butte, the existing Spring Butte L.O. has an octagonal cab. It was constructed in 1991 as the first of its kind in Oregon. The 16’x16′ cab sits shorter than the other two with a 41′ pole tower. It is still actively staffed every summer, so always make sure to be respectful of the active lookout attendant’s space and only climb the tower if you’ve been invited up. The previous lookout structure was developed in 1932 as a 30′ tower with 14’x14′ L-4 cab. It was maintained regularly between the 1950s-1970s and used up until it was deemed unsafe in the 1990s. In November of 1997, the existing lookout was broken into and vandalized. The damages were estimated up to $10,000. The fire finder and other furniture were torn and tossed from the height of the tower with complete disregard. It is unfortunate to hear that some people have such a lack of respect for places like this which is often why they are hidden behind locked gates. It is our collective responsibility to help keep places like this intact for future use and others to enjoy.