My partner had found Craft Point through Rex’s Fire Lookout site, which lead to a Geocache that provided some direction on how to get there. We were already camping in the area for a visit to Calamity Butte and King Mountain with my partner’s dad. Based on the directions, we followed NF-28 to NF-2815 heading east to NF-046. We parked in a pull out near where the road was blocked off by larger rocks. Unfortunately, I don’t recall much about the road conditions since we were in the truck. But, I’m inclined to believe it was passable with caution to most vehicles. From where we parked, the directions get a bit loosey-goosey and becomes more of a chose your own adventure. We essentially cut into the forest from the road directly towards the ridge line above until we met up with the fence line. We turned right at the fence and followed it along the ridge. A few times we had to cross over the fence to stay safely on the ridge. We came to an exposed rocky section that no longer followed the fence. Here it was unclear which side of the ridge to stay on to best access the higher point. I was ready to call it quits, but my partner wanted to continue on. His dad and I sat in the shade while he explored on ahead. He returned a short while after exclaiming that he had found it. We followed him to the left side of the ridge that skirted below some larger rocks. Eventually, we met up with an old game trail that took us directly to the summit. The last portion of the trail was steep and headed directly up the slope. We enjoyed lunch on the summit. Getting back to the car was a bit easier since we just had to retrace our steps as best as possible.
Craft Point was built in 1930 as a 15′ pole platform tower. The site was never upgraded to a more substantial structure and was abandoned in the 1940s. It’s possible it was used during emergencies, but there is little to no information online about it. It has fallen into a state of disrepair but still stands.
Coffin Mountain L.O. has been on my short list to visit since November 2018. A friend and I had been staying in Eugene for the weekend and tried to check it out. Our plans were immediately foiled when we met up with snow and ice on the road. We ended up exploring around a snow-park instead. I’m not sure why it took me so long to attempt another visit, but here we are almost 4 years later.
My partner and I had a toss up between adding Sand Mountain or Coffin Mountain to our weekend. My partner was leaning towards Sand Mountain due to the popularity of Coffin Mountain during this time of year. While, I was partial to Coffin Mountain. Alternatively, we could do neither but that was the least likely to happen. Based on reviews and trip reports online, we knew Sand Mountain would be a longer hike due to the gate and road conditions. The hike could have potentially been 10 miles RT depending on how far we’d make it down the road. We ended up waking up later than expected on Sunday morning which defaulted us to Coffin Mountain. We probably could have squeezed in Sand Mountain, but we both agreed we didn’t want to get back in town too late. Fine by me, Coffin Mountain it is!
We packed up and headed out from our camp on NF-15 to meet up with HWY-20. There were portions of NF-15 that were a bit rough for my Civic due to some recent logging in the area. We were able to make it out without incident, but it definitely slowed us down. We headed east on HWY-20 to connect with HWY-22. From HWY-22, the road you want is off to the left. It is NF-11 on the map, but was only marked as Straight Creek Road. It is located just past a bend in the highway, so make sure to keep an eye out for it. You will stay on this paved road until you reach NF-1168. There are two turns onto NF-1168, but you will want to take the second one. There is a sign at the first junction with NF-1168 that will point you in the direction of pavement. The NF-1168 road is well maintained gravel all the way to the trailhead. The trailhead can be found just off of the junction with NF-450. It should be obvious as you approach since you will get a glimpse of the lookout before you reach the trail. The NF-1168 road continues on to the Bachelor Mountain trailhead.
There is parking for a few cars directly at the trailhead and a few pull outs for additional parking. There were already cars here, but it was not as busy as my partner thought it would be. He can be a bit overzealous in his predictions when it comes to busier trails. We had just missed the peak bloom of Beargrass in the main meadow which helped to decrease the foot traffic. There was still a significant amount of wildflowers in bloom though. I always find it interesting what makes a certain trail popular over another. Ease of access? Length of trail? Views or points of interest? We were in the same National Forest, hiking to a Fire Lookout on a similar length of trail, and it offered similar views. Yet, Carpenter Mountain is significantly less visited. I can’t help but think social media plays a dominating role. But, even then, what makes a spot blow up on instagram versus another? I often see the same regurgitated spots on “must see lists” for Oregon, but there is still so much more to be seen. I am thankful in some ways that these lists curated by influencers and photographers aren’t usually unique. It helps keep other spots from being overcrowded. But, on the other hand, if there were more unique lists people might be more dispersed in general. Which in turn could lead to less impact on the current areas being overcrowded. This is a topic my partner and I revisit often, but I digress.
The hike to the summit is a little less than a mile and a half one way. You will climb over 1,000′ in elevation as you switch back up the side of the mountain through an open meadow. Today was forecasted to be hotter than Saturday which didn’t bode well for a more exposed hike. I quickly fell behind as a struggled with my tight calves and feeling dehydrated again. The main bloom of Beargrass might have already been done, but as I climbed the ridge line more and more blooms became present. Beargrass, or Xerophyllum Tenax, has such a unique flowering pattern. It resembles a q-tip or something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They can even reach up to five feet in height, which is almost as tall as me! As we neared the summit, we were lucky to have it briefly to ourselves aside from the lookout attendant on duty. He was doing his best to ignore everyone in sight. We gave him a hello which only warranted a wave and nothing more. I don’t blame him though, after watching a few hikers completely disregard his personal space I too wouldn’t want to try and talk to anyone. The poor guy was just trying to read his book and enjoy a lunch without being bothered. We enjoyed our lunch on the helispot before heading back down to the car. I was happy to be able to finally check this one off my list.
Established as early as 1905 with a rudimentary platform pole structure, Coffin Mountain has been used as a site for Fire Detection for a long time. It received its morbid name due to the Coffin shape of its summit. In 1921, a D-6 cupola style cabin was erected in place of the platform. This structure housed the lookouts for 15 years until it was replaced in 1936. Its replacement was a 14’x14′ L-4 ground cab. The current lookout is a modified 15’x15′ R-6 flat top cab and was built in 1984. It is still actively staffed every summer.
Willamette National Forest; H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest
Active; Currently standing
Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.
July 23, 2022
National Historic Lookout Register.
My partner and I set out on another one-night weekend trip in search of more Fire Lookouts. We decided to start picking our way through the closer options within the Willamette NF. We set our sights on Carpenter Mountain and figured we could either add Sand or Coffin Mountain to the weekend itinerary. Carpenter Mountain is doable as a really long day trip from Portland, but we wanted to test our luck in finding a camp spot within a busier western forest. I love a quick overnight trip, but it has become more tedious for us this year. We moved into an apartment near the beginning of the year after deciding to officially part with roommate living. The trade-off for our own space was three flights of stairs that we now have to haul our gear up and down every trip. This has helped us to become more efficient and stream line in our packing. Any item accidentally left in the apartment pays the penalty of three more flights up and down. You learn quick to grab everything you can in as minimal trips as possible and leave nothing unchecked. No essentials left behind!
That being said, we left Portland mid-morning with a packed car headed down I-5 towards HWY-126. From HWY-126, we turned into the forest on NF-15 just past the community of Blue River. We stayed on this road until we reached the Lookout Campground. There is a sign for Carpenter Mountain that states it is 13 miles away in the direction towards NF-1506. We forked right to follow the sign and enter the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. There are multiple junctions along this route, but all roads are marked and you will want to stay on NF-1506. The NF-1506 road starts out paved but eventually turns into well maintained gravel. We stayed on this road until we reached NF-350 off to the left. According to my odometer, it was 5.7 miles up NF-350 to the trailhead. This is a fairly decent spur road with only a few rocky spots and potholes to avoid up until the last mile. The last mile is where the road deteriorates and becomes very rocky. It was slow going in a low clearance vehicle but passable with caution. We made it to the trailhead just before 1pm. It is a short but steep one mile hike to the Fire Lookout. You will gain over 800′ in elevation. It was shaded most of the way which offered a nice reprieve from the heat.
I was struggling with tight calves and didn’t want to trigger a Charlie Horse, so I took my time on the hike. My partner reached the summit before me and was already talking to Rob upon my arrival. Rob was friendly and willing to answer our questions. He was a bit reserved at first, but eventually warmed up to us. A few times he would leave the conversation and return to the interior of his lookout. We figured a few times he was done talking, but then he would eventually come back out to continue on before we had packed up. We talked for a while about photography and he gave me some tips on camera use. He pointed us towards an old growth trail that is located just past the NF-350 road on NF-1506. It’s a 3-1/2 mile trail one way, but we only had time to walk down to the log bridge. It was worth the stop and a great recommendation. There were a lot of old trees to ogle at in the short section that we walked along. Afterwards, we headed deeper into the forest via NF-15 to find a camp for the night. There were limited options as we had expected but we were still able to find a place suitable to set up.
Rob has been the lookout on Carpenter for 9 seasons. He used to work on Wildland fire crews and was an Archeologist as well. He has a degree in Anthropology. In the off season, he lives in Eugene with his wife. He has a special interest in wildlife and ecosystems photography. His work can be found and purchased as prints on his photography website. His site offers more detailed information about him, but above is what we talked about in person. Though, I found out through his website that he went to WSU too, Go Cougs!
Carpenter Mountain was first established in 1914 as a rag camp. They built an open sided cupola style fire finder shelter in 1917. This was used up until 1921 when a direct hit from a lightning strike destroyed it. A new or similar structure must have been rebuilt to replace this since there are still records of the site being used as a fire lookout. In 1935, a L-4 cab was built by the CCC on the summit. This was actively staffed until the 1960s. Eventually, it fell into disrepair with another lightning strike causing excessive damage to the structure in 1986. A Ranger reported that the strike caused 14 windows to blow out, the door to blow off, the steps to blow over the side, and the roof to be raised off the frame. It was officially restored in the 1990s and has since been moved back into active service.
After our week long road trip dedicated to seeing Fire Lookouts in southern and south-eastern Oregon, we decided to look somewhere a little closer to home for a day trip. Clear Lake Butte has been in our back pocket for such an occasion given its easy access and proximity to Portland. Its popularity as a winter destination has kept us away in the colder months, but we knew it was actively staffed in the summer. I personally much rather talk to the lookout attendant than come upon some random renters during their winter stay. We left fairly early in the morning and found ourselves at the gated road before 10am. From Portland, you will want to head out to HWY-26 towards Government Camp. We turned right onto NF-42 which is past the turn off for Clear Lake Campground. The road to Clear Lake Butte is NF-240 off to the right. It should be obvious due to the gate, but it will be the second road down NF-42 on the right hand side. All roads are paved and parking is just a pull out at the beginning of NF-240. In the winter, you’d want to park at the snow park and hike in from there.
A renter, or some yayhoo, had ripped out the gate with their vehicle during the winter season. There were make shift road blocks and a sign that stated “Area Behind This Sign CLOSED to Public Entry” as replacement during our visit. The sign made us pause for a minute, but we decided to continue on since the Forest Service website noted the area as open. I assumed the sign was added to help deter any additional vandalism and disturbances to the lookout. We hoped for the best as we headed up the road. From the gate, it is a 2 mile road walk on mostly pavement with close to 1000′ in elevation gain. There’s not much of a view from the road or base of the lookout, but it is a nice walk in the woods. Once we reached the summit, all our worries about the sign were quickly squashed when Michelle greeted us. She was very friendly and immediately invited us up to check out the view. We even got to meet her very adorable dog. We talked with her for a long time about fire lookouts, the FFLA, the pros/cons of a fire lookout on the rental program, along with other interests. Based on her visitor log, we were only the fourth group up here for the season or at least that signed her book. She wondered if the sign would deter some people from visiting this year. After our visit, we had a brief lunch at the picnic table below the lookout and tried to find the crows nest on our walk back to the car. There are allegedly remnants of it remaining, but we were unsuccessful in our attempt to locate it.
Michelle has worked on Clear Lake Butte for the last 8 seasons and the Mt Hood National Forest since 2004. She is accompanied by her sweet 13 year old rescue dog, Gidget. She can work up to 14 day straight since she doesn’t have a designated relief. She used to work in dispatch for the Forest Service and has also done work on a timber crew. She started working on Fire Lookouts when the primary lookout on Hickman Butte needed someone to fill in for them. Despite being in a busy area of Mt Hood NF, she only received around 84 visitors in 2021. Clear Lake Butte is currently part of the rental program which has caused problems for her during the start of season. Renters will move her stuff around, leave food/items that she has to clean up (this also attracts mice), someone stole her National Historic Lookout Register sign, and even tore out the gate to the road last season. There is even a protected board on the interior of the lookout that has been signed by everyone who has staffed it in the past. Renters will sometimes pry off the protected layer to try and crave their names with everyone else. Michelle has had to sand out a few names.
Book recommendation: Tatoosh by Martha Hardy
Clear Lake Butte started with a crows nest tree just southeast of the true summit. I couldn’t find any information on what year the crows nest was built though. In 1932, a ring-connected timber tower with cab was built. It stood somewhere between 100′ to 110′ tall (Every site listed it at a different height and I couldn’t find a consensus). Old pictures show a cabin at the base for living quarters. The tower looked similar to the L-6 design on Frazier Point. This tower was briefly used for Aircraft Warning in the early 1940s. In 1962, it was replaced with the current 41′ treated timber tower and R-6 cab. It is still actively staffed every season.
It was our last full day and we had already hit all of our expected Fire Lookouts for the trip. We had now moved on to our “if we have time” list which left Fairview Peak as our next alternative. We decided to pack up and move camps for the last night. This would set us up closer to Cottage Grove and make our drive home the next day shorter. This time the pavement route around the forest was significantly longer than cutting through on potentially iffy roads. We decided to risk it and headed up NF-38 to connect via NF-3831. NF-3831 is in relatively decent shape, but still required caution. We had to buck up a small tree, ride a few high lines, and move some rocks to get by. Eventually NF-3831 ends at a T-Junction where we took a left on to NF-2213. This junction used to be a four way junction but the NF-925 road has since been decommissioned. There was still a worn out sign for it though. Along this route, we found some impressive old growth Douglas Fir. NF-2213 will take you to another T-junction where it continues off to the right. We turned left here on to NF-767. This was another unsigned road, but there was a sign for Fairview Peak L.O. and Bohemia Saddle. It was roughly 8 miles of gravel roads from NF-38 to NF-767. Surprisingly, NF-767 was the best of all the roads with minimal hazards. It follows along the Calapooya Divide for a little over 2-1/2 miles to connect with NF-2212. There was another sign at this junction pointing towards Fairview Peak. We turned left here. NF-2212 goes directly through the burn area from the Rough Patch fire in 2021. The road was rough, rocky, and full of pot holes from here. It eventually meets up with County Road 2460 at another signed T-junction. The road conditions here were just as bad. We ended up parking in a pull out just before the Musick Guard Station where the road heads steeply up to the Bohemia Saddle. We road walked the remaining distance to the saddle and lookout. At the Bohemia Saddle, there is a large parking area with a trailhead for the Bohemia Mountain trail. The road to the lookout is directly across the saddle from the trailhead. It can be distinguished as the only road continuing up and by the gate with a Fire Lookout icon. The gate was open during our visit, but I assume they typically close it.
This area is high-traffic in comparison to other towers we have visited. We were dusted up multiple times on our walk due to passing vehicles. We did end up seeing a doe and her fawn along the road though. A reminder that road walking isn’t all that bad and that it was something we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. When we finally reached the summit we were shrouded in a fog cloud, but had it to ourselves. We were also confused since there was no vehicle onsite. At first I assumed that meant there was no lookout here, but we both heard someone moving around in the cab. Interestingly enough, the catwalk door and door to the cab were both open. We assumed this meant someone had to be here. Previous years, this lookout has been apart of the rental program through the Forest Service. But, it was recently pulled into active duty for the 2022 fire season. We didn’t want to risk disturbing the lookout attendant by climbing the tower and they did not come out to greet us. There had been a fleet of vehicles and ATVs that had been coming and going from the area. I would hide out in my tower too if I was them. We enjoyed a lunch and waited for a while to see if the clouds would eventually lift, but had no luck.
We walked back to our parked car and were dusted up a few more times for good measure. We headed back out via NF-2212 to find a camp and hoped the rest of the road was in better condition. Spoiler: It was not. There were portions of it starting to wash out and one particularly large rock embedded in the road that was tricky to maneuver. Someone had spray painted it bring pink to make it more visible to oncoming traffic. It was still a well traveled road and we met a few vehicles on our way out. There were even a couple people who were driving a Prius. After what felt like a life time crawling down NF-2212, we finally reached NF-22. There had been a few dispersed camps along NF-2212 but none were particularly flat or secluded. We quickly ran out of dispersed options and ended up spending the last bit of cash we had on hand at Lund Park Campground. Overall, it had been a successful trip.
Day 10/10: We drove home without incident.
Fairview peak was established for fire detection as early as 1912 with a cabin and an Alidade. In 1921, a standard 12’x12′ D-6 cupola cabin was built. The cupola was eventually lowered and it was converted for additional storage or living quarters after a new tower was built. A 30′ pole tower with L-4 cab was added in 1936. For a brief time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tower was used for an Air Force Gap Filler Radar station. It was used for this function up until 1964. Eventually, the tower was replaced with the existing 53′ timber tower and 15’x15′ R-6 cab in 1972. It was moved to the rental program for a while, but I am unsure on when or for how long it was apart of this program. All I know is it was temporarily removed from the program to be actively staffed again for the 2022 fire season. It looks like the lookout received a new super structure as well. It is unclear at this time if it will be actively staffed every season or moved back to a rental.
We somberly headed back out to NF-100 after our unfortunate discovery on Watson Butte. Instead of heading back to Mowich Loop Road, we turned right to head to the other side of the ridge. We stayed on NF-100, which was a fairly well maintained gravel road, until we reached the gate. As described in my post about Watson Butte, access is from Mowich Loop Road off of HWY-138 near Stump Lake and milepost 67. Take a right at the junction with the road to Clearwater Forebay. You will pass through a seasonal gate to stay on Mowich Loop Road. Take a left at the unmarked T-junction to turn onto NF-100. From the gate, it is a mile road walk to the Fire Lookout. You can also access the Fire Lookout from Pig Iron Trail #1438, but I’ve read that it is overgrown and steep. It was a fairly pleasant and flat road walk. Based on information I read online, I had thought Pig Iron was only staffed on a volunteer basis. We weren’t sure if we’d meet anyone during our visit though. Once we had a view of the lookout we could see a car parked and hoped they were friendly. We didn’t have to wait long before the lookout decided to come out and greet us. She introduced herself as Lisa and asked if we had come up the road or trail. We mentioned we had come from the road. She said her gate had been cut by vandals at some point during the beginning of the season and it was kind of scary not knowing who could drive up. Luckily, it seemed one of the Forest Service crews had recently fixed this issue. When we had walked around the gate there had been a new chain added and it was safely locked. She didn’t leave her post often, so she was relieved to hear that. We talked for a while about the surrounding area, Illahee Rock, the FFLA, and the importance of volunteers and advocacy within the community. We didn’t get invited up on the catwalk or in the cab, but the views were the same from the base. We mentioned our trip up to Watson Butte and she said she didn’t even realize it had still been up there. She thought it had been removed a while back, possible due to misinformation on the Former Fire Lookout Site. We didn’t stay for too long since it was already fairly late in the afternoon and we still had to drive back to our base camp. We made sure to thank Lisa for her time and information before heading back to the car.
Lisa is the current lookout attendant on Pig Iron and is employed through the Forest Service. She is accompanied by her cat. She has staffed this lookout since 2017 and was the last person to staff Illahee Rock in 2016. She has worked on many different lookouts including, but not limited to, the Watchman, Mt Scott, Mt Harkness, & Pickett Butte. She started her work with the Forest Service in Air Quality which lead her to Fire Lookouts. She has worked as a Ranger for Crater Lake and the North Cascades National Parks. I believe she said she worked at Crater Lake NP for 15 seasons. She mentioned she used to do wilderness snowshoe trips for kids in the park. Pig Iron had recently had some work done on the catwalk, stairs, and windows due to damage during the 2021/2022 winter season.
In 1950, the site on Pig Iron had been established with a fire camp. The lookout used a tent for living quarters and had a Fire Finder situated outside. There was a cover for when the Fire Finder was not in use and a small shed nearby for storage. A lookout structure was built during the same year. It is described as a 14’x14′ hip-roofed cab (the NHLR describes it as 10’x10′) with a 10′ wooden tower. It has 3’x3′ solid pane windows. It’s a similar structure to a standard L-4 design but not quite the same. It is situated below the actual summit for a better view.
We headed out from camp towards HWY-138 once more. Today we were backtracking to Watson Butte and Pig Iron. They are located on opposite ends of the same ridgeline. This made it an easy day for driving since they were both along the same route. From HWY-138 heading east, we turned left on to Mowich Loop Road. The road does as it describes and loops back around to HWY-138. That means there are two opportunities to turn onto this road. If you are coming from Diamond Lake, you will want to take the second turn off to the right that is across from Stump Lake near milepost 67. Technically, both will get you to where you want to go but it’s shorter from this route. We bumped down a pothole filled road until we came to a junction. If you continue straight, it will take you to the Clearwater Forebay. You will want to turn right to stay on Mowich Loop Road. There is a gate here that is seasonally closed to winter traffic. The road improved after the gate but still had a few potholes to avoid. Eventually, you will come to an unmarked T-junction. Mowich Loop Road continues to the right and NF-100 is to the left. We turned left on to NF-100. If you stay on this road it will take you all the way to the gate for Pig Iron L.O. We decided to visit Watson Butte first.
From NF-100, we turned on the first road off to the right. This is the NF-150 spur and does have a sign. We were slightly worried about the roads after seeing the condition of the Mowich Loop Road. The rest of the route was along three number spurs and we hoped we would be able to get close enough to make the hike. We were pleasantly surprised to find the three number roads were in better condition. The only road hazards we met along NF-150 were downed trees. Some of the trees were already cleared by tree cutters, but some were not. We had a buck saw with us and decided to do some road maintenance for the Forest Service. And by we, I mean my partner. I helped clear the area once the trees had been cut though. NF-150 eventually leads to a odd 5-way junction at the Watson Saddle. On the topo map, the road we wanted was labeled NF-164. Based on the directions from the Forest Service, you should take the road farthest to the right. Most of the roads at the junction are not marked though. We were able to find an NF-170 road marker on the road farthest to the right. This was confusing to us since it didn’t match the road numbers on the map and NF-170 should be off to the left. But, It did look like the road most traveled and was farthest off to the right as the Forest Service had recommended. We headed up NF-170 to the right until we were met with a section that started to get brushy. This made us second guess our decision and we headed back to the odd junction. We walked around the junction looking for any confirmation that NF-170 was the correct road. Eventually, we gave up and drove back up NF-170 to the brushy section. We parked in a pull out on the exposed portion of the road just past the brush and decided to start walking.
The Manzanita and Ceanothus were encroaching on the road in some portions and there were a couple down trees, but otherwise it wasn’t in terrible shape. There was a point in the road where it opened up to a view of what we assumed to be Watson Butte. I could see signs of a structure, but it was hard to tell exactly what I was looking at from that distance. I thought it looked collapsed, but I was hopeful my view was just obstructed. We walked for about a mile until we came to the trailhead. There is still a sign noting where the Watson Butte Trail #1443 starts. There was even enough room for a couple cars to park. It is obvious that this trail doesn’t see much use. From the trailhead, it is another 1.1 miles to the summit gaining around 600′ in elevation. We started out by following an old decommissioned road bed until it met with the base of the butte. The trail started to gain more elevation once we left the road. The trail continues faintly through a mostly shaded forest. It was especially faint among the switchbacks. We were able to stay on track by looking for the trail bench in the more overgrown sections. The final push is steep, but eventually opens up to an exposed summit. My partner had made it to the summit before me and I called out to ask if it was still there. He was oddly quiet in response. Eventually, I rounded the corner and saw why. We were too late. We had known Watson Butte L.O. was in bad shape and had been for years, which is why it was on our priority list to visit. There were posts of it standing the year before and we thought we had time. But, we were still too late. Watson Butte L.O. was nothing more than a pile of boards.
I’m not sure if we were the first to discover this or even hike the trail this year, but we were the first to report on it. Nothing can prepare you for coming upon a fire lookout you thought would be standing only to find it destroyed. My partner was in disbelief and even speculated that maybe someone vandalized it. But, to me, it looked like it had succumbed to the elements and time. We had a moment of silence for the lookout that once was before heading back down. It was a sad reminder that we are not going to be able to see them all standing. Some will burn in our ever present fire season, some will be removed by the Forest Service, and others will simply waste away in time. But for now, up a confusing network of poorly marked roads to an overgrown and fading trail you can still hike to what remains of Watson Butte L.O.
Normally, I only like to post pictures I’ve taken myself of the Fire Lookouts but I decided to make an exception for Watson Butte. This lookout was built in the 1930s as an L-4 ground cabin. The Forest Service notes this as being built in 1934, but other sources claim it was built in 1937. Either way it had been standing for at least the last 84 years. Before the lookout structure was built, it was established as a camp and a telephone line was extended to the summit in 1920. It hasn’t been actively staffed since the 1960s. At one point there was talk of salvaging it for the rental program, but this never happened. According to Facebook, the last person to have record of it standing was on May 24, 2021. It most likely collapsed under the snow during the winter of 2021/2022.
Ever since our not so graceful redemption visit to Illahee Rock, we have wanted to revisit during more ideal conditions. It wasn’t a high priority since there are so many other fire lookouts to see and only a short window to see them. But, Illahee Rock holds a special place in our hearts. It was the catalyst that triggered our pursuit to visit as many standing fire lookouts as possible. We had this as a potential add on to our road trip if conditions were favorable and we had extra time while in the area. Thanks to a recent post by the Wandering Yuncks we knew it’d be snow free this time too.
This was essentially a rest day for us from the go-go of the trip. We were already situated close to the access road for Illahee Rock and it was our only plan for the remainder of the day. We had a leisurely breakfast at camp before packing a lunch and heading out to HWY-138. The access road is fittingly named Illahee Road, which is also NF-4760. It is located just past the Umpqua’s Last Resort. You will wind up this decent gravel road for 7-1/2 miles to the junction with NF-100. Make sure to watch for fallen rocks on the road. We decided to park at this junction and walk since I recalled NF-100 having some larger potholes. After further inspection, all the potholes would have been passable to the Civic with caution. We stayed on NF-100 for about a mile before we reached the NF-104 spur off to the left. This will take you to the trailhead. The NF-104 spur is pretty overgrown and rocky. I wouldn’t attempt driving it in a low-clearance vehicle. From the trailhead, it is a short hike to the summit. It was really nice to see everything snow free for a change. The trail is still in great shape, even after the fires, with only a few downed trees to navigate. The wildflowers were in bloom too and we had commanding views in every direction. There is a hole in the catwalk that someone had cut just big enough for access. It was here during our last visit as well, but I didn’t have the energy to climb through it then. Also, in case it needs to be said, please do not cut holes in the catwalks of fire lookouts. But, since it was already there, I decided to get a better look. We had the trail and summit to ourselves aside from a kettle of Turkey Vultures that checked us out. I knew I didn’t smell great, but it must have been much worse than I thought to attract the Vultures. They eventually realized we weren’t road kill and moved on to something else. We enjoyed our lunch on the catwalk and soaked in the sunshine before heading back to the car.
The next day we were able to get a bit more clarification on the status of Illahee Rock from the lookout attendant we met on Pig Iron. She was the last lookout to staff Illahee Rock in 2016. She didn’t go into details on why they stopped staffing it or if they planned to staff it again. We could tell she was very passionate about Illahee Rock and would’ve preferred to be stationed there instead. The Forest Service had moved her to Pig Iron as an alternative. Any friend of Illahee Rock is a friend to her.
If you’ve ever been on HWY-97 between the junction with HWY-58 and the community of Chemult, you might have noticed a sign for Walker Mountain L.O. You can even see the tower from the highway if you know where to look. It’s located on a peak east of the highway often overshadowed by the excessive amount of communication towers. The first time I remember seeing this sign was back in August 2017. My friends and I were headed south on HWY-97 towards Diamond Lake for a weekend camping trip. That’s not to say my family hasn’t ever driven this way before, but I hadn’t had the same attention or interest for such things. Similar to the millions of other people that drive this route, have driven this route, or even live in the area, I passed the sign many more times without paying a visit to lonely Walker Mountain.
After our visit to Bald Mountain, we headed north on NF-2516 towards HWY-31. On the map it looked like we could potentially cut across the forest via a three number spur to connect with NF-94. We were hesitant to commit to this road given that it was marked as different road numbers on our two maps and both had it noted as a high-clearance road. We know from experience that the maps aren’t always correct about the road conditions, but it felt too risky this time. We decided to go up and around via HWY-31 to HWY-97. Sometimes pavement is the faster option even if it’s not the most direct. The only other challenge from this route was that we had to cross HWY-97 once again. The road marked for Walker Mountain off of HWY-97 is NF-94. This road will take you up to the ridge of the mountain where you will want to take a left on to NF-9402. The NF-9402 road follows along the ridge and climbs the remaining way to the summit. We had asked all the lookout attendants we met if they knew the road conditions to Walker Mountain, but none were sure of the current conditions. Ed from Sugarpine Mountain mentioned we would probably be fine since there are communication buildings and they want to maintain them. Turns out he was correct. NF-9402 had been recently regraded with fresh gravel. One might argue that it was even too fresh. From the junction with NF-94 and NF-9402, it is a little over 3-1/2 miles to the summit. As we headed up the ridge we found that the fresh gravel was pretty loose and soft in some spots. This made traction a bit of an issue in some of the steeper sections. It even created a highline from trucks driving up and pushing it around. Instead of water bars, the road had these rubber flaps to help divert the water off the road. There were over 30 of these water diversion flaps along the way. The gravel seemed to have piled up closer to them. All was passable in my Civic, but it’s something to be cautious of if you decide to visit. The last few hundred yards of the road turns to dirt, but it looked passable to most vehicles. We decided to park where the fresh gravel ended and walk the remaining distance.
On the summit, you will find Walker Mountain tucked behind a plethora of communication buildings. The lookout tower has seen better days and has been abandoned since the 1940s. They have since removed the bottom stairs to keep people from climbing the structure. There is an accompanying garage, privy, and stone cabin that you can visit on the summit as well. The stone cabin has seen more recent restoration work since it is considered one of the oldest administrative structures on the forest. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t put some time and effort into the tower as well. It was already fairly late in the day and we needed to get moving if we wanted to find a camp. We were also getting moved along by the amount of mosquitoes here. For some reason, we have met more mosquitoes on summits than in camp this trip. We said our good-byes to Walker Mountain and can now claim we’ve been here every time we pass it from HWY-97.
We were motivated to press on to the Umpqua NF since it would mean we could set up a base camp for the next few nights. We would also be leaving Klamath County and entering Douglas County. This meant we should be able to find water sources and refill our water reservoirs again. We stopped to refuel once more in Chemult. The gas attendant made a comment that our car looked like it had been on some great adventure. To be fair, it was completely covered in dust and looked a bit scratched up from our close encounters with the manzanita. I told him we had been intentionally bumping down some forest service roads for the past few days and left it at that. We made an additional pit stop at Broken Arrow Campground near Diamond Lake to refill our water. We were relieved to find the water was on here. We have dispersed camped in the Umpqua NF before and knew of areas to look. It was mostly a race to get there before the sun was set. The impending holiday weekend was finally upon us and our biggest worry was finding an open spot. We were surprised to find one of our favorite camps open and set up for the next few days.
Walker Mountain was established in 1913 as one of the first few lookouts on the Deschutes NF, along with Black Butte and Maiden Peak. The first lookout was a simple crows nest tree. It’s noted that the site was potentially used as a patrol lookout as early as 1907. A cabin made of stone and wood was built in 1915 for living quarters. In 1919, a small 25′ pole tower with 6×6 cab replaced the crows nest. The existing lookout was built in 1932 as a 35′ steel tower with hip-roofed 14×14 L-4 cab. The accompanying 16×18 garage was added in 1934. In 1996, a restoration and maintenance program was started to help preserve the historic stone cabin. The restoration work had been carefully completed on the cabin in 2005. The lookout tower itself is listed as condemned and proposed for removal by the Forest Service.
My partner and I packed up to head towards Bald and Walker Mountain for the day. If we finished early enough, we planned to head into the Umpqua NF for our final leg of the trip. We weren’t in as big of a rush this morning since we were only a few miles from Bald Mountain already. We didn’t want to arrive too early and disturb the lookout attendant. We were already situated off of NF-2516 and headed farther north towards the NF-036 spur. The road briefly passes through a section of private residence before re-entering the forest. It was good that we hadn’t tried to find a camp even closer to the lookout the night before. Where we had stopped turned out to be our best option. The forest had turned into another thicket of Lodgepole Pine once we passed through the private area. It was so thick in sections that it felt like we were walled in by trees on both sides. The NF-2516 road is well maintained gravel all the way from Silver Lake Road to HWY-31. From NF-2516, we turned left onto NF-036. If you’re coming from HWY-31, it will be off to the right. We were able to drive all the way up to the gate in my Civic. The NF-036 spur is soft and dusty, but passable. The gate is just after a tight switchback in the road which offers enough room for parking a few cars. We pulled into a pull out just before the gate and prepared to walk. We always like to make sure that we’re not blocking the gate and pulled far enough off the road for additional vehicles to pass. Normally, we don’t meet any traffic in these areas but you never know. This proved to be in good practice since we ended up having a large propane truck drive up during our visit. This only happens every few years to refill the tanks on the summit.
From the gate, it is another mile of road walking to the lookout. This was a pleasant morning walk to the summit. The road starts to open up to views before you reach the lookout and is lined with a variety of trees. We were able to locate White Bark Pine, Ponderosa Pine, and Lodgepole Pine. When we reached the summit we could hear the lookout attendant talking to someone on the phone. We figured Ed mentioned to them that we would be visiting, but didn’t want to assume at the same time. We decided to take photos around the base of the lookout and take in the view while we waited. Eventually, the lookout attendant was finished with their call and came out on the catwalk to greet us. Similar to our interaction on Sugarpine, he asked if Ed sent us and we asked if he was Ron. It felt like we were getting passed along on a fun field trip of the area from one lookout attendant to the next. Ron invited us to join him on the catwalk and gave us a brief history of the tower. He was very gregarious and had a lot of knowledge about the surrounding forest. He mentioned he had just wrote a book about forest management and it’s relationship with fires. It’s called Axe-It First. This is why he was on the phone when we arrived. It was published that morning and he had been thanking those that assisted him in the process. We all talked for a long time, 2 hours to be exact, about our current state of things and what needs to change for things to get better. He realized quickly he was preaching to the choir. Ron had many stories to share and was happy to share them with us. So much so that it was hard to find a break in the conversation to even leave. His wife eventually called him and he had to step away to answer. We thanked him for his time and said our good-byes. We wanted to visit for longer, but we knew we needed to keep moving if we wanted to make it to Walker Mountain and the Umpqua NF.
Lookout Ron Rommel
Ron Rommel was born in 1950 and is currently 71-years old. He’s originally from Portland, but currently resides in a community just outside of La Pine. His background is in Forestry and he used to do tree inventory for the Forest Service. He has also worked in manufacturing and has a business degree. He has been a lookout on Bald Mountain for 4 seasons and is employed through the Walker Range FPA. Ron currently works the lookout on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He said he started staffing the lookout when his friend asked if he knew anyone who could help his wife out. She had been staffing the lookout for 30-days straight with no relief. Ron was interested and offered to help. When he first started, it was just the two of them alternating. The lookout is now staffed by three different people. He has communication with 7 different lookouts from Bald Mountain; Odell Butte, Sugarpine Mountain, Round Mountain, Hager Mountain, Green Mountain, Spring Butte, and East Butte. He published his book, Axe-It First, on June 30th. It is what he dubbed a call to action for our government and general population on our current fire management. Although I haven’t read it yet, it is on its way in the mail. I promised him I would help spread the word.
Bald Mountain, also known as Baldy, was first scoped for a fire site in 1907 when they planned on building a trail to the summit. In 1918, a telephone line was strung to the summit where they planned to add an observation station and firefinder. In 1927, they finished building a road on the mountain. A year later they constructed a 40′ steel tower with 12×12 live-in cab. This was a unique design from Aermotor and only a few were constructed like it. In 1941, they removed the old lookout and replaced it with the current one that stands today. It is a classic L-4 cab with treated timber tower and stands just below 30′. This site was originally managed by the Klamath FPA, then the Forest Service, and now the Walker Range FPA. It is still actively staffed every season.