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.
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