** Please note: Always check official park, trail or weather resources before you travel to ensure that your site will be available and that conditions are safe. **
Affordable Winter Vacations above the Trees
By Amy Whitley
Photo at right: A small traveler pulls his gear to the top of the Pickett Butte Lookout using a built-in pulley system. Photo by Amy Whitley
As we settled in for the night 40 feet above the ground over Umpqua National Forest, a late February storm blew hard enough to shake our 12-by-12-foot one-room shelter on its framework.
We weren’t too worried; after all, Southern Oregon’s Pickett Butte fire tower has been standing since 1934.
The next morning, we were rewarded with sunshine warming the floor-to-ceiling window panes, and 360-degree views showcasing the mountains of Southern Oregon. We were hooked: this definitely would not be our last fire-lookout stay.
The appeal of reserving a fire-tower stay is easy to understand. These ready-made shelters sit in some of the most desirable wilderness of the Northwest, and while many are only available during the summer and fall, a handful host guests all winter long, offering off-season camping within the safety of a shelter.
For approximately half the price of a cheap motel room, whole families can enjoy a fire lookout stay, complete with beds, propane heaters and even kitchens. Douglas County’s Pickett Butte fire tower sits at the end of a rutted dirt forest service road, accessed by a gate code.
Families can drive to the base of the 40-foot tower, and opt to carry gear up the metal staircase, or by a rope pulley system. Inside the cozy shelter, the views steal the show.
During our family stay, our snowshoeing plans were cancelled by Mother Nature, but what resulted proved even better: we quite simply ran amuck…playing tag and hide-and-seek, exploring the forest trails and wintery creeks, and climbing trees.
The tower requires four-wheel drive access most of the winter, or families can opt to snowshoe or Nordic ski into the tower when snow levels permit.
If you can’t make the trek to Southern Oregon, check out one of these additional fire lookouts, all available during the winter months and bookable through www.recreation.gov
More Fire Lookouts
Clear Lake Cabin
Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon
Clear Lake Cabin sits on Clear Lake Butte in the Cascade Mountain Range, and is accessed by skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing in the winter months. Expect to travel four miles from the parking area at Skyline Sno-Park.
Hagar Mountain Lookout
Fremont-Winema National Forest, Oregon
Hagar Mountain Lookout perches at over 7,000 feet on the bald top of Hagar Mountain and, like Clear Lake, is only accessible in winter via snowshoe or Nordic ski.
Evergreen Mountain Lookout
Skykomish Ranger District, Washington
Evergreen Mountain Lookout overlooks alpine forest on a high ridge, and can be reserved through Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website until further notice. It’s accessed by rough road, with a trail option.
Arid Peak Lookout
Idaho Panhandle National Forests, Idaho
Arid Peak Lookout is located in the St. Joe River region with views of the Bitterroot Mountains. Access is via a three-mile hike.
Whichever lookout you choose, make sure you’re prepared for a rustic, winter camping experience. Call the local ranger station before heading out to check on amenities available. Kids should be able to hike/ski into the lookouts, and families will need to provide their own drinking water.
Pickett Butte Lookout: bit.ly/PickettButteLookout
Clear Lake Cabin: bit.ly/ClearLakeCabinLO
Hagar Mountain Lookout: bit.ly/HagerMtnLookout
Evergreen Mountain Lookout: www.fs.usda.gov/mbs
Arid Peak Lookout: bit.ly/AridPeakLookout
Amy Whitley of Medford, Ore., writes about her family adventures in NW Kids every edition in OutdoorsNW. Miss a column? Log onto www.OutdoorsNW.com and search NW Kids. You can follow more of Amy’s adventures at www.PitStopsforKids.com