Sleeping on Air: Oregon’s Fire Lookout Towers Offer View Rooms for Rent

by Frank Mungeam | Outside on the narrow catwalk that circles the tower, the air is rich with the scent of pine. Inside, the cabin is spartan but sufficient, stocked with hardy wooden chairs and a rugged dining table and two beds. Propane fuels the cookstove, heating and lighting. Guests supply food, water and bedding. (Images: Acker Rock, Umpqua National Forest and Gold Butte, Willamette National Forest; courtesy of recreation.gov)

Each summer, forest rangers stand guard atop remote fire towers across Oregon, scanning the horizon for smoke. But when fire danger subsides in the fall, adventurous travelers rent the lookouts and take in awesome views from these sanctuaries in the sky.

Green Ridge Lookout is an ideal base camp for exploring Central Oregon. The two-story wooden tower clings to the side of Green Ridge, 500 feet above the verdant Metolius River Valley. Six snow-capped peaks pierce the horizon. Directly facing the lookout, Mt. Jefferson towers tall and majestic.

Outside on the narrow catwalk that circles the tower, the air is rich with the scent of pine. Inside, the cabin is spartan but sufficient, stocked with hardy wooden chairs and a rugged dining table and two beds. Propane fuels the cookstove, heating and lighting. Guests supply food, water and bedding. At night, the only sound is the whistling of the wind.

Green Ridge Lookout offers a wide-angle view of the Metolius River Valley and cozy charms inside, while the head-of-the-river trail awaits

Green Ridge Lookout offers a wide-angle view of the Metolius River Valley and cozy charms inside, while the head-of-the-river trail awaits

Morning sun floods the cabin, commanding visitors to action. Start the day with an invigorating hike up 6,436-foot Black Butte, just south of Green Ridge. From Forest Service Road 11, follow the sign to Black Butte Trail.

Don hiking boots or snowshoes, then hike up the two-mile trail to the summit of this perfectly symmetrical lava cone. The narrow sun -sheltered path tilts upward and twists through dense forest. Near the summit, the few surviving trailside trees are contorted by unrelenting winds. Atop Black Butte, several fire lookouts stand watch and Cascade peaks wink back in every direction. The return hike, of course, is all downhill.

In the afternoon, revitalize by witnessing the birth of a river. The Head of the Metolius is at the Camp Sherman turnoff, five miles west on Highway 20. From the parking area, a brief walk leads to the spot where the headwaters of this pristine river gush from the ground.

Wind and water shaped the Monkey Face formation, where you can watch experi­ enced climbers challenge Smith Rock

Wind and water shaped the Monkey Face formation, where you can watch experi­enced climbers challenge Smith Rock

Spend the next day exploring the trails at Three Creek Lake, just outside the western town of Sisters. If the trail is snow­ covered, you can rent skis or snowshoes in town, then follow Elm Street, which turns into Forest Service Road 16, to Three Creek Sno-Park.

The trail to Three Creek Lake meanders steadily uphill for five miles. Pause to rest halfway at the trailside ski shelter. A mile later in Three Creek Meadow, look up at impressive Tam McArthur Rim, which towers 1,200 feet above the trail. Views of Black Butte and Mt. Jefferson await at Three Creek Lake. The five-mile return trip is mostly downhill.

After a night’s rest, head east from Sisters to Redmond and continue north to Terrebonne, where both the violence and the artistry of volcanic forces are on display at Smith Rock State Park. Multicolored cliffs and spires soar 600 feet skyward, thrust from the ground by erup­tions, then shaped by wind and water into remarkable formations.

Hike the steep switchback trail to Misery Ridge and watch as acrobatic climbers scale the ape­ shaped monolith Monkey Face. Or stroll along the River Trail, which parallels the aptly named Crooked River. For real adventure, hire a professional guide and experience the exhilarating vertical world of rock climbing at one of the world’s most famous climbing areas.

Lookout (Availability) Location Cost Reserve
Acker Rock (August to November) Umpqua National Forest $40/night Reserve Acker Rock
Bald Butte (June to October) Fremont-Winema National Forest $40/night Reserve Bald Butte
Bald Knob (May to October) Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest $35/night Reserve Bald Knob
Bolan Mountain (July to September) Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest $40/night Reserve Bolan Mountain
Clear Lake Cabin (November to May) Hood National Forest $40/night Reserve Clear Lake Cabin
Drake Peak (June to October) Fremont-Winema National Forest $40/night Reserve Drake Peak
Fall Mountain (May through October) Malheur National Forest $40/night Reserve Fall Mountain
Fivemile Butte (Year Round) Mt. Hood National Forest $50/night Reserve Fivemile Butte
Gold Butte (June to October) Willamette National Forest $65/night Reserve Gold Butte
Green Ridge (May to June, September to November) Deschutes National Forest $40/night Reserve Green Ridge
Hager Mountain (November to May) Fremont-Winema National Forest $40/night Reserve Hager Mountain
Indian Ridge (July to October) Willamette National Forest $55/night Reserve Indian Ridge
Lake of the Woods (May to October) Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest $50/night Reserve Lake of the Woods
Pickett Butte (October to July) Umpqua National Forest $40/night Reserve Pickett Butte
Snow Camp (June to September) Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest $40/night Reserve Snow Camp
Timber Butte (May to November) Willamette National Forest $65/night Reserve Timber Butte
Warner Mountain (November to May) Willamette National Forest $65/night Reserve Warner Mountain

For information contact
Central Oregon Visitors Association
800-809-8 955
www.VisitCentralOregon.com

Fire Lookout rentals
503-872- 2750
www.recreation.gov

This article was original written for the Travel Oregon, Fall & Winter 2003. Updated April 22, 2019

Frank Mungeam is a passionate digital thought leader and teacher adept at creating a culture of collaboration and innovation. He is a Knight Professor of Practice, Newsroom Innovation at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Frank empowers content teams to identify and skillfully apply new digital, social and mobile tools to create unique and compelling content that engages and informs audiences. Connect to Frank via LinkedIn @frankwords or Twitter.