My annual winter tradition is relocating the company headquarters to the beautiful Methow Valley for at least a month to unwind, get a change of scenery, and tally as much skate skiing mileage as I can muster. Last year was my first skate ski season and I completed about 240k in just over a month. This year however, the snowpack on the west coast is pretty much nonexistent. When I got to the Methow last week for my winter adventure I found a few pockets of good skiing around but I think 240k of skiing will be next to impossible this year.
Turns out though that the Okanogan has the highest concentration of fire lookouts in the state. After having so much fun last year participating in the Summit the District hiking challenge and getting my hiking skills re-energized, I remembered that a few years back I challenged myself to visit all of Washington’s active fire lookouts. I put up a list based on some info I found on PeakBagger and SummitPost, which both say there are 93 lookouts still standing in the state. A few I’ve already done in years past: Goat Peak, High Rock, Granite Mountain, Mt Constitution, and Thorp Mountain this past October.
With the low snowpack, many fire lookouts not normally accessible this time of year are reachable so my new winter challenge is to bag as many lookouts as I can and maybe do a 200k trail challenge? Sounds good to me!
Never one to waste time, I looked at the list of Okanogan lookouts and found one called “Buck Mountain Lookout”. Up until now the only Buck Mountain I knew of in this area was the amazing mountain bike Buck Mountain that you get to off the Chewuch. But there’s another Buck Mountain just north east of Loup Loup summit that has a lookout. When I asked around in town some folks had heard of it but never been, or just plain had no idea there was a Buck Mountain that direction.
Armed with a Green Trails map and absolutely no idea what kind of roads I’d encounter, I decided to scope it out and worst case, I’d head back to town if it didn’t pan out. I drove over Loup Loup summit and as you start to descend the other side, there’s a teeny tiny little forest service road on the left (you’ll miss it if you blink) signed “Buck Lookout Rd”. On the map it’s labeled FS 1100.
The road was in good condition if you have a 4×4 with decent clearance and my old Cherokee easily navigated the bumps, mud, and little bit of snow. If you look carefully you can see the lookout in the distance as you wind up the road. Around 3.5 miles the snow started to get a little deeper and not wanting to get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service I found a small road junction with a bit of room to park. The map showed the junction made it’s way up to FS 42. I’d imagine in the summer you could easily drive the whole 5.75 miles to the lookout and maybe even connect in from FS 42.
I headed up the road towards the lookout and it was clear no vehicles had been up here. In fact, there were no tracks of any kind so I doubt anyone has been up here in a while. I enjoyed complete solitude, gorgeous views, and with the temperature inversion we’ve been having I easily could have worn a tank top and shorts! I couldn’t believe how warm the temps felt.
With just a few inches of snow the hike was mostly easy going but as the road continued the grade got steeper and in the snow it was a bit of a slog. About a mile up I entered forest and a few deeper drifts, but nothing that regular hiking boots and a small pair of gators couldn’t handle. No showshoes required, though I did wear microspikes as some thinner areas were pretty icy. As I kept inching up though I started to wonder where exactly the lookout was. I kept going up, and up, and up and there was absolutely no sign of it. I was getting a bit worried as I looked up past the trees and saw nothing, but there was no where else this road was going.
Finally after trudging up past the last steep section of road the lookout finally shows itself just to your left. Not wanting to spend the extra energy to go around the left flank on the road I just went straight up the south side of the summit. The views were spectacular and the lookout is in surprisingly good shape.
I walked up just the first set of stairs to get a better view but the catwalk was closed, so I stopped there. My crazy dog also decided to follow me and then promptly freaked out once he got to the slatted landing. I had to coax him back down the steep stairs with a few dog treats and a lot of encouragement. Note to self: Jake dog isn’t a fire lookout climber!
Round trip the hike was about 4 miles with an elevation gain of about 1,200′. It took me 1:10 on the way up and about 35 minutes down. Excited to check one off the list for 2014. Next up I think is a venture to Lookout Mountain outside of Twisp, WA.
Full track of the ascent and descent
According to the National Historic Lookout Register, Buck Mountain Lookout was developed in 1919 by the state as a crow’s nest and log cabin. In 1934 a 20′ pole L-4 tower was built and it was replaced in 1961 with the present 14′ x 14′ flat-gable Washington Department of Natural Resources live-in cab with catwalk on a 20′ timber tower. It is maintained by the DNR for emergency use.