Larches and Lookouts

When the calendar flips to October, I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be in Washington State than the North Cascades and the gorgeous Methow Valley. The Western Larch puts on a fantastically golden show and the fall colors just can’t be beat.

Beautiful alpine larches near Grasshopper Pass, Azurite Peak in the distance.

Funny enough, Facebook reminded me that I’ve been in the Methow Valley the first weekend of October for the last 7 years. I guess I’m a creature of good habits and this year was no exception! Jake dog and I made the trip over last Tuesday to work remotely for a few days and enjoy some outside time.

Recently I reaffirmed my aspirations to try to visit every standing Washington State fire lookout and since the Okanogan has the highest concentration of remaining lookouts, this trip would be a good excuse to make a serious dent in my lookout list.

I stayed up way too late a few nights in a row mapping out lookouts and routes and trying to play connect the dots. By the time I was done I came up with a ridiculously complicated 500+ mile route through the Okanogan that would bag me 20 lookouts. I really do have a disorder!

I spent a few long nights researching roads and trying to connect the dots in all sorts of ways. My original plan was trying to visit ALL the lookouts in this area, which was ridiculous. Even my intended route in blue had to be scaled back a bit.

Needless to say, reality was a little different than my plan.

Slate Peak Lookout: #23

At 7,488’, Slate Peak Lookout is the 2nd highest lookout in the state located at the end of the highest maintained road in the state. Though most of the road is a typical forest service road, rough in a few places but passable by most cars with some attentive driving, it’s considered one of the most harrowing drives in Washington State because of a half mile section called Deadhorse Point. Here, the road narrows to barely a single car width. On one side, a steep rock wall may rain debris on you and on the other… well, it’s an airy, dizzying drop straight to the valley floor below. And no guardrails!

So long as you go slow and don’t meet any other cars, you’ll be fine! If you do meet someone else, good luck and there’s no way I’d want to get stuck up there in snow. Speaking of which, I timed my visit perfectly because as of a few days ago the road is now blanketed in snow!

The last bit of road heading to the parking area below Slate Peak. A little narrow! I don’t have photos of Deadhorse Point because my focus was on driving!

It’s pretty hard to believe that with all my trips to the Methow, including a trail run at Grasshopper Pass just below Slate, I’d never been all the way to the end of the road. Last Tuesday afternoon I made the hour-long, 20 mile drive from Mazama to kick off my Larches and Lookouts tour.

The road is gated about a quarter mile from the lookout with a parking area for several vehicles. Lucky enough, I arrived and found zero other cars. My kind of evening!!

Looking down from Slate Peak Lookout to the parking area below and my lonely Jeep. What a view!!!

The 360° views of the North Cascades from Slate are absolutely awe-inspiring! Sadly, the lookout tower is off limits, but the views from below are more than fine. I expected smoke from the nearby Diamond Creek Fire but was surprised to see only sparkling clear skies. Golden larches, beautiful red and orange color, and even a dusting of snow filled the valley below!

Larches, fall color and even some snow!

I stayed for the sunset, which also featured a dramatic almost-full moon rising over the mountains. When the sun went down and the temps turned frigid, I was quickly reminded that I was at 7,488’! My hands got so cold despite my thin gloves that I spent a few minutes in my Jeep suffering from the screaming barfies before I could begin the drive back down. Yeah, I’m sure at least a few of you know what I mean!

An extra beautiful evening with an almost-full moon!

Deadhorse Point wasn’t so bad on the way down in the dark, especially with HID off-road lights (absolutely one of my best purchases yet!), but I stayed as close to the cliff wall as I could, acutely aware of a lot of dark space out there. Well worth staying for the sunset though!

Just wow. The North Cascades are simply stunning. Every time!

The history of Slate Peak itself is a bit fascinating. It was first constructed as a gable roof cupola in 1924, then an L-4 cab was moved to the site from Leecher Mountain in 1954. Two years later the Department of Defense removed the lookout and blasted away the top 40’ of the summit to make room for a World War II radar station that was never built. When the Forest Service rebuilt the lookout, it was placed 40’ above the ground to restore the original view. The floor of the lookout is now at the original level of the top of Slate Peak.

Slate Peak Lookout

Leecher Mountain: Lookout #24

Wednesday afternoon I hit the road to the south end of the Valley with an agenda to visit Leecher and Knowlton Knob lookouts, both of which were nearly lost in the Carlton Complex Fires of 2014. Though flames surrounded Leecher, it somehow escaped unscathed. Knowlton Knob; however, suffered such badly burned legs it was amazing it was still standing. Thanks to volunteer repair work, Knowlton Knob is once again sound.

Leecher is just south of Twisp and accessible by turning off Highway 153 onto Benson Creek Drive (FR 4150) for roughly 10 miles until a junction with French Creek Road (NF-100). The turn is marked with a sign for the lookout. Until this turn, the roads are reasonably well maintained but the rest of the way is bit rougher with a few small sand traps. The road may or may not be gated a little over a mile from the lookout.

The views nearing Leecher are typical Okanogan. I just love those big skies!

The road hike up is pleasant, though a little sandy, and gains only about 500’ while winding through burn scars. The fireweed and fall colors are a stark contrast to blackened, burned trees. Despite the scars, it’s amazing to see how quickly the area is recovering. It’s a beautiful walk with frequent views out to the Vallley and the North Cascades.

Gorgeous fireweed and fall colors in the burn scars.

I wasn’t sure if Leecher might still be open for the season and if I’d get another opportunity to meet “Lightning Bill” Austin, but alas, it was securely locked up, so I climbed the stairs as far as I could. They were so narrow and steep that I was more terrified going up Leecher than driving to Slate Peak!

In case you’ve never heard of “Lightning” Bill, he’s a local celebrity of sorts and the Forest Service’s only remaining full-time seasonal fire lookout. He had staffed Goat Peak every summer for 19 years before being moved to Leecher Mountain in 2014. He and his dogs were helicoptered to safety from the lookout during the Carlton Complex Fires.

Leecher Lookout! #24!
These stairs were NOT my favorite, yikes! Super narrow and steep.

Knowlton Knob is about 10 miles away and a roughly 30 minute drive, so they’re convenient to visit together. From Leecher, I headed back down the mountain, then continued on Benson Creek Road to a junction with Knowlton Knob Road. From there the lookout is a 3 mile drive but unfortunately, the road was gated at the turn and had a lot of imposing “No Trespassing, Private Property” signs. Damn!!

I didn’t really want to entertain a 6 mile round trip hike through a clearly marked “No Trespassing” zone during hunting season so I decided Knowlton Knob would have to wait. After a little research I guess the private land owner near the lookout commonly gates the road at the start of hunting season. I may try again this winter or come back next year.

Strike 1 🙁

Unfortunately the best view I’d get of Knowlton Knob was from the drive back down Leecher. You can just see the lookout in the distance. The road was gated, so I’ll have to return.

Lookout Mountain: Visit #2, Lookout #9

Since I was thwarted at Knowlton Knob and already near Twisp, I made a quick decision to revisit Lookout Mountain before sunset. I first ventured up there in the winter of 2014 and had a very white-knuckled drive down on solid ice. This time I figured I’d spare myself a little adventure and instead be able to drive all the way to the parking lot a mile from the lookout.

Well, maybe not.

I couldn’t believe it when I hit a road gate 2.5 miles from the lookout. Are you kidding?! The road wasn’t even gated in the winter when passing this point most surely meant you’d slide to your death off the mountain!

With sunset at 6:30 and it already being 5:30, I considered not making the trek, but when I checked the SunsetWx website earlier in the day they were predicting a spectacular sunset show. I decided I couldn’t miss the chance, so I grabbed Jake dog and made him do crazy pace up the mountain. I hope the old man can forgive me!

Almost there! Lookout Mountain Lookout just visible to the upper left with Jake wondering “geez ma, can we slow down now!?”

At first I thought the sunset might be a dud. There was some color, but nothing amazing. Then once we reached the lookout it turned into one of the most fiery sunsets I’ve seen in a while!! Every time I didn’t think it could get better, it did! That SunsetWx site sure nails it every time!

Starting to get some color now from a fabulous sunset perch.
Getting better!
Are you kidding me!? Just WOW!!

We stayed for every last drop of color, hiking out by headlamp. When I finally neared the road gate and saw my Jeep just beyond it, a pair of glowing eyes caught my headlamp, twinkling in the darkness. They were right next to my Jeep.

Shit! What the hell was it!? I yelled at whatever it was to “Shooo! Get out of here!”

It didn’t move.

“Hey!” I yelled louder. I grabbed Jake and jingled my keys. Suddenly 5 more pairs of eyes looked straight at us.

My heart was racing. What animals travel in a pack? Was it the Lookout wolf pack?

I took a step forward, desperately trying to illuminate the animal with my light. Suddenly, there was a long, loud “Moooooooooo.”

F’n Methow free range cows!!!

Yep. They were settling down for the night, all around my Jeep. It took me about 10 minutes to shoo them all away and regain a normal heart beat. Beware of cows if you visit Lookout Mountain!

Damn Methow free range cows!! Quite spooky at night when you run into them!

Goat Peak: Lookout #6, visit #8!

Goat Peak was the 6th lookout I ever visited in Washington State way back in 2008 and has become a sort of tradition every time I’m in the Methow Valley. In 2011, I hiked up with my folks and met famous “Lightning Bill” Austin, who staffed Goat Peak for 19 years. He’s now over at Leecher in the summers.

Bill and his dogs were amazing hosts and he shared stories with us for more than an hour about the history of the lookout, fires, and other entertainments. I’ve always hoped to meet him again someday.

Chatting with “Lightning Bill” Austin on a visit in 2011 with some fun weather moving in.

Recently, the Goat Peak Lookout was wrapped in fire resistant materials to protect it from the advancing 100,000+ acre Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten Wilderness. When I first heard the news, I sure hoped it wouldn’t be lost and it motivated me even more to visit some of these amazing pieces of history while they’re still around.

Luckily, Mother Nature stepped in to help slow the Diamond Creek Fire and just a few days before my trip, the Goat Peak Lookout was unwrapped. Jake and I took a lunch break last Thursday for a quick visit. It was a real treat, especially since the larches were prime and it was unbelievably the 8th time I’d made the trek with both Jake and the Jeep.

On our way to Goat Peak for the 8th time! A little hazy from fires but a gorgeous day!

With my almost 20-year old Jeep pushing 235k miles and Jake dog nearly 12 with likely just as many miles, it’s hard not to wonder which visit to Goat Peak will be the last for all 3 of us. I wish I had a summit photo from every trip, but I still remember each and every one. Goat Peak is such a special place for me, it just might be my favorite Washington State lookout!

Summit photos from Goat Peak over the years. I wish I had one for every visit!
2017: Our 8th visit!

First Butte: Lookout #25

Two Methow area lookouts remained on my list: North Twentymile and First Butte. I tried to visit North Twentymile back in May but unfortunately we hit too much snow for Jake dog’s bad knee to handle and were forced to retreat. I had high hopes to complete it on this trip, but with Jake no longer able to hike the 12 miles it required, I reluctantly postponed for a later date. Instead, we ventured up to First Butte outside Winthrop on Friday morning.

You probably need to hike more than 2 miles if you don’t have high clearance. Maybe even 4 or more.

When I inquired at the Ranger Station about road conditions they suggested taking the NF-100 approach from the East Chewuch rather than NF-37, saying it would be a little less rough, but I have a great Jeep and a sense of adventure so I went the gnarly way. It wasn’t so bad, but eventually you’ll need to drive on NF-800 and NF-825, both of which have sections that aren’t driveable without high clearance. You can always park and walk the road though.

First Butte Lookout!

I was able to drive all the way to the lookout and First Butte turned into a surprisingly great summit! The views were spectacular and an old cabin makes a great subject for photos. The lookout was locked up tight so I ventured as high as possible, enjoying the dramatic clouds moving into the area ahead of a cold front.

The cabin at First Butte.
I should start a gallery called “Lookouts and their Loos”!

Visiting First Butte officially concluded the Methow Valley part of my Larches and Lookouts tour. During 3 days, Jake dog and I hiked about 12 miles, well within his abilities, and we were able to visit 3 new lookouts and 2 old ones while also enjoying fantastic fall colors and larches. We saw exactly zero other people. Oh, and I got some work done too!

Part two would kick off with a little 35 mile backroad driving adventure on Forest Road 37 to Conconully. From there I planned to spend a long weekend camping in northeastern Okanogan county and visiting several more lookouts, which I’ll write about shortly!

Backcountry adventures to Conconully from Winthrop!

Continue to Part 2