Fire Lookouts and Mother Nature: North Mountain and Darrington Ranger Station

This is the part 2 follow up to North Twentymile: Lessons in Perseverance.

Whenever I make plans for a weekend adventure, I usually come up with an ambitious Plan A, a likely Plan B, and a backup Plan C. Sometimes I even go so far as a Plan D and E!

Trip planning at its best! But with a Porter in that glass… not an IPA! 😉

Maybe it’s my project management background or simply the fact that I’ve spent a lot of years on solo adventures, but I know firsthand that you can’t always outwit Mother Nature. It’s also a whole lot easier to roll with the punches when you’ve got a dozen backup plans.

The prior weekend’s Methow Valley lookout adventure was no exception and I had outlined 3 possible plans:

The “ambitious” Plan A: Check out North Mountain Lookout and the historic Darrington Ranger Station on the Friday drive east. Next, hike North Twentymile Saturday morning and afterwards, visit Knowlton Knob and Lightning Bill Austin at Leecher. Finally, hike up to Mebee Pass on the way home Sunday.

The “most likely to happen” Plan B: Somehow fit in North Twentymile, North Mountain, the historic Darrington Ranger Station and a return trip to Leecher.

And finally, the “if all else fails” Plan C: no matter what, knock out North Twentymile!!

Friday’s traffic was, not surprisingly, so terrible that I was forced to skip North Mountain and the Darrington Ranger Station on the drive out. My dozens of trips through Darrington were always on the way to or from somewhere, which explains why I always ran out of time for a side trip to North Mountain! I promised myself I’d stop on the way back Sunday.

At least by Saturday afternoon I had accomplished Plan C by finally bagging North Twentymile, but it took more of the day than I expected.

After many years of trying, I finally got to the top of North Twentymile! Plan C was accomplished!

Once in town for food and drink, I realized it was too late to get over to both Leecher and Knowlton Knob and though I’d exchanged a few messages with the landowner at Knowlton for access, I hadn’t yet heard back from him. I wasn’t making a very good dent in my ambitious Plan A.

I retired to my camp Saturday night with a big dilemma for Sunday. I knew I’d never cram Mebee, Leecher, Knowlton, and North Mountain into one day, so I decided to make a return visit to Leecher to see Lightning Bill and get some photos of the old crow’s nest tree, then finally manage a visit to North Mountain and the old Darrington Ranger Station on the way home.

“Lightning Bill” Austin and Leecher Mountain Lookout

For those of you who might not have heard of “Lightning Bill” Austin, he’s a celebrity in the lookout world and one of the Forest Service’s few full-time seasonal lookouts. He staffed Goat Peak in Mazama for 19 years before moving to Leecher and being helicoptered out with his dogs when the Okanogan Complex Fire threatened the lookout.

I first met Lightning Bill at Goat Peak in 2011 and his historical stories were part of my inspiration for starting this crazy lookout bagging adventure. His friendly demeanor and wealth of information make it easy to chat with him and people come from all around to see him.

Chatting with Lightning Bill on Goat Peak in 2011.

Though I’d already been to Leecher two other times, I’d never managed to be there when it was actually open and the first time, I missed the old historic crow’s nest tree. When I returned a second time my camera battery died which meant sadly, still no photos of the tree. I was on a mission to finally photograph the crow’s nest and a stop to say hi to Bill was a bonus!

Leecher is located southeast of Twisp and it takes about an hour on mostly gravel and forest service to get there from town. Just short of the summit, I turned a corner and saw two Cowlitz County Fire Rescue trucks. I was immediately worried there was perhaps a brush fire or something equally bad, but turns out the road had been blocked by a downed tree and they had just cleared it.

I guess it was a good thing after all that I hadn’t tried to come up Saturday afternoon!

Once we all arrived at the summit, I thanked the Fire Rescue gentlemen for clearing the road and they laughed about my impeccable timing. Bill greeted us and confirmed that indeed, he hadn’t had visitors for 5 days and has assumed something was blocking the road.

“Lightning Bill” Austin at Leecher, welcoming us for a visit!

Bill told us that a few fires had started from Saturday night’s lightning storm, which was sad news but not unexpected. One was near Cutthroat Lake on Highway 20, which meant it was somewhat near Mebee Pass. When I told Bill I had originally planned to head up there this morning he said it was a good thing I hadn’t. Hiking 7-8 miles into an area a little too close to a new and erratic fire isn’t really on my top list of things to do!

Bill pointed out light smoke visible from a very new fire at the head of the Twisp River, which has now grown into the 7,000+ acre Gilbert/Crescent Mountain fire.

The views from Leecher. And finally seeing it from the inside!

I stayed at Leecher for about an hour, chatting with Bill about his family, lookouts, and fun little pieces of history. Somehow Oregon Butte came up and he mentioned that he knew the lookout there. It’s such a small community in the lookout world!

Before I left, Bill let me pick from his collection of handmade zipper pulls and I wished him a safe summer. He also told me no one has had much luck getting in touch with the landowner of Knowlton Knob for access. Though I’d already exchanged a few messages with him, I hadn’t received a call back and my cell service was spotty, so I skipped Knowlton until next time and started my drive home.

Bill’s zipper pull operation! If you pay him a visit you can get your very own!
This old crow’s nest tree at Leecher has survived for nearly 100 years!
That’s one historical tree. And a great spot to take in some historical juju! You can see by the burned trees how close it came to being lost in the Okanogan Complex Fire of 2014.

I drove back over Highway 20 and watched tankers and helicopters actively dropping water on the very visible Cutthroat fire. I was able to stop at Washington Pass for one last beautiful view of the Valley before it was closed due to fire activity. Air quality was rapidly degrading from Saturday and temps were a tick higher, so I was pretty glad I had done North Twentymile the day prior!

North Mountain Lookout

North Mountain Lookout, just outside Darrington, is an R-6 flat cab from 1964 that has been undergoing a recent restoration. I was pretty eager to not only finally get there, but also to check out the progress. It requires a 13 mile drive on forest service roads from town, but road conditions are good and easily do-able for any car.

North Mountain Lookout looking mighty fine after all its restoration work!

About 1.5 miles from the lookout the road is gated, so I parked my Jeep and started the hike up. It was already 6:30, so I set off at a brisk pace, hoping to be up and down pretty quickly.

It didn’t take long to realize I had the company of dozens of black flies, though luckily they didn’t seem to be biting. Probably 30 steps up the road I heard the dreaded sound of a buzzing horsefly.

I walked a little quicker.

The horsefly was hot on my tail, so my brisk walk turned into a jog.

Pretty soon there were two, then three, then an entire force of the little bloodsuckers.

Well thank goodness it was 98° because there’s nothing more fun than racing up a mountain in the heat while being chased by blood thirsty horseflies!

This was turning out to be the weekend from hell, no doubt! I used my hat as a weapon and skillfully nailed a few without getting bitten.

When I finally reached the lookout, I dared to stop for 5 seconds to take a photo and horseflies were all over me! I sprinted for the stairs, not at all sure what I would do if they followed. Surprisingly, they didn’t. I guess horseflies don’t like to climb stairs, which was just fine with me!

Whitehorse Mountain from the top of the North Mountain Lookout steps, a welcome sanctuary from the horseflies!

I sat the top of the stairs just under the locked cab, dripping in sweat. Though air quality had degraded from the day prior and the big mountains of the North Cascades were obscured, I still had pretty decent views over to Whitehorse Mountain, White Chuck and Sloan.

White Chuck and Sloan, still visible through haze.

It was great to see all the hard work that volunteers have put into this lookout and I relaxed a while up top, enjoying a refreshing breeze. I almost wanted to stay right there and never come down.

But alas, come down I’d have to.

After a nice 20-30 minute break I crept down slowly, waiting for horseflies. Nothing. I was hopeful they had disappeared, but I knew they were there. Lurking. Waiting.

I know they’re down there!

I anxiously stood one step above the ground, listening and vigilant.


Quietly, I gently placed one foot onto the ground, not making a sound. I held my breath.

In a millisecond, every horsefly in a 10-mile radius swarmed me instantly!

I ran all the way down the road, waving my arms, flapping my hat around, and trying my damndest to keep them away. As I neared the gate and my Jeep parked on the other side, I needed to make a fast plan for having my keys handy. The only problem with an old ’98 Cherokee? I have manual door locks and manual windows, which were all halfway rolled down!

Anyone ever seen the movie Tremors? You know that part where they devise some unique pole vaulting method to jump from rock and rock, then all make a break for the truck, trying to get away before the “graboids” get them? It was like that. But minus the pole vaulting.

I launched myself at the Jeep full speed, keys ready, frantically trying to unlock and open my door with one hand while furiously flapping my hat in the air with the other. Horseflies were coming at me from all angles and I was screaming obscenities at them while I dove nearly headfirst into my Jeep. I can’t even imagine what someone would have been thinking if they had seen this spectacle!

I flew around, quickly rolling up all my windows and giving myself a few bruises in the process. Then I spent the next few minutes having a fight to the death with the 2-3 horseflies that had made it in with me.

Though I was dripping sweat and looked like a crazy person, I had emerged victorious!!

I’m not really a selfie person, but it was just too good to pass up, ha! Look at my hair!!! This is what it looks like when you battle clouds of horseflies in 98° heat! But I survived!

Darrington Ranger Station Historic Livery/Lookout

I drove back down the road from North Mountain, catching my breath from the horsefly debacle and stopping a few times to enjoy some ripe thimbleberries. Once down the road I finally made a long overdue stop at the old historic livery just west of the present day Darrington Ranger Station.

There were absolutely no horseflies.

Photo: USFS. The Darrington Ranger Station Lookout in 1933.

Built in 1916, this historic structure used to house a lookout on its roof for training purposes and was an active lookout from 1932 through the 40s. Because the building still exists, it is considered to be a valid still-standing fire lookout.

I love old historic structures like this and it makes a great little photography stop!

The old livery barn, constructed in 1916, had a fire lookout on top for training purposes from at least 1932 through the 40s.
I love old historic structures!

This weekend definitely took the cake for a whole new level of dirty and sweaty and wow does Darrington grow some monstrous horseflies! Despite 3 of the 4 lookouts being relatively easy to get to, it sure seemed like a tough one given near triple digit temps, thunderstorms, fires, and horseflies. Mother Nature pulled out all the stops on this one.

But hey, I completed Plan B, added +4 to the lookout count, and scored a visit with Lightning Bill! And honestly, no matter whether I succeed with Plan A or things go completely upside down with Plan E, it’s always a memorable adventure out there!

I’ll be back for Mebee and Knowlton Knob soon enough…. so stay tuned! And I’m working to catch up my lookout pages, which are grossly behind, so check back for more info and photos.

Happy horsefly-less adventuring everyone!

Bye bye crazy weekend! I wonder what I’ll do next time….