Earlier this month I once again found myself stumbling down from the summit of North Twentymile, one of Washington’s finest fire lookout sites with arguably one of Washington’s worst trails. Climbing a stout 4,500’ in 6.5 miles to the summit, the trail is already unforgiving. At one time it was forested and probably far more enjoyable. Thanks to both the Tripod fire in 2006 and the Cub Creek 2 fire in 2021, what’s been left behind is a hot, exposed, dry, eroded, rocky moonscape that offers an experience not dissimilar to hiking on ball bearings and marbles.
With me was Karl Kaiyala, an experienced sawyer who spends significant volunteer time logging out recreational trails. If you hike anywhere in the Methow Valley or the Okanogan-Wenatchee, you’re almost certainly enjoying some of Karl’s handiwork. We were at the tail end of a 12-hour day spent logging out the trail to the summit of North Twentymile. Again.
Today was déjà vu for both of us. Last year Karl and I also spent a 12-hour day, with four other volunteers, logging out over 150 trees from this same trail. The year prior we did the same: logging out deadfall and brushing out a ridiculous amount of overgrowth. Many of the same volunteers have been doing it annually even longer than me. North Twentymile is like Groundhog Day. No matter how much work this trail gets, every year it starts all over again.
What’s so special about North Twentymile you may ask? It’s Washington’s 3rd highest elevation fire lookout site (7,437’) and one of only two sites in the state (ok, three if you count Monument 83 and its Canadian cabin) with twin fire lookouts. It’s home to an L-4 tower built in 1947 and a rare, beautifully restored D-6 cupola built in 1923. Every year a dedicated group of volunteers works to keep the trail open. This year the cupola is celebrating a centennial, so we’re especially committed to keeping the summit accessible, come hell or high water. And well, since it’s North Twenty, hell or high water may not be out of the question.
It had been another long day of hard work on this trail. Karl and I both focused on putting one foot in front of the other for the grueling descent to the trailhead. “I think for the North Twentymile centennial I’d like to make T-shirts,” I said. “N20. I made it out alive.”
Karl chimed in. “I’m not 20 anymore but I survived the hike to North 20!”
“North Twentymile centennial,” I joked. “The trail will make even you feel 100 years old.”
Karl quipped “N20. Because I really wanted to take 20 years off my life.”
We both chuckled. Anything to keep our minds off the trail.
In 2015, Bob Pfeiffer, a retired WDFW fish biologist, FFLA member, and avid outdoorsman, began a restoration project on North Twentymile’s rare D-6 cupola. The project took tremendous time, effort, and Bob’s own money. The restoration of North Twentymile was nearly complete in 2015 when the quarter million acre North Star Fire burned from just north of Nespelem to within 4 miles of Republic. The fire took Bob’s life while he tried to protect his Aeneas Valley home. After Bob’s passing, his son Eric stepped in to complete the project in his father’s honor. The D-6 cupola on North Twentymile is now considered by many to be the most true to its original design of any D-6 cupola remaining thanks to Bob’s incredible efforts. The cupola is one of the last surviving in the Northwest and the very last in Washington State.
I still remember my first visit to North Twentymile in 2018 after three prior failed attempts. I spent 7 hours hiking the 14 miles roundtrip in triple digit temperatures while outrunning thunderstorms on the way down. I got back to the trailhead dehydrated, covered in a heat rash, and charcoaled from climbing over charred deadfall. It was certainly character building and although I loved the summit, I said I’d never go back. Clearly I have amnesia.
When I moved back to the Methow Valley several years ago, I adopted the North Twentymile site. To this day I wonder why I didn’t adopt a lookout site that was easier to get to! But this is a special summit. So many people spent so much time, effort, and money saving this structure it would be a shame to see it neglected. In the fall of 2020 I hiked up to repair some shutter damage on the cupola. In 2021 I helped brush out enormous overgrowth on the trail and in 2022 I spent a full day with Karl, retired District Ranger Mike Liu, and several other volunteers logging out the trail.
Late last year I formed the Methow Valley Forest Fire Lookout Association, a local non-profit subchapter of the national Forest Fire Lookout Association, dedicated to the preservation of the Methow Valley’s eight historic fire lookouts. Since this year is a special centennial year for North Twenty, I partnered with Allen Jircek from the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative, Karl, and a few other volunteers in late May to do some much needed tread repair on the trail. Together we spent a full day improving badly eroded sections of trail above Honeymoon Creek for the centennial. We were pretty pleased with our results and I was amazed at what six people can accomplish with a full days work.
We were excited to enjoy the spoils of last month’s trail work but instead, we were disheartened. The area had clearly received heavy spring thunderstorm rain since our tread work party and while the trail was still improved, much of our work had already been impacted by erosion and water runoff. To add insult to injury, some sections of trail now had fresh deep water runnels that weren’t there before. And of course, spring rain means vegetation growth, which is both good and bad. Good because the vegetation will eventually help to anchor the soil, if it doesn’t burn again. Bad because the trail has been virtually swallowed by overgrowth in places and will require an enormous amount of brushing. Again.
It’s hard not to feel defeated when you spend so many hours making a trail passable only to have your work wiped out every year. As Karl and I logged out the fresh round of deadfall this year, I thought about all the people who ask me every year why the Forest Service doesn’t maintain their trails anymore. I get frustrated by the question. In fact, they do! And in fact, countless hours are spent on trails like North Twentymile every single year, both by volunteers and the Forest Service. Every year the North Twentymile trail is made passable and every year it becomes impassable once again.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest encompasses 3.8 million acres. A quick glance at a fire map shows how much has burned in the last several years. Think about all of the snags remaining that will drop in the next few years. Think about the erosion as a result of fires, along with the vegetation that has burned and no longer helps to anchor soil or trails. Think about Mother Nature, who gives us winters with very heavy snow loads followed by springs with strong winds and heavy thunderstorm rains. All of these things combined can wreak havoc on our recreational roads and trails, especially those impacted by fire.
We’re doing our darnedest to keep the trail to North Twentymile open, especially this year. It’s not every day you get to celebrate the centennial of a very special fire lookout with a lot of special history. The cupola will be getting fresh paint by the end of the month and if you’re a brave, hardy soul who makes the long trek to the summit this year, feel free to drop me a message. Maybe you too can get your very own “I survived N20” tee-shirt!
I would encourage anyone who is able-bodied and enjoys our local trails to volunteer for a trail work party. In fact, I think anyone who spends time on trails should be required to give back. It’s an eye-opening experience to learn how much work is required and how deep the backlog is to maintain recreational access. If you’re local, the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative is a wonderful group that is making a big impact and partnering with great organizations to keep many of our beloved recreational areas open. A dedicated group of volunteers really can make a difference.
And by golly, since I’ll be hiking to the summit of North Twentymile this year more times than any other year, I told myself I’m taking a break from this trail in 2024.
Happy 100 years North Twentymile! And a huge thank you to the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative and all of the volunteers who have logged countless hours over the years keeping the trail to this summit passable. It truly is a labor of love.