Fire Lookouts

North Twentymile Fire Lookout: Lessons in Perserverance

Ah, Monday… the day I can kick back, recover from the crazy weekend adventure, and more often than not write a funny story about it.

Anyone who knows me knows I come up with a lot of bad ideas. I’m also an annoyingly happy optimist, which means I’m commonly involved in “we-may-not-make-it-out-alive” type of adventures. But I can usually turn it into the most positive experience ever.


Potential for 40 downed trees over the trail? It’ll be an extra fun workout! A notoriously hot hike in nearly triple digit temps? It’ll be like hot yoga but cheaper!

This past weekend definitely fell under the character building category of fun, but hey, I added +4 to my fire lookout count, got to visit Lightning Bill Austin, and enjoyed some time in my favorite of places, the gorgeous Methow Valley! Silver lining!

Here’s the tale of surviving remote hikes in hot as Hades temperatures, dodging storms and fires, and outrunning clouds of aggressive horseflies. Oh yeah, this weekend was good.

It all started in traffic… go figure.

I kicked it off Friday by enduring an extra long 5 hour drive to the Methow Valley in my hot Jeep with no A/C while moving a maximum speed of about 1mph. At least I downed about 2 gallons of water while trying to counteract the excessive sweat, which hydrated me for the weekend ahead. See, silver lining!!!

Since the Okanogan can be impacted by fires in summer, I wanted to visit a few more lookouts in the area that had evaded me on prior visits, especially North Twentymile Peak. Me and that peak have had some history, that’s for sure.

As if the photo doesn’t give it away, I did finally make the summit of North Twentymile! But not without some type 2 fun!

The battle with North Twentymile.

It was about 13 years ago on a visit to Tiffany Mountain that I first heard of North Twentymile. I think in fact it was my dad who clued me into it since he was such a map hound.

The peak is located north of Winthrop in the Pasayten Wilderness and the trailhead is right where the West and East Chewuch roads converge. North Twentymile is home to not one but two lookouts: an L-4 cab tower built in 1947 and an extremely rare D-6 cupola from 1923. The cupola is one of the last in existence in the Northwest and has been recently restored by volunteers. The summit is also the 3rd highest fire lookout in the state at 7,437’. It’s a pretty interesting destination for fire lookout and history geeks like me!

The trail to the summit isn’t necessarily tough, but it does climb about 4,400’ over 6.5 miles through burn scars from the 2006 Tripod Fire. It’s hot, dusty, mostly dry, filled with burned snags and offers zero shade. I know from both trip reports and personal experience.

My North Twentymile history started back in 2014. A week before I had planned to hike to the summit, the Carlton Complex fire closed the entire area, making access impossible. To date, it was the largest single wildfire in Washington State history, causing almost $100 million in damages and destroying homes and livelihoods.

In 2015, I had to cancel another trip due to heavy smoke from the nearby Okanogan Complex fires. Finally in July of 2016, Jake dog and I made our first real attempt to get to the summit. Despite hauling up 4 liters of water that day, I realized quickly that I hadn’t brought nearly water for both of us and the trail was simply too hot for poor Jake dog. We turned around after a few miles.

Even with some snow still on the ground, North Twentymile is an exposed, dusty, hot hike. Crazy Jake dog had a rough go with the heat in 2016 and we were forced to bail.

I returned again a year later in 2017, but this time in May. Turns out I was a few weeks too early and Jake and I hit deep snow that caused his aging knees trouble and me route finding difficulties. Water and wildflowers were more plentiful and temps were cooler, but the trail was still curiously and mercilessly hot, even with snow. I made it almost halfway but still had to turn around.

The trail is much more beautiful in early season with flowers and some greenery, but still surprisingly warm and exposed even on a mild day!

A younger Jake would have been ok with this! But we simply weren’t prepared for miles of route finding in deep snow so we turned around.

Try, try again!

I’ve had to make a few return trips to places, but never has a trail given me so much trouble! After 4 years of attempts I took it personally and this year I decided it was time to put this one to bed. With Jake dog nearing 13, he’s just not up for either the heat or the mileage these days, so he stayed home while I planned a solo outing. I’m sure he was happy to find out he wasn’t going back to North Twentymile ever again!

I had been watching weather most of the week and knew it would be near 100 degrees for my planned Saturday hike. I went into it fully knowing I was signing myself up for hell, quite literally. What I hadn’t expected was BC wildfire smoke to drift into the area or thunderstorms to suddenly pop into the forecast. Well, it was North Twentymile, who seemed to enjoy throwing me a curve ball every year.

I planned for a 6am Saturday start to beat the heat and the storms, somewhat joking to myself that I should probably start at 4. At least my camp spot on the Chewuch Friday night was surprisingly cool and pleasant. It was so comfortable in fact that I slept right through my plan for a 6am start. Oops!

I guess my 8:30 start would have to do. I crossed my fingers storms would hold off.

Two steps up the trail I was cursing my extra sleep and already sweating under the sun. Regardless, the thought of storms helped push me quickly onwards. I’ve tangoed with storms two too many times on lookout summits and really didn’t want to make it a third!

Hello North Twentymile, we meet again! You and your snaggy little overgrowth…

In barely a mile I was already covered in dirt and ash. The smoke in the air dried my throat. The sun blazed down. There were no flowers. I could hear the virtually impossible to reach Honeymoon Creek running below. Only the occasional color of beautiful fireweed gave me something to enjoy. It was brutal. No doubt. But I was still enjoying the journey, in some weird masochistic way.

Fireweed is such a stark contrast to the burned trees. It’s really strangely beautiful.

I gotta say, even a perpetual optimist like me who loves being outside was finding it tough to love this trail. In late July, North Twentymile is quite honestly, complete garbage! The trail is dry, dusty and littered with enough rocks, snags and debris that every few steps you’ll take a slide. It’s like hiking on ball bearings and marbles and it’s even worse on the way down.

It’s an annoyingly frustrating trail that you should be able to make fast time on, but simply can’t. If you try, you’ll go sliding on a rock. You’ll roll your ankle. You’ll be tripped up constantly. It’s a challenge!!

This is what you can look forward to. It’s that kind of trail that sends your feet sliding every few steps and takes more time than necessary to travel.

For extra fun, there was a downed tree every 100 yards or so. All were pretty easy to navigate around, but were so sharp I had to take some extra care to avoid battle wounds.

Midway along the trail I passed through an area of sharp, snaggy, dead overgrowth that was impossible to avoid and questioned my decision to wear shorts. My legs got a special level of exfoliation and I’ll be wearing the scars for a while. I’m still not sure what would be worse: pants on a near triple-digit heat day or leg-devouring snags?

It’s a toss up really.

It was just past here that I noticed clouds popping into the otherwise blue sky. Shit. I cursed myself for getting a late start. I truly thought at this point a turn-around would be imminent but my brain just couldn’t handle the idea of coming back again! None of the clouds looked threatening, at least for now, so I pushed ahead. I was determined to make this happen!

Once the trail switchbacked up the side of the mountain, there were a few tiny water sources, which were actually more like muddy trickles. Only one, definitely nearing its last breath, was appetizing enough for a refreshing splash.

The trail straightened out and as it climbed up the ridge, became very faint and tough to follow in spots. The invisible stretches aren’t long but with the burned out terrain, it’s much too easy to wander off trail. It wasn’t hard to imagine dying a slow heat-related death trying to find my way back.

Coming back down I took a photo of this section. Sure, you can see the trail a bit ahead of me, but it gets pretty invisible in places and is much too easy to lose. In this kind of terrain it would be tough to find it again.

Luckily, some horses had been up recently and their tracks helped me stay on course and get around blowdown. Given I was making a solo attempt in crazy heat with storms likely inbound, getting lost wasn’t on my agenda! I paid pretty close attention to every step and turn, carefully checking my bearings. I looked up and made eye contact with one lonely doe resting in a tiny bit of green shade.

My only little friend on the trail.

She watched me, probably wondering what the hell I was doing out there. I passed her again on the way down and wondered where her friends were. She was the only thing I saw all day.

The trail eventually crossed a saddle and I got my first glimpse of the twin lookouts. Yahoo!!! I was getting close! Clouds were still growing but not immediately threatening, so I made the final hot push to the summit, which was refreshingly greener than the rest of the hike.

My first view of the summit.

The last climb!

At long last after 4 years of trying and 2 unsuccessful attempts, I had finally reached the summit of North Twentymile!!

As I threw up my fist to cheer, a cloud of black flies and a few horseflies descended almost immediately. Fantastic! Nothing like reaching the summit and sharing it with Satan’s spawn. At least there were no mosquitoes? And the flies were only at the summit and not a foot below. Silver lining! But not really.

The old D-6 cupola, pretty awesome to finally see in person!

It was great to see the cupola freshly restored and painted. I was able to go inside for a look and though the windows were boarded up, it offered shelter from the annoying flies. The 1947 tower was locked but the stairs were open almost to the top. Almost tauntingly, the horseflies stayed down below, waiting on me to return. I almost considered never coming down!

The view of the cupola from the tower.

Despite the haze from fires, the views were still decent, though the taller peaks of the North Cascades were sadly obscured. I poked around on the summit for a good 30 minutes or so and really wanted to scout out a spring I read about, but kept my stay short since I was worried about storms. It was pushing noon and time to get down.

Enjoying the summit views and the beautiful work to renovate this historic lookout. Big thanks to the volunteers who did this!

A long time coming to reach this one, so it was super sweet!

The 1947 tower. All those clouds building meant it was time to go!

The excitement of reaching the summit kept me focused most of the way up but on the way down I hit a new low of suffering. I had rather hoped it would be fast, but all the damn rocks, loose debris, and super dry trail conditions made for an annoyingly slippery descent.

I went as quickly as I could, spurred on by developing weather while cursing this crappy mess of a trail. The heat and sun were definitely draining me and with every step down the air grew hotter.

About 2 miles from the trailhead I drank the last of my 3 liters of water and almost simultaneously slipped on a loose rock that sent me sliding into a sharp snaggy thing. I momentarily lost my mind and I can only imagine what someone would have thought.

There I was, wild eyed and frizzy, waving my empty water bottle around, covered in dirt and ash, cursing at this rock and shrub.

I somehow managed to compose myself, muttering under my breath the rest of the 2 miles down the trail. It was such a long, hot slog out I was still fully convinced there was a chance I could die up here. I had solace in the fact that maybe the doe would find me.

Layers of smoke on the way down, but still the outline of the North Cascades in the distance.

The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.

I could only think about ice cold water. And unreachable Honeymoon Creek didn’t help. As if to add insult to injury, one last rock right before stepping off the trail to my Jeep sent me sliding. North Twentymile certainly had the last laugh.

I sat down to change my shoes and took stock of myself. I was covered in a heat rash, convinced my feet have never ever been dirtier, and felt completely charbroiled and spent. I soon heard rumbles of thunder in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. The hike had taken longer than expected, but somehow I made it in one dirty piece and survived 7 hours and nearly 14 miles in 100 degree heat. What the hell is wrong with me!?

I grabbed the water from my Jeep and of course it was boiling, so instead of a nice cold drink I got a nice warm shower. Silver lining? Maybe….

The post-North Twentymile carnage. It was so dusty!!

45 minutes later I finally made it back to town and guzzled cold water and a cold beer near simultaneously while inhaling my dinner. Cold water and beer never tasted so good! And there really isn’t a better feeling than finally getting a summit that has been a challenge. The third time was indeed a charm, though I’m not exactly sure how charmed I felt!

I would love to go back again sometime, but most definitely never ever in July ever.

As I retired to my campsite up the Chewuch, I watched storms develop into quite a lightning show. That evening as I slept like a rock, lightning storms ignited at least 17 new fires across the Cascade Crest and would unknowingly add some challenges to my Sunday plans.

To be continued…

Storms brewing….