We love camping in all seasons, but we also like to be (reasonably) comfortable. A number of years ago, we discovered Oregon state park yurts, and this year, we’ve added national forest fire lookouts to our off-season camping picks. If you might stay the night in a fire lookout, read on!
Fire lookouts available for civilian stays are located across the US. To find one in your state, start with this US Forest Service list, then click over the Recreation.gov to reserve (you’ll want to plan way ahead, and reserve as early as possible). We stayed at Pickett Butte fire lookout in Southwestern Oregon, located in Umpqua National Forest. Pickett Butte served well for a winter fire lookout stay because of its relatively low elevation of 3,200 feet; while it sits at the highest rise in the surrounding forest and towers three steep stories into the air, it usually is accessible in all seasons. We loved that the immediate terrain around the tower was open and accessible to play in: we could stage air soft ‘wars’ and games of tag, plus build fun forts. There is also room for a tent and you get a campfire ring and picnic tables.
Pickett Butte is accessed via seven miles of winding forest service roads (do not use a car navigation system to find it), and is very isolated. We were the only people within miles, which meant we could enjoy peace and solitude (and also meant our chocolate lab could run freely). The lookout consists of a single 12×12 room at the top of one of the steepest towers we’ve ever experienced: the three flights of stairs are more like ladders. Our dog we spoke of? He couldn’t ascend them, and opted to sleep in the car. The lookout features a nice pulley system to help you haul your stuff up, which was fun for our kids, and you can drive directly to the base of the tower. The single room features gas-powered lanterns, stove, oven, and fridge, plus a heater. There’s a single bed, and plenty of floor space for sleeping bags. The wrap-around observation deck and floor-to-ceiling windows offer incredible views (plus a great flight deck for homemade wooden airplanes we built during our stay).
Preparation before arriving at any lookout:
Before arriving at your lookout, call the ranger station or forest service office closest and ask about conditions. Depending on your lookout, you may need to ask for a combination lock code or key access as well. We’re very glad we called ahead before our Pickett Butte stay; had we not had the correct combination lock code, we’d have been forced to retrace our steps back to the ranger station for information.
Find out what provisions you’ll need. For instance, at Pickett Butte, gas fuel is in ample supply, so we didn’t need to bring our own. Ditto for pots and pans and some utensils, including a can opener and bottle opener. However, no potable water was available, so we knew we needed to bring our own. Tip: three gallons for two nights was not enough for our family of five. We ended up boiling water from a creek 1.5 miles away for our last breakfast of oatmeal and hot cocoa (be sure to boil water a full five minutes). We also brought more cooking tools than needed, but didn’t want to be caught unprepared.
At Pickett Butte, it’s understood that each guest will try to leave something to better the experience for the next person; when we arrived, we found a half-bottle of wine awaiting us. We left a set of balsa wood airplanes for the next kids to fly off the top of the tower. In the cupboards, we found canned goods, instant soups, and an assortment of batteries.
Before packing your gear for any lookout, ask whether a campfire is allowed, and make plans for purchasing local firewood. Determine your menus based on what appliances you have at your disposal. We opted to cook over the fire one night, and used the oven and stove top the next. Don’t forget about the details: is there an outhouse? Will you need to bring toilet paper? (We wished we’d brought wet wipes for easy hand washing.)
Pack plenty of dry clothes if camping in the off-season; the small heater in Pickett Butte would not have been up to the challenge of drying all our clothing. We packed rain and snow gear, just to be safe, and plenty of pairs of socks, gloves, and hats. Bring extra garbage bags in order to haul out all garbage from your stay. Print out directions to your fire lookout before departing home, and don’t rely on your navigation system. Enjoy!
Date last visited:
Distance from the interstate:
Pickett Butte is located approximately 20 miles from I-5 off the Canyonville exit.
Cost of a fire tower lookout stay in Oregon is $40/night.