Finding Oregon's Long Lost Fire Lookout
35mm film photography proves the hardest dang hike in North America is worth it
Devil's Peak could have no other name. The trail leading to the craggy top runs just over 3.5 miles, but gains some 3200 feet in elevation. I assured myself and my father it'd be just fine. I mean, how hard could three miles be? Initial online research seemed to answer the question with an emphatic REALLY EFFING HARD. I figured, what do they know? There's only one way to find out, and I bet the views would be worth it.
Exploring lookout towers has been a favorite #content building activity of the IG and Tumblr sets for some time—and for right reason, they're incredible—but it wasn't really on my radar until I stumbled across an ancient looking online registry of US wildfire lookout towers about six months ago. After a bit of clicking and comparing to google maps, it became apparent that one of the better looking towers happened to be located just about a mile from the small forest service cabin my family has owned on Mt. Hood—an hour east of Portland, Oregon—for two decades. The tower we settled on had been manned by the USFS through the 1970s, but since left to the occasional volunteer. What was once an integral part of the Forest Service—watching for forest wild fires—has been all but forgotten. Now, day hikers looking for a solid challenge and a nice place to lay their head are responsible for keeping the structure standing.
Since no one in the family had known of its existence, we gambled and hoped no one else in the PDX area did either (in hindsight, lol). So, on a warm, late summer morning my old man and I landed at the Cool Creak trailhead—after grabbing a maple bar from the world famous Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp, of course—and set out on what was to be a rather trying trail hike.
The trailhead was nearly a 45 degree angle from the gravel road where we left the Subaru. By the time two hours passed we were sure we were merely a few feet away. I was totally spent, and the old man was too. Then we passed a halfway marker carved into a tree and just about threw in the towel. An hour longer and we reached the 5,045 ft peak, laying eyes on one handsome lookout tower. We have sheer stubbornness to thank for reaching the peak.
Two creaky wire cots, a 300 degree view of The Great Northwest, and a couple well-earned cold ones welcomed us. Once we settled in (read: cleaned up mouse poop and swept for an hour or two) two log books bursting with entries proved enough entertainment while we waited for sundown. They also proved the landmark tower had in fact been inhabited by curious folks like us for nearly every night of summer 2015, and likely for many more summers before it.
In the end, both sunset and sunrise were more than we could have ever dreamed of. Witnessing a blazing sun rising over hundreds of miles of old growth forest in every direction is one of those life-affirming experiences. Needless to say, one not to be forgotten soon. Though neither will the seeming millions of mice we shared the lookout with, too.
Btw, a word to the wise: if all the trail guidebooks say a hike is hard, it is.