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  • Way Up High

    Spend a fantasy night in a Southern Oregon fire lookout, but make sure to plan well ahead
  • Bolan Mountain Lookout is not an easy place to find.
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  • Bolan Mountain Lookout is not an easy place to find.
    Tucked deep in the Siskiyou Mountains straddling the Oregon and California border, it requires driving southeast of Cave Junction, navigating a series of unmarked forest roads and ascending a rocky, narrow, cliff-edge access road to reach the 6,242-foot destination.
    Despite a location as remote as any in the Lower 48 — and despite Spartan amenities that require visitors to bring water, a stove and cookware — the competition to spend the night here is so fierce it requires reservations six months in advance.
    In other words: right now.
    Bolan Mountain is among the fire lookouts the U.S. Forest Service rents to the public for $40 to $70 per night. There are 20 lookouts available in Oregon's national forests, along with 39 shelters, cabins and guard stations.
    "If you've ever had the dream of being one of those people who manned the fire lookouts, here's a way to live out that fantasy," Cheryl Caplan of the Umpqua National Forest said. "It's like stepping back in time. The difference is you can stay for a few days and go home, instead of being up there all summer."
    There is, of course, a problem. The allure of spending nights on a mountaintop — of watching sunrise over a vast wilderness in a cozy glass hut — has created serious demand for the handful of overlooks.
    The Forest Service allows reservations made 180 days (six months) in advance, and in many cases that's required. Reservations can be made on recreation.gov, where you can search all the lookouts and find open dates.
    My advice? Don't get discouraged if you don't score on your first attempt. Check the website daily and don't discount lookouts in the far reaches of the state. The effort is worthwhile when the views are this good.
    For up-to-date information and policies, contact the corresponding Forest Service ranger district for each lookout.
    Here's a breakdown of some of the state's best lookouts — and a few high-altitude cabins — based on interviews with Forest Service personnel in every corner of the state.
    Some of the best high-mountain lookouts can be found in the Siskiyou Mountains.
    Bolan Mountain, as mentioned above, is a personal favorite. Perched atop high cliffs with a wrap-around porch, it features views across the Red Buttes, Siskiyou and Kalmiopsis wilderness areas and all the way to Mount Shasta. It's open July 9 to Sept. 28.
    Other worthwhile spots include Snow Camp Lookout, east of Gold Beach, which was rebuilt in 2004 after the original was torched by the Biscuit fire. It's equipped with a wood-burning cook stove and available June 17 through Sept. 26.
    Quail Prairie, Bald Knob and Lake of the Woods lookouts also are good during summer.
    Information: Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, 541-618-2200.
    Southern Oregon's land of Umpqua is home to three lookouts, and two of the most spectacular are Acker Rock outside Canyonville and Fairview Peak southwest of Oakridge.
    All but hanging off the edge of a cliff, Acker features views of Cascade peaks in every direction. On a clear day, you can see mountains on the Willamette, Rogue and Deschutes river watersheds. The lookout, which requires a 0.4-mile hike, was recently closed for repairs but will reopen June to August.
    Fairview is a unique structure, and something of a misnomer, considering the lookout sits on 53-foot-tall legs and offers views of every major Cascade peak from Hood to McLoughlin on a clear day. It is not for those bothered by heights.
    Pickett Butte, east of Tiller, also is nice.
    Information: Umpqua National Forest, 541-672-6601.
    Fall Mountain Lookout might be the Rolls-Royce of mountaintop destinations.
    Not only does it feature panoramic views that stretch across Eastern Oregon's Strawberry Mountains, but it also has a futon bed, electricity, a stove and refrigerator. It's open May 30 to Oct 30.
    "It's an incredible view, and definitely one you have to reserve ahead of time," said Shilo Burton of Malheur National Forest.
    Information: Malheur National Forest, 541-575-3000.
    You can peer into three different states from the 8,222-foot viewpoint of Drake Peak Lookout in southeastern Oregon near Lakeview.
    Open from June 15 to Oct. 15, the lookout is the highest in Oregon and has a propane refrigerator, lights, cook stove and wood stove for heating. Views include Oregon, California and Nevada. A high clearance vehicle is required due to road conditions, and the site is very remote.
    Two other lookouts include Hager Mountain (open in winter) and Bald Butte, which is undergoing maintenance but is easier to reserve.
    Information: Fremont-Winema National Forest, 541-947-2151
    Probably best known for ski-in lookouts that offer winter solitude — Clear Lake and Flag Point are two examples — Mount Hood National Forest does have summertime options.
    The most popular is Fivemile Butte, open year-round and featuring a high stair-stepping design to the top. Many hiking trails can be accessed nearby.
    Information: Mount Hood National Forest, 503-668-1700.
    Perched 2,000 feet above the Metolius River like a house on stilts, the most popular rental in Deschutes National Forest is Green Ridge Lookout.
    Offering views of Mount Jefferson and the Cascades, Green Ridge is open early May to June and mid-September to mid-November.
    Information: Deschutes National Forest, 541-383-5300.
    Although it's not home to any official lookouts, the Umatilla National Forest does offer three compelling guard stations (basically rustic cabins).
    Tamarack Lookout Cabin, Wenatchee Guard Station and Summit Guard Station all offer spectacular views, said Joani Bosworth, public affairs director for Umatilla National Forest.
    Tamarack, west of Bates, might be the best. At 4,979 feet, it overlooks the John Day River basin. The cabin is open May 16 to Nov. 15.
    "Those three have great views, and if you start looking into it, people should be able to find an available weekend," Bosworth said.
    Information: Umatilla National Forest, 541-278-3716.
    Despite some of the grandest mountain ranges in Oregon, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest doesn't feature any overlooks for rent.
    But, just like Umatilla, there are alpine cabins to be had. Anthony Lakes Guard Station is a good example. Nestled in the Elkhorn Mountains, this 1930s era cabin sits in a subalpine meadow and is equipped with all the amenities of home.
    Information: Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, 541-523-6391
    The Willamette National Forest is home to three lookouts.
    Gold Butte Lookout, north of Detroit Lake, sits at the end of a rugged road (high-clearance vehicles are recommended) but features views of Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Hood, the Three Sisters and Bull of the Woods Wilderness.
    Seasonal wildflowers and wild huckleberries grow nearby. It's usually booked solid, and securing a night can be difficult.
    The other two lookouts are farther south, near Blue River and Oakridge.
    Warner Mountain Lookout, south of Oakridge, is a newly constructed structure atop a 41-foot tower. It's staffed by active firewatchers during summer, but during winter is a place popular among cross-country skiers making a backcounty trek.
    Indian Ridge, south of Blue River, offers views of the Three Sisters and surrounding Cascades from a meadow of beargrass and huckleberries.
    Zach Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6801.
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