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View from the Butte

Bear Basin Butte Lookout sits high atop a narrow mountain ridge. As my wife and I walk the steep path up to it, lizards scurry through the manzanita bushes. Swallows dip and glide overhead.

Oddly enough, I’m thinking of a passage in Mark Twain’s famous travel book “The Innocents Abroad,” about Michelangelo. Throughout Italy, Twain listened to his tour guides go on and on about this mighty genius. By the time he got to Rome, he assumed Michelangelo had designed everything in the city, including the Pope, and had painted all the paintings.

The young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were the Michelangelos of the 1930s. They built the lookout my wife and I came to visit, and pretty much everything else of human origin, it seems, inside the Smith River National Recreation Area in the Six Rivers National Forest of Northern California.

This lookout — originally called the Camp Six Lookout — was one of several fire-spotting stations they put up in the forest. In addition, they created a string of public campgrounds and picnic areas along the Redwood Highway (Highway 199).

They constructed roads and trails, planted trees, and connected phone lines. In the summer, they helped put out wildfires.

If you rent the Bear Basin Butte Lookout for a night or two — as part of a package that includes the modern cabin below it — you must register at the ranger station in Gasquet. They built that, too.

Congress established the CCC in 1933, at the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt, to help relieve the unemployment crisis during the Great Depression.

According to CCC historian Neil Maher, enrollment was restricted to out-of-work men between the ages of 18 and 25. More than three million signed up eventually and were sent to parks and forests throughout the country, assigned to camps of 200 laborers each.

The work was hard, and the pay was just a dollar a day. Enrollees, as they were called, were required to send $25 of their monthly earnings back home. They were fed three square meals a day, which probably mattered more to them than the money, anyway.

The CCC’s work in the Smith River area was just one chapter of an epic story. The Corps left its mark all over Oregon, too, including in Jackson County around Union Creek, where it built the resort and several other structures used to this day.

Still, the Corps was especially prolific along the Redwood Highway. Completion of this road in 1926, before the Depression struck, created the demand for recreation facilities. Enter the CCC of Camp Gasquet.

The next time you’re driving to Crescent City or Brookings, stop at the Patrick Creek Campground to stretch your legs and enjoy a quick immersion in CCC history. As you’re pulling in, note the stone stanchion holding the entrance sign. The CCC built it.

More of the Corp’s handsome stonework is evident in the bathhouse and group fire pit, seen from the quarter-mile interpretive trail connecting the campground to Patrick Creek Lodge. (The lodge was built by private hands, not by the CCC).

Although moss now drapes these structures, the rustic elegance of the design comes through. Michelangelo would have given the craftsmanship a thumbs-up.

Next on the trail are remnants of stairs and the massive walls of a swimming pool. Using water trapped from the Smith River, the pool was a popular spot until 1964, when a flood on Christmas Day washed most of it away.

Back at the campground, a kiosk by the registration booth displays photographs from the CCC era.

For those with more time, a visit to the lookout on Bear Basin Butte rewards with vast, hypnotic views — especially of the Siskiyou Wilderness, to the east, and its majestic mountain peaks.

You’re allowed to visit the facility — relocated to the butte from another part of the forest in 1997 — even if you aren’t renting it. Just be considerate of any lodgers at the cabin.

To get there, turn off Highway 199 at Little Jones Creek Road (mile post 24.85). My wife and I parked where the pavement ran out, after about 10 miles. We walked the dirt road for another mile, a pleasant stretch through the woods, which allowed us to say we’d done our hiking for the day.

We found the door to the lookout unlocked, and the views hard to pull ourselves away from, even after we’d been inside for 30 minutes or so.

Want more hiking in the Smith River NRA, close to places mentioned in this story? Take the dirt road to its end — about two miles farther on — for the Doe Flat and Buck Lake trailhead. Or try the French Hill Trail; the trailhead is across from the Gasquet Ranger Station/NRA Visitor Center on Highway 199.

A trail brochure is available at the visitor center and Patrick Creek Campground.

Caution: Little Jones Creek Road is quite narrow, steep and curvy. Take it very slowly.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Stonework completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps is evident throughout the Smith River National Recreation Area, including these elements near Patrick Creek Campground. Photo courtesy of Paul Hadella
The view from Bear Basin Butte Lookout in the Smith River National Recreation Area. - Photo courtesy of Paul Hadella