The lure of the lookout
Northeastern Oregon is home to several of these anachronistic weapons in the war against wildfire
There’s the hard way to get to a fire lookout.
And then there’s the other hard way.
Which way you go depends on what you prefer to punish.Your rig’s shock absorbers or your knees.
The former can be replaced at any tire shop with no damage except to your wallet.
The latter can be swapped out for new parts, too — except that procedure requires a scalpel, a post-op prescription for painkillers, and a generous insurance policy.
The trouble with fire lookouts is where they’re built.
It’s not that they’re intentionally obstinate.
But since the idea is to give the lookout worker the broadest view possible, almost all the structures were constructed atop prominent peaks.
And mountains, you’ve no doubt noticed, are not especially accessible, what with the cliffs and boulders.
This explains why you rarely find freeways on them.
Or other paved roads.
Or, in many cases, roads of any sort, including ones which resemble avalanche chutes and which would tax the tractive abilities of an Abrams tank.
But there are exceptions.
For instance, in one chunk of Grant County, our neighbor to the west, three fire lookouts have roads right to the top.
Well, almost to the top in the case of Indian Rock.
But for all three — the two others are the buttes, Desolation and Dixie — the summit roads are rough enough that some visitors will prefer to hike rather than drive.
For them the relative crudity of the roads is a boon because they won’t have to dodge traffic.
But no matter which method of travel you choose, the vista from the apex justifies the choice of whoever picked these peaks as fire lookouts.
If you intend to drive to each point, or plan to limit your hiking to mere jaunts, you could add all three lookouts to your lifetime list in a single day.
We’ll start at Desolation, which isn’t nearly so depressing a place as its name suggests.
It is desolate, in the sense that nobody lives there except the Forest Service fire lookout — and that person lingers only until the fire danger fizzles.
But this mountain defies the other definitions of “desolation,” which include, according to my dictionary, “grief, sadness, loneliness, devastation and ruin.”
Desolation is quite fetching, actually, festooned with wildflowers in summer and with glowing orange tamarack in autumn.
Desolation is a middling mountain by local standards.
It’s neither notably tall — at 7,028, it’s shorter than dozens of peaks in the Elkhorns and Wallowas — nor imposing.
This last is due largely to the forest that cloaks the whole of the butte — unlike most peaks topped by lookouts, Desolation lacks a rocky, treeless pinnacle that accentuates its stature.
The Forest Service got around this flaw by erecting a 67-foot-tall tower.
The agency also had a pretty decent road, by lookout standards, hacked up the butte’s eastern slopes.
To get there from Granite, follow Forest Road 10 past the Fremont Powerhouse and Olive Lake. About two miles west of Olive Lake, turn right onto Road 1010, which is marked by a prominent sign.
The road alternates between well-graded gravel and dirt. You won’t need a four-wheel drive rig to reach the lookout; but the rock-lined water bars are bumpier obstacles than most drivers would want to negotiate in a low-slung sedan.
The lookout is about five miles from the Road 10 intersection. The only potentially tricky junction is about a mile and a half in, where Road 1010 switchbacks to the left in a saddle. If you start going downhill, you’re on the wrong road (it’s No. 350, by the way).
For a compromise that includes a pleasant hike, park at the intersection of Road 1010 and 300. A sign marks the junction, which is one mile from the top.
Road 300 is not especially steep, gaining about 500 feet of elevation. Figure on taking a couple hours for the round-trip, including time on top.
Because the tower has a limit of four people, holler at the fire lookout and ask permission climbing the wooden staircase.
The next lookout on the tour is Indian Rock.
To get there, continue west on Road 10 about 1ﬁ miles, then turn left on Road 45.
Drive south on Road 45, crossing a pass, then turn left on Road 537.
Road 537 climbs most of the way to the summit, elevation 7,353 feet. The trail to the crest is short — less than half a mile — but it’s steep and rocky.
Indian Rock looks more like what people think of when they envision a fire lookout.
The building, which went up in 1959, does not stand top a tower; it doesn’t need one.
There are no trees on Indian Rock’s summit to obscure the firewatcher’s view.
The lookout cabin is the third to occupy this aerie. It replaced one built in 1935, which supplanted the original lookout that was installed in the 1920s.
The final destination on this three-lookout tour is Dixie Butte.
Although it too is burdened with the diminutive “butte,” among this trio Dixie most deserves the title “mountain.”
It’s the highest, at 7,592 feet.
But of greater importance, stature-wise, is Dixie’s location. It is by far the tallest point for several miles around, and its relative dominance of the surrounding terrain adds to its eminence.
To get to Dixie, continue south on Road 45 to Road 20, a paved two-lane route that follows the Middle Fork of the John Day River.
Turn left and drive Road 20 east, toward Bates and Austin Junction, for about 20 miles. Turn right onto Highway 7, then right again a mile later onto Highway 26 at Austin Junction.
Follow Highway 26 about seven miles to Dixie Pass. Turn right onto gravel Road 2610, at a sign for Dixie Butte Lookout.
The lookout is five miles from the highway, and about 2,300 feet higher.
The road is decent for the first four miles or so, and there’s plenty of space to park at a saddle where the road starts climbing steeply for the last mile to the lookout.
As with Indian Rock, Dixie’s peak is devoid of big trees, so there is no tower.
The view, however, nicely compensates for the absence of architectural interest.
Strawberry Mountain, the only mountain in Eastern Oregon between the Elkhorns and the Steens that surpasses 9,000 feet, dominates the southern skyline.
Where: Umatilla National Forest, near Olive Lake about 12 miles west of Granite
Elevation: 7,028 feet
History: 1923, 50-foot steel tower from windmill with 6-foot by 6-foot cabin; 1961, 67-foot wooden tower
Where: Malheur National Forest, about 20 miles northwest of Austin Junction
Elevation: 7,353 feet
History: 1920s, cupola cabin; 1935, L-4-style cabin; 1959, flat cabin
Where: Malheur National Forest, about eight miles northeast of Prairie City
Elevation: 7,592 feet
History: 1920s, cupola cabin; 1935, cabin; 1968, flat cabin