Gold Butte Lookout is among hundreds of lookout towers built from the 1930s to ’50s by the US Forest Service. These one-room cabins built on stilts, peaks, or in trees provided 360 views and served as early fire detection and Aircraft Warning System during WWII. Advancements in technology have rendered most of these towers obsolete and they are now rented out through the National Park Service. Check out Firelookout.org for a map of fire lookout rentals across the nation. Reservations open at 9 am CST 6 months in advance and they sell out fast, so have your tower picked, be signed up and logged in, and have the reservation page up and ready a few minutes ahead of time.
Our first lookout experience was at Gold Butte, 2 hours outside of Portland. The website led us to believe the hike up was a half-mile with “some” incline. We are no strangers to a challenging hike, so we thought it wouldn’t be too much trouble to make multiple trips so we could bring all our luxuries (luxuries being cold booze and real food). We were dead wrong!
If you are planning to stay in the Gold Butte Lookout Tower, The hike to the tower is a 1000 foot elevation gain in less than a mile, so I would recommend treating it as a backpacking experience because you will not want to make multiple trips. The incline is not evenly distributed so the last half is… shall we say… character building? As we rounded the last switchback and laid eyes on a picturesque 1934 cabin with 360 views; we knew the trek was worth it. Talk about a room with a view. July is the best time to visit the Pacific Northwest because the weather is not too hot and just brisk enough to cool you down during a break.
The cabin is about the size of a small bedroom with one twin bed and 3 cots. Previous travelers have been kind enough to leave behind some cookware (utensils and pots/pans), a propane stove, and games. There is some chopped firewood and a wood-burning stove to keep you warm at night, but you have to haul the firewood up the steepest part of climb so we opted out of the wood-burning stove.
*Sleeping bag -The tower is not equipped with sheets or blankets, but does have plenty of pillows. Keep in mind, this is not a 5 star hotel with maid service; I don’t think they clean the linens between each use. They weren’t gross and I used them, but bring a pillow if you aren’t comfortable with that.
*Cooler – There is no fridge, so if you plan on bringing booze or real food, as opposed to freeze dried, you will need a cooler and ice.
*Water – Bring enough water for the entire stay, the closest place to refill is a 40-minute drive.
*Sweater, gloves, and beanie – At over 4000 feet elevation, nights are pretty chilly even in mid-July.
*A 4-wheel drive vehicle – Most of the terrain leading to the tower and surrounding trails are steep, unpaved roads.
*Propane for a camping stove – There was a two burner camping stove with some propane left behind when we visited, but unless you want to take a gamble, bring your own fuel.
Awarded one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the nation and full of unexpected sights, Jawbone Flats is worth the hour and a half drive from the lookout. If you are in search of a ghost town, look no further; the trail follows the original road to the now abandoned mining town by the same name. The mine closed in 1951 and the town has been left untouched since. Mines, equipment, half-built railroad tracks, buildings, and cars all left exactly where they were nearly 70 years ago.
This one of a kind trail makes for a moderately difficult 6.5-mile hike. The gently rolling hills will sneak up on you for a total of 1300 ft gain instead of the 200 net elevation gain advertised on the website.
I’d rate our trip to Gold Butte Lookout Tower an 11 out of 10 for the adventurous spirit. You’re miles from civilization and truly off the grid with nothing but the sounds of nature and a spectacular view of the stars.