picket butte fire lookout

A Nearly Endless Adventure to Picket Butte Fire Lookout

When I learned that the forest service rents out their fire lookouts during the offseason, I imagined a room with a 360-degree view of uninterrupted forest. With the Picket Butte Fire Lookout, that’s exactly what I got.

In Oregon, there are only a handful of lookouts available through the forest service (there are also some really cool privatized ones like here and here), so they fill up months in advance. Last summer I searched and found the Picket Butte Fire Lookout in Umpqua National Forest was the only one available, and only for January 3-5. Not normally one to make plans so far in advance, I booked it and hoped it would work out. At only $40/night, it’s worth the gamble. (Rent one in your state at recreation.gov here.)

picket butte fire lookout

Photo courtesy of Micah Rushing.

I liked Picket Butte for a lot of reasons, namely that it’s a tower 40-feet off the ground, so it would be a unique sleeping experience. Plus it offered the opportunity to snowshoe in during the winter months and I thought that sounded like an adventure.

Nevertheless, my friend and I arrived after dark and the last thing I wanted to do was snowshoe in, uphill, toting all of our gear. I was bound and determined to make it to the top.

Luckily the ol’ Xterra is a champ and we plowed through the 6+ inches of snow and sheet of ice to climb the forest road to the top of the butte. We settled in, cooked a nice meal, shared a bottle of celebratory champagne, and sat on a blanket near the small propane heater catching up on our lives.

picket butte fire lookout

My dog, Elvis, is chilling in the sleeping bags.

The next day, we awoke to a pink sky peeping through openings in the condensation-covered windows. There was not another person or building in site; just forest and hills and low-lying clouds floating their way through the valley.

We snowshoed around to find a good sledding hill, and passed the morning improving our run. That night a different friend joined me, in a separate car…which will soon become a valuable part of this story.

picket butte fire lookout

Photo courtesy of Micah Rushing.

After two nights in the tower, we loaded up our gear and planned to head out for a quick trip to Umpqua Hot Springs. My car sat idling while I scraped the ice off the windshield, standing in several inches of fresh powder.

And then it died.

And refused to start again.

I’ve had this trusty 2003 Xterra since 2007 and it’s never given me an issue. I just had it serviced the day before I arrived to Picket Butte because I wanted to be on the cautious side…and now this.

“You always find adventure, don’t you?” asked my friend when we were sure my car was down for the count. Standing on top of a snowy butte at 3,290 feet above sea level with a dead cell phone and no way to charge it, should have left me walking the 7 miles back to the Tiller Ranger Station to use their phone. Fortunately, my friend had a working phone and a working car, and we were able to make our way to the station and spend an entire afternoon trying to find a tow truck driver who was willing and able to drag my car down from the top of the butte.

picket butte fire lookout

By the time we found Joe’s Towing & Recovery in Roseburg, OR the mechanic shops were all closed. So we dropped her out front and drove to Ashland, where a shower, a hot spring soak and a bed were all very welcomed at the Lithea Hot Springs Resort.

The mechanic eventually determined that my car needed a new fuel pump and filter, and that it would be the end of the day before it was finished. So we shopped around Ashland, Oregon, a quaint little city I’d never been to but had always wanted to check out. And we lucked out, because it was blanketed in a rare fresh white powder.

That night, after picking up my car with its shiny new fuel pump and filter, we drove toward Crater Lake and set up my friend’s Cascadia Car Tent (located in Bend, OR!) in snowy parking lot for the night. It was so cool to pop up a tent and be so far removed from the cold of the ground. I slept so cozy and warm!

We awoke to a few more inches of snow, yet again, and breakfasted at Beckie’s Cafe at Union Creek Resort where the meals were delicious and the coffee was hot. We couldn’t get to Crater Lake since the road is unplowed, so we decided it was time for another soak.

umpqua hot springs

Umpqua Hot Springs, Oregon

We hiked two miles into Umpqua Hot Springs, a breathtaking cascade of geothermal pools, cooling in temperature all the way to the river below (get directions here). To sit in nature’s warmth and stare up at the frosty trees and the open sky above was very special, and a great ending to a seemingly endless adventure.

picket butte fire lookout



  1. Hello, I loved your blog, it’s beautiful and we felt like we were in the wonderful places too. I love traveling, and if it were possible I would live like that too. But we can travel with your posts. Your blog is charming!

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