There is nothing quite like the joy of rising with the sun as it first breaches the horizon, announcing the start of another day, and then watching that same sun crest over your head only to melt into the ocean a few hours later, painting the sky red and pink.
That masterpiece of a process is best observed high in the clouds, a luxury I was able to enjoy while spending two nights at elevation over 4,300 feet at the Snow Camp Lookout in southwest Oregon.
A 14-by-14 foot cabin adorned with a wood stove, a small bed frame and a cement picnic table out front, Snow Camp Lookout, located in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, is nestled between the remnants of several of Oregon’s most intense wildfires. The fire lookout burned in 2002 and was rebuilt, but was then nearly burned again in the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire.
It was closed for a long time due to the fire impact and then the pandemic, but it reopened to visitors this past summer, and I visited in July. It’s often tough to score a night here, but take your chances and plan well in advance on recreation.gov.
Standing on the concrete pad that would later become the ultimate spot for dinner with a view. I could turn in one direction and look out to where the sun set over the Pacific Ocean in the west, or spin around and wave to my parent’s house over the vast mountains in the east.
Each direction showed varying degrees of fire scars, with blankets of green shrubbery and new growth forcing its way up between the white trees reminiscent of skeletons. The presence of wildfire was clear, but so were the signs of regeneration over the years.
The view from Snow Camp Lookout is incredible, and most time was spent outdoors enjoying the sights. Joined by a friend, we migrated folding camping chairs across the small, level plateau the mountaintop created where the lookout sat perched, searching for a different view or some new dirt road to track on the map. Books were read and naps were taken on the wooden porch that wraps around the entirety of the lookout, which we also rotated around to ensure maximum viewing opportunities.
While both mornings spent at the lookout were crisp and clear, waking up naturally from the golden sunlight peering in through more than 20 windows, the elevation did not spare us from area smoke.
At the time I visited, smoke from the McKinney Fire in northern California had started to close in. But that isn’t unusual in this part of the world, where fire marks the landscape and there’s often at least one blaze happening. By about 5 p.m., the entire lookout was surrounded by a wall of haze, and even the closest peaks to us were obscured.
The smoke provided an excellent show of a sunset, however, and the last evening at Snow Camp was spent toasting to the vibrant pink sunset, watching the amber shadows spread over the valley, absorbing the quietness of Oregon mountaintops.
While the experience at the lookout was nothing short of meditative, getting there (and back) was anything but. Over 20 miles deep into poorly marked U.S. Forest Service roads riddled with impressive potholes, I was grateful for my downloaded GPS maps as well as my Subaru; I’m not sure I would have made it to the top without either. This is not terrain well suited for lower vehicles. Cell service was nonexistent until reaching the ridge where the lookout sits.
Upon arrival at the base entrance to the lookout where the Forest Service gate is typically locked, I quickly realized with mounting horror the online description of a “200-yard hike” with a wheelbarrow provided was far from accurate. What sat before me was closer to a half mile journey that was, I kid you not, straight up and down elevation riddled with potholes, and not a wheelbarrow in sight. Luckily, our rental entry included a code to unlock that gate, and my car was able to make it up the hill with tactical strategy and a whole lot of sheer will. Let’s just say if the gate hadn’t been able to open, we would never have made it to the beauty that is Snow Camp Lookout.
Notes for the future
All in all, the trip up to Snow Camp Lookout was rad and worth the nail-biting process of navigating to the ridgeline. As long as you have a good sense of direction (also known as a reliable map), a sturdy vehicle and a full tank of gas, you’ll be able to make it out there just fine.
Here are a few parting tips for those gearing up for a trip to Snow Camp or other fire lookouts, guided by my own mistakes and successes.
Pack a few layers of clothing, almost like you’re ready for winter and summer at the same time. Although the high elevation does help keep things cooler and typically breezy, I anticipated freezing nights that never came and ended up being pretty hot during the day. The windows of the lookout also magnified the sun, and it got pretty hot in that box. Keeping the windows wide open or even bringing a battery-operated fan would make it luxurious inside the lookout, even on a toasty day.
The lookout did have four large lights on the ceiling, powered by solar batteries in the corner, but there are no electrical outlets for use, and I have to admit the lights were too bright as soon as the sun went down. It made us feel like a lighthouse on top of the mountain. I had my portable generator on hand, which was perfect for charging phones and flashlights, but I was left wishing I had my own light source to replace the glaring brutality of fluorescent lights and the bugs they attract. A strand of rope lights or several small lanterns would be perfect for a night at the lookout, allowing you to see your surroundings without blocking the killer view of the stars.
Lastly, don’t forget your personal choice of entertainment. Once you arrive at the lookout, there isn’t a ton to actually do besides explore the ridgeline and appreciate the view. Snow Camp is the perfect place to disconnect from the world and focus on your books, art, journaling or whatever your preferred off-grid hobby is.