Sleep on top of the world

by Kim on March 2, 2011 · 30 comments

Fire lookouts are one of Oregon’s best kept secrets. Once used by the forest service to spot fires in the backcountry, they are now available to rent all over the Pacific Northwest.  The best news of all?  They’re cheap!  The Bolan Mountain Fire Lookout will set you back about $40 bucks a night.  

Sleep on top of the world in a fire lookout

The Bolan Mountain Fire Lookout

Sweat is beading on my forehead, rolling in rivulets down my neck, but for the effort I’ve reached the top of forty rocky steps and am rewarded with the first glimpse of my weekend accommodations, Bolan Mountain Lookout.  The lookout is a 14 x 14 house of glass perched on a ridge in Southwest Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains, just north of the California line.  A retired backcounty fire lookout, it was previously used by the U.S. Forest Service to detect wild fires, and is now part of a network of lookouts and cabins available to rent throughout the Pacific Northwest. 

The lookout itself is sparsely outfitted with a single cot, small table and two plastic chairs, but I have not come for the amenities.  The real draw is the world outside.  The lookout and wrap-around deck offers jaw-dropping 360 degree views of the Red Buttes Wilderness and Siskiyou Wilderness. The mountains of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness stand stacked to the north as far as the eye can see and Preston Peak, a 7,309 foot beauty, juts into the sky from the south.  On a clear day, Mt. Shasta, looming and regal, dominates the southeastern skyline. 

The setset from Bolan Mountain Lookout

On Saturday morning I wake to the sun rising over the eastern mountain peaks.  The sky is in layers of pink, orange, purple and gray-blue and the scene feels other-worldly in the early morning light.  I watch the glow for a few minutes before drifting back to sleep.  When I wake for the second time, I prepare coffee in a French press and pull a chair onto the catwalk to take in the view.  From my vantage point, 6,242 feet in the air, there are almost no signs of civilization except for five tiny campfires that burn around Bolan Lake, 1.8 miles below, and a few dots of light to the west, the outskirts of the town of Cave Junction.  When the black flies start biting, I load up a day pack and set out on the 3.6 mile round-trip Bolan Lake Trail hike.  The trail meanders through an alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and past large outcroppings of rock, the earthy-sweet smell of pine hangs in the air.  When I reach the lake I strip down to my skivvies and dive in.  Though the lake is stocked with trout for fishing, no motorized boats are allowed, and the few other visitors float lazily on rafts or canoe around the lake’s perimeter. 

Bolan Lake

Later that evening, back at the lookout, I watch as the sun sinks below the horizon in the most beautiful and intense sunset I have ever seen.  One by one, the stars unveil themselves and I lie on the deck in my sleeping bag, the Milky Way visible above me, and read the visitor log-book by moonlight.  One entry in particular, written by a duo known only as KC and CR, sums up my experience at Bolan Mountain Lookout.  “Seeing the Illinois Valley lights at night,” they write, “makes me realize (again!) how small and insignificant we all are in the big picture of things.”

Sunset at Bolan Mountain Lookout

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