Lookout Mountain has something for everyone
Headin' Outdoors with Scott Staats
Even though the temperature in Central Oregon hovered around 100 degrees, the cooler air and slight breeze atop Lookout Mountain felt as refreshing as an oasis in a desert.
Hikers have several options to choose from to reach the 6,926-foot summit. The Lookout Mountain Trail, beginning near the Ochoco Ranger Station, is about 13 or 14 miles roundtrip and rated as a more difficult hike.
Shorter and easier routes begin 6.5 miles farther up from the ranger station on Forest Road 42. Then turn right on Forest Road 4205 to three other trailheads. My wife and I hiked up the Mother Lode Trail and came down the Lookout Mountain Trail, making for about a 5-mile hike. (Make sure you don't get on the section of the Lookout Mountain Trail that leads down to the ranger station.)
Wildflowers line the trail from beginning to end, especially the meadows near the summit. Brilliantly colored lupine, Indian paintbrush and columbine are among the many flowers. The trail passes through large ponderosa pine and fir with occasional openings that provide views of the Ochocos and the Cascades.
Just before breaking out onto the long open ridgetop, there's a shelter located just off the trail in a patch of trees. From the north point to the south point, Lookout Mountain is about two miles long. To the east are great views of Big Summit Prairie. To the west stretches the Cascade Range, including a glimpse of Mount Adams in Washington. Just below the summit lay wet meadows and aspen stands. Farther off, Ochoco Reservoir glistens on the east side of Prineville.
The mountain is located on the Lookout Mountain Ranger District of the Ochoco National Forest. About 25 square miles surrrounding the mountain is the Lookout Mountain Management Area. The land is managed as a roadless area and is closed to motorized vehicles, except snowmobiles in the winter. The area is also protected from timber sales.
All the trails in the area are in excellent shape. The great views, the wildflowers and the many hiking options make Lookout Mountain a good hiking choice. The trail also gets use from horseback riders and mountain bikers.
The Lookout Mountain Trail passes below an old mining operation known as the Mother Lode Mine. Signs warn about mercury contamination in the area. Hikers are advised to stay on the trail, keep out of the mine buildings and avoid contact with any tailings or water in area. Bring along at least two quarts of water per person and do not drink out of any streams.
The mine began operating in 1901. Eventually a stamp mill was built to crush the cinnabar ore in order to get out the mercury. The crushed ore went onto a conveyor to a furnace where it was heated. Then a series of vertical pipes distilled the solution. The mercury came out as condensation. There's a caved-in mine shaft with a stream running from it down an old mining cart railway.
The Independent Mine is situated along Forest Road 4205 in the meadow to the east. Look for several old buildings.
Lookout Mountain Lookout
Sunday June 1, 1913 - Packed household and other goods and loaded same on wagon, ready to leave for Lookout station, a distance of 34 miles from Prineville. Heavy thundershowers in p.m." This was a journal entry from Lake M. Bechtell, the first fireguard of Lookout Mountain in the Ochoco National Forest from June to September 1913.
The first fire lookout in the Ochoco National Forest was located atop Lookout Mountain in 1912.
The first equipment at the summit was called an Osborne Firefinder. Standing about three feet high, it's similar to a large compass.
When a fire was spotted, the fireguard would take a reading and call in the location.
There were no modern radios at the time. Things were done the old fashioned way. Magnetic phone lines ran up the mountain from the ranger station.
The guard would have to crank the phone to make a call. The heavy lines were connected to trees and supported by tripods in the meadows.
In the early 1900s, communications were established this way between Prineville and Mitchell, connecting the lookouts and some of the local ranches.
In 1912, a cabin was built on the summit for the fireguard. In 1915, an open log structure for the lookout was constructed. The Osborne Firefinder was placed on the upper platform in the center.
A 14-by-14 foot cabin-like structure was built in 1925 on a cement foundation and stood 11 feet high.
Eventually a road went from the mines to the summit, allowing the fireguard to drive a vehicle up the mountain and not have to hike or ride a horse.
Today, hikers can see the old cement posts where the guy wires were attached.
A rock wall can also be seen that surrounded the lookout.
Fire lookouts have played a significant role in the history of Central Oregon. Fire protection became very important around 1910, when the West started getting very large fires. That's when the Forest Service aggressively began building lookout towers. By the CCC days of the 1920s and 30s, there were enough lookout towers to see just about all the surrounding forests.
There is quite an evolution to the fire lookouts of Central Oregon. The earliest lookouts were merely a pile of rocks on a high point with a firefinder set on top.
There would also be a hand-cranked phone at some of these locations.
A telephone wire was put up Lookout Mountain in 1911, one of the first of its kind in the country to serve as communication on lookouts.
At one time there were over 20 lookouts in and around the Ochocos.
Today, only a handful remain.