When you have a window of opportunity, you take the window. Oregon Butte Lookout had been on my hiking list for the last few years and other adventures kept pushing it aside. Recently, after watching the weather for a week, the option of this hike came back on my radar. Based on what I was observing by an upcoming weather front approaching, I had a one-day window before I would be forced to set this trail down again until next late spring.
Located outside of the small, charming town of Dayton, Washington, the Oregon Butte Lookout is nestled in the upper northern Blue Mountain range on the east side of Washington State in the Umatilla National Forest. It is the highest point in the northern Blue Mountains, sitting at 6,387 feet where access is limited from November to June due to snow. Our hike was scheduled for November 4th.
The Roads Are Not Always Friendly
The roads I needed to get to the trailhead are at best a coin toss this time of year — think lots of mud, snow, or ice on a mountain road fit for one (sometimes one and a half) vehicles with very steep drop-offs in a whole lotta places. Knowing that snow or mud was likely, I called the National Forest Service not once, but three times, to check conditions the day before our planned hike. But Covid has undoubtedly made everything more challenging and my phone calls were left unreturned.
Not confident that the roads would be safe, I reached out to my buds and asked if a call could be made to one of the “old-timers of the Blue Mountains,” as really they are truly the best source of information. The call was made and we received a green light, the hike was a go.
On the morning of November 4, 2020, my buds and I met for coffee in Kennewick, Washington before we hit the road in my 2017 lifted Toyota 4Runner with all-terrain tires. This time of year, taking anything less than a four-wheel-drive truck with high clearance to this trailhead would be suicide.
Overall, the roads were pretty good until the final road (Forest Service Road #4608) turned and became a part of the northern-facing slope of the mountain; travel then became quite sketchy in places (pictured is one of the very nicest parts of the road). I cannot stress this enough, if you are not comfortable driving on narrow mountain roads with soggy, deep, muddy ruts then make sure you enjoy this hike during the optimal season and during optimal weather conditions.
Where Forest Service Road #4608 comes to an end, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness and the Teepee trailhead emerges. The Mount Misery/Teepee trailhead #3113 is at the far end of the parking lot and was our destination.
Outfitted in my brightest orange shirt (as it was spike elk hunting season) we started up the trail. As we ascended through the forest canopy, like the forest service road — where the trail became a part of the northern-facing slope of the mountain — the ground beneath us became quite muddy and slippery. Taking it slow was our solution, as at 6 miles round trip for this hiking trail, we had all the time in the world.
Approximately 1 mile in, the trail came to a fork and I knew that we could take either route as both trails reconnected further up the trail. Staying right would allow us to climb the ridgeline and see the inspiring views; going left would allow us to traverse the north-facing slope and stay in the forest (we took this trail coming back and the mud we encountered was impressively deep and plentiful). We opted to take the right trail on our way up to the lookout, climbing to the top of West Butte before dropping into a saddle where the views of the high Wallowa mountains were spectacular.
Two miles in there was a carved-out spring-fed log watering trough for horses with an attached spigot for the people. I love it when natural resources are repurposed in a useful and earthy way. I am eager to revisit this area in the spring and see this gem in action!
Just after the trough, approximately one-quarter mile up the trail, the Mt. Misery trail (continuing north) meets the Oregon Butte Lookout trail which turns to the south. Staying to the right and south put us on the final section that led the way to the lookout cabin perched at the very end of the ridge. Along the way, we meandered past beautiful moss-covered trees that were a brilliant green.
Built in 1931, the Oregon Butte Lookout is staffed from June until September and is an active fire lookout during the summer months. Online resources indicate that bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to the summer staffer is always appreciated and my intention is to do just that next summer. Although locked up for the winter and unable to see inside, the charm of the building from the outside did not disappoint. A bench lined three walls of the external cabin and we sat on the southern facing side, chatted with a hunter glassing for spike elk, had a snack and enjoyed the 360° views. I simply cannot wait to return.
What I realized on this trail is that the Blue Mountains are not given the credit they truly deserve in Washington State. This hike was so exquisite that next June I will be returning with my backpack and exploring it closer. The energy of the trail on this day provoked stillness, and let’s face it, during these times of global pandemic who doesn’t need an internal reset of stillness. The summit was truly as dazzling as it was extraordinary. If given the opportunity to take a trip to the Oregon Butte Lookout, I am certain that like me you will be hypnotized by its simple grandeur.
Check out our Hiking Trails in the Tri-Cities story for more nearby hikes!