The temperature dropped off sharply as the sun retired behind a western ridge and my internal instincts were screaming to retreat. A mountain top is a peculiar and foreign place to spend the night after all, yet it is exactly this time of day when the mountains come alive; awash in golden hues before the stars slowly materialize until a dazzling speckled tapestry spans from horizon to horizon and bright constellations shine forth, telling their stories to the trained eye.
I step through a door, leaving the wrap around deck behind and entering a scene cozier than Christmas eve. Samantha reads a bedtime story to Aubrin Sage on a big comfy bed and the crackling fire throws flickering light onto all six surfaces of our small space; its warmth and ambiance has a lethargic effect, enhanced by the glass of Yakima Valley wine we brought with us to celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary. I melt into a nearby chair and pick up a book at random, reading by firelight.
“Roads leading to lookouts are almost without exception steep, rocky, narrow, rough, and dusty or muddy. Too many lookouts had roads built to them where there never should have been more than a footpath.”
A chuckle escapes as a recall our journey here, especially the last half mile.
We had packed the night before in order to make a clean exit the following morning. We still prefer to travel light; leaving our tiny house on wheels stationary as a sort of Central Washington base camp while exploring in our much more nimble Subaru Forester. This allows us to venture much deeper into the mountains and provides incentive to explore new locations and accommodations as was the case with this adventure.
Driving East out of Yakima is an unfamiliar feeling. I can count on exactly two fingers the number of times we’ve driven out of town on highway 24 before today, but as we trace the green valley floor between two brown ridges extending from Mount Rainier in the rear view mirror I wonder why we don’t come here more often. The valley gets increasingly tight before spitting us out across the Columbia River onto a seemingly impossibly straight piece of pavement through barren sage brush desert that most people would never believe is a part of the Evergreen state.
Around the time you become convinced that nothing worthwhile could ever grow out here the earth begins to ungulate in a remarkably peculiar manner signifying your arrival to the largest wheat producing region in the nation. The fertile rolling hills of the Palouse, some pushing 250 feet ‘thick,’ are formed by windblown loess sediment creating a variable depth surface that has proven to be very successful for the mass cultivation of wheat. Depending on the time of year the hills evolve from lush green tones against clear blue skies (think of the windows 7 background. Seriously, that photo was taken here) to golden undulations of endless mature wheat.
Make a wrong turn South at the right moment and you’ll stumble upon, rather unsuspectingly, a grand canyon carved out by the Palouse River and punctuated by Washington States official Waterfall. Despite having an annual rainfall a fraction of that bolstered by the West side of the Cascade mountains it is here where Palouse Falls cascades 189 feet into the incredible canyon it has carved through the desert. It is this unlikely duality, of water and barren shrub steppe, that makes this location so spectacular.
We continue through sleepy towns with aging, semi -vacant main streets and it’s hard to believe that this area was once Washington’s most populous region, proudly dubbed the ‘Inland Empire’ by those who reaped the benefit of dry-land farming. Perhaps my favorite part of this route is the moment that the rolling Palouse slowly transitions into the forested mountains of Idaho’s St. Joe National forest. I day dream about a quiet off-grid existence out here, where the rugged and romantic notion of the ‘Wild West’ seems to thrive. I ponder harsh winters and harsher solitude and whether I think I could hack it out here before my attention is jerked back to the task at hand as a large rock makes contact with the underside of our vehicle.
The road was rough, as it should be when carved out of the side of a mountain chosen for its higher than average vantage point to aid in forest fire detection and I would be lying if I said that we charged forward without hesitation. This was a far cry from your standard airBNB welcome experience, because this was a far cry from your standard airBNB accommodations. In fact this is literally the only accommodation of its kind on airBNB; an off-grid fire lookout tower perched at 5427 feet above sea level in the mountains of Idaho.
It’s a familiar story if you’ve been following our journey as we have been setting out in search of these tiny glass cabins in the sky for over three years now. Where there is a fire lookout there are sure to be some of the best views available and the work and preparation it takes just to get to them is almost as fun as the lookout itself which always provide an unrivaled sense of solitude. CRYSTAL PEAK LOOKOUT would be the 14th fire lookout that we have slept in and if the arrival experience was any indication it was sure to be one of our favorites! [The below montage of images are from a few of our previous experiences, some of which we’ve written blog posts about including our VERY FIRST ONE IN CALIFORNIA, A SAD EVENING NEAR SEATTLE, A POST SUMMIT TREAT, THE EARTH-SKY DIVIDE, A 300 MILE SCAVANGER HUNT, AN OCEAN VIEW and FOUR LOOKOUTS IN FOUR WEEKS. ]
It was immediately clear that this was not Kristie’s first airBNB project (BIG ISLAND TREE HOUSE, WASHINGTON UNDERGROUND HYGGE) and that she is well versed in how to curate a positive and memorable guest experience. Our first hours were checkered with pleasant and cleaver discoveries that evoked delight and added a touch of unexpected luxury to this remote accommodation. Our lack of specificity about what these moments are is an attempt to preserve the surprise for your own visit but you’ll be sure to pick up on a few of them in the following photos and videos and I will admit that the make-your-own-trailmix bar may have been the start of our daughter’s m&m obsession…
The already chilly temperature of our late afternoon arrival necessitated the ignition of a fire in the glass windowed stove and the smell of peppers and onions soon filled the air as Samantha prepared a meal on the propane cook top. The beautiful alpenglow faded outside and Aubrin colored by twinkle light in-between stolen bites of our meals. A miniature cake acquired from a small town on the journey here held one loan (faulty) sparkler candle, the entire focus of Aubrin Sage and the perfect compliment to the wine we had selected for the occasion; our sixth wedding anniversary. That night we fell asleep to the fires flicker underneath a brilliant celestial dance around Polaris.
I stoked the fire intermittently until we awoke with the morning twilight to a deceivingly warm lookout that didn’t prepare me for the chill of the mornings stroll. The fallen foliage displayed a crystalline layer of frost and the saunas cold plunge water bucket contained ice as did the gravity fed line used to fill it. I took this as a sign that testing it out just wasn’t meant to be, to my secret relief.
I guess I should reiterate that point: this mountain top fire lookout has a SAUNA. A short path leads to a large deck platform that hosts a sunken fire pit flanked by two Adirondack chairs and a cozy outbuilding that has been re-purposed into a wood fired sauna using the original fire place from the lookout. The sauna contains no lights so its ambiance varies with the time of day and whether illumination comes from the wall mounted candles or a shaft of sunlight filtered through evergreen trees before streaming through the saunas window and dancing along the wall. It is a most delightful way to shed the Autumn chill and the first time we’ve ever enjoyed such a perk while visiting a fire lookout!
A day starting and ending at the lookout is a day acutely in tune with your surroundings.
Daily distractions are removed and only the important necessities come to the forefront of your attention. Gather wood, cook food, stay warm, enjoy each others company. It’s a simple existence devoid of distraction and intensified by the solitude.
The suns location greatly alters the landscapes atmosphere and your day becomes aligned with its cyclical repetition. it always seems that just as your visit really begins to find its stride it is time to pack up and move on, leaving you wishing for another night or two in order to truly appreciate the subtle nuances of the land, the weather and the lookout.
It never rained but I almost wish it had. A place like this enveloped with fog and pattered by rooftop rain drops would be a surreal experience, as would spending time up here amidst an undisturbed blanket of Idaho snowfall (which is made possible by a vintage snowcat shuttle during winter months!).
You would never think that this simple space in the forested mountains of Idaho could welcome you so humbly, effect you so deeply and release you so rejuvenated, until you experience the enchantment of a mountaintop lookout. Crystal Peak lookout is remodeled with careful restraint, allowing the rugged adventurous nature of its historic past to shine while simultaneously adding little luxuries that lend themselves to a well crafted and cozy experience.
The three of us idle away the afternoon, spending some time writing an introductory entry in a journal we are gifting to the lookout. There is a long history of log book type journals in fire lookouts and reading through the entries has become one of our favorite ways to enjoy a stormy evening by candle light or idle away a lazy morning with coffee.
While these journals started with data driven entries about weather, fire activity and maintenance needs, they have shifted to a diverse series of mini essays ranging from simple descriptions of ones stay, to deeply personal anecdotes about life struggles and [sometimes] the resulting clarity found through solitude during their visit to the remote fire lookout. We’ve read comical entries of epic wrong turns trying to find the destination, seen beautiful artistic sketches and even found scavenger hunt style clues to hidden gifts left by prior visitors!
If you end up staying at CRYSTAL PEAK LOOKOUT be sure to find the brown hard cover journal and add some of your own words to its evolving history and narrative.
The aroma of dinner once again fills the glass cabin while Aubrin runs laps around the deck, stopping briefly at the door each rotation to wave at Samantha who has perfected the back country ability to extract gourmet flavors from simple ingredients with limited kitchen wares. Dinner is complimented with the second half of our bottle of wine and we are warmed from the inside as the light dims. The sun lingers low and golden light filters into the space we occupy between the earth and the sky while Samantha puts some final words to paper before we make our way down to that little oasis around the Sauna. A single match ignites the carefully crafted pile of sticks whose size increases incrementally from a tiny kindling tee-pee deep in the center to the largest wooden trio around the exterior.
It is here in these two Adirondack chairs where Aubrin roasts her first marshmallow over a picture perfect fire in the forest. She lifts her stick up to reveal a flaming cylinder of charring marshmallow and we all giggle. If it hadn’t happened yet, this moment solidifies our time at Crystal Peak Lookout as a cherished lifelong memory.
The following morning we descend the 27 stairs one last time and I am reminded of another passage from that book I began reading on the first night. It spoke reminiscently about the job of being a fire lookout:
‘It was a great life, but like all things it too is coming to an end.” The author wrote ominously before following up with a bit of good news; ‘citizens throughout the states are rallying to protect some historic examples of the passing era of fixed station wildfire detection.’
We are incredible thankful that Kristie has stepped forward to be the next steward of this incredible piece of Americas fire detection history and even more thankful she has made the decision and invested the effort to open up Crystal Peak lookout for guests to, just for a few days, tap into the magical existence that only a select few had the chance to live.
Do yourself a favor and book a third night, we wish we had.