IN SIX YEARS of Colorado living I strolled around a lot of mountain towns that, during a snowfall, were quaint enough to impart the feeling of being inside a snow globe. But frankly, none of them compare to what my wife, Elizabeth, and I are experiencing on this April day. With a blizzard swirling around us, we’re cross-country skiing to a secluded wilderness retreat in the Mt Hood National Forest. This is no ordinary inn, though. The room that awaits us sits 40 feet in the air and commands a 360-degree panorama of snow-covered treetops, high-country lakes, and rugged Cascade peaks.
The sweeping vistas come courtesy of a US Forest Service fire lookout called Clear Lake Lookout. Located near the Skyline Sno-Park, about 12 miles south of Government Camp, the tower sits on the crown of Clear Lake Butte, a gently rising 4,454-foot fir-specked hill on Hood’s southern flank.
One of three such watchtowers on Mount Hood, Clear Lake (along with Flag Point Lookout 20 miles to the northeast) is still used by the Barlow Ranger District each summer to spot wildfires. From November to May, however, when the mountain is buried in snow, the cabin is rented out to the public.
Given Clear Lake’s active-duty status and the fact that it’s a relatively short 3-mile ski to the tower (versus an 11-mile slog to Flag Point), it seemed ideal for an adventurous winter escape. A one-night stay might cost my wife and me only $30, but we’re paying in legwork: The trail to the tower climbs 900 feet.
The lookout sits atop the hill like a treehouse begging to be climbed.
Intermittent deluges of heavy late-season snow also make for slow going. Our packs, loaded with down sleeping bags and two days’ worth of food, aren’t helping either. Two miles in, we encounter three snowshoers returning from the tower. It’s a welcome chance to catch our breath and hear what’s in store for us.
“The views are amazing,” one says while noting that the tower is a prime spot for scoping Hood’s craggy summit.
An hour later, with my ski tips at the base of Clear Lake Butte, I understand their excitement. “There it is!” Elizabeth shouts. Just visible through a grove of firs, the lookout sits atop the hill like a giant tree house begging to be climbed. To our dismay, a mass of thick gray clouds also awaits. As we shuffle up toward the tower, fat snowflakes begin to fall—no picturesque sunset tonight.
Crunching up the tower’s four flights of frozen steps gives me the sensation of being in an arctic wind tunnel. Near the top I unlatch the heavy trapdoor, which leads to the wooden catwalk that rings the tower. As I heave it open, the wind growls and flecks my beard with ice. If it were sunny out, we’d certainly linger on the catwalk. But here, high above the treetops, the horizontal snow blows directly into our eyes. We hurry inside and shut the door.
Each of the walls in the 14-foot-by-14-foot room is lined with at least six windows, hence the views. There’s a bed, a small table, several chairs, and a propane range. A wooden podium where the on-duty watchman would place an Osborne Firefinder (an oversize compasslike device used to determine the directional bearings of smoke plumes) anchors the center of the room. And the bathroom? It’s in an outhouse at the base of the tower.