It’s been a while since I’ve done some writing, mostly because my big adventure lately has been finishing up a condo remodel. I did the work myself and I’m super proud how it turned out, but I’m ready to get back outside and catch up on some stories!
Back in early April my dad came to town to celebrate his 70th birthday. Given his age-defying fitness, he might as well have been celebrating his 30th! My dad still hikes 20-30 miles every weekend and whenever we’re together, we never stop moving. He amazes me!
A peakbagger himself—he’s bagged more than 800 peaks in 18 years—he’s excited about my goal to visit all of Washington’s standing fire lookouts and wanted to join me for a few. The only problem? In early April most lookouts are still very much snowed in.
I spent a few days looking at snowpack reports and lookout locations and Spokane was the only area with lower elevation lookouts remaining on my list that likely weren’t under snow. I went to work mapping out routes and found us a nice little Airbnb cabin on Sacheen Lake, about 40 miles north of Spokane. Our 4-day Spokane Lookout getaway was planned!
The only other problem? A dire weather forecast predicted a record breaking atmospheric river of rain for pretty much the entire weekend. So far I’ve been either a really, really good planner or incredibly lucky because I had yet to visit a lookout with views and not actually see the views! I hoped my luck would continue.
Tamales and pie… and Palouse Falls
Despite passing near Palouse Falls at least a few times over the years, I had yet to stop. Ok, near is sort of an exaggeration as Palouse Falls isn’t really near anything, but we were close enough that my dad and I made it our first sightseeing detour on the way to Spokane.
Shortly after crossing the Gorge on I-90, we headed east on State Route 26 towards the falls and 15 miles later a sign caught our attention:
Tamales and fresh pies?? Uh, yes please!
In the middle of nowhere about 15 minutes east of Vantage and just west of Royal City is a fruit stand/restaurant named Judy’s. I have to admit that I’m a sucker for little roadside restaurants and this one might be the best I’ve ever been to!
The friendly owner sold us a dozen frozen tamales, a steaming hot apple pie right from the oven, and the biggest darn Honeycrisp apple I’d ever seen! The apple was free with our order. It might have been bigger than my head and the tastiest, juiciest apple I’d ever eaten.
Tamales and apple pie kept us fueled all weekend and were delicious! If you’re ever near Vantage, Judy’s is worth the 20 minute detour east on Highway 26, believe me! They also serve burgers and have homemade salsa that I can only imagine is as delicious as the rest of their food.
When we finally arrived at Palouse Falls we were pleasantly surprised to find only 3 cars in the parking lot, the benefit of a Thursday weekday visit! We spent an hour or so walking the loop trail around the top of the falls and magically dodging the atmospheric river of rain that was supposed to be drowning us.
The 198-foot Palouse Falls was designated in 2014 as Washington State’s official waterfall and lies on the Palouse River a few miles upstream of the confluence with the Snake River. The canyon surrounding the falls is 377 feet deep and part of the channeled scablands created by the great Missoula floods at the end of the last ice age. Spring is a perfect time to visit when the falls are running full from winter snow melt. If you haven’t been, it’s certainly worth the trip! The scenery is vast and incredible!
Palouse Falls requires a Discover Pass, has plenty of picnic tables for relaxing, and even a few campsites for a nice overnight stay. Grab snacks or water in Washtucna as there is nothing available at the park and exercise caution at the falls. Many have fallen to their death and even just a few weeks ago someone lost their life swimming near the falls. Please be safe!
Mount Spokane is not Spokane Mountain…
By the time my dad and I arrived at our Sacheen Lake getaway later that evening, the rain had finally caught us. We spent the night relaxing and looking up final beta for the lookouts we had planned to visit. It didn’t take long to realize I had made a huge mistake when checking snowpack readings.
Two lookouts on my list were in Mount Spokane State Park just northeast of Spokane: the Vista house on Mount Spokane’s summit and nearby Quartz Mountain.
Instead of looking at snowpack data for Mount Spokane, I had looked at Spokane Mountain, which was a completely different mountain 80 miles to the west and 2,000’ lower than Mount Spokane. It once had a lookout, but it burned down in 2015.
Mount Spokane had a ski hill and was buried under 90” of snow. Oops! So much for no snow.
I called the park to inquire about conditions and access to Quartz or the summit. It was indeed under deep snow, but since Mount Spokane’s nordic operations had wrapped up a week prior on April 1, trails were open to snowshoeing. Too bad I didn’t bring any since I own 3 pairs!
Despite all of my dad’s outdoor adventuring, he had yet to try snowshoeing! It was actually a running joke between my stepmom and me. She had been trying to coax him onto snowshoes for years and he flat out denied. My dad can be stubborn when it comes to new things.
Naturally, I concocted a little plan involving snowshoes while he shook his head at me. With a forecasted break in Friday’s weather, we had to take advantage! First, we would head for Lookout Point, a low lookout just west of Spokane actually not under snow, then rent snowshoes for an attempt at either Mount Spokane or Quartz. I was determined to get my dad on snowshoes!!
A lookout with a Hearse
The lookout at Lookout Point just west of Spokane is uniquely located behind a gated community called River Bluff Ranch. You either need to get lucky and follow someone in or simply walk the 2.5 miles to the lookout. We’re never against walking, so we parked outside the gate and had ourselves a nice little urban stroll through the community.
There are some beautiful homes with sweeping views over the Spokane Valley. I bet you could get a 5BD/4BA new construction home here for a fraction of what you could buy a shack for in Seattle! Near the top we reached some communication towers with big “No Trespassing” signs, so we swung wide around them, lookout in sight, and were met with a rather creepy Hearse parked just below. It even had a shovel propped up against the tailgate!
Uhhhh, no thank you!!!
Definitely filed under “creepy things you find outside.” The Hearse unnerved me enough that I told my dad we’d be stealthy, take quick photos, and get the hell out of there! Was someone in that thing!?
We’d find out later in the weekend that a landowner just beyond the lookout isn’t afraid to bully people with his laser scoped rifle. I’m really glad that we didn’t know that little nugget of info at the time!
The lookout is protected by high fencing, so there’s no climbing this one for views and whatever views there might have been are likely obscured by trees. A good one to visit for a cloudy day.
Aside from the creepy Hearse, we didn’t have any trouble or sighting of the neighboring landowner. A successful visit to lookout #39!
Mount Spokane State Park and Quartz Mountain
After a quick stop at REI to pick up snowshoes, we drove about an hour northeast to Mount Spokane State Park, Washington State’s largest state park. It boasts 100 miles of trails, almost all of which are open for foot, bike, and equestrian use. In winter, the park is home to a spectacular nordic ski trail system.
On the drive up the weather had cleared into beautiful blue skies, though by the time we reached the Selkirk Lodge near the top of the mountain we were enveloped in a thick fog with zero visibility. Bummer! Our primary goal was visiting the Vista House on the summit, but with the route going cross country very near an operational ski hill, it wasn’t a smart choice in poor visibility. Falling off the mountain or getting hit by skiers wasn’t a great way to introduce my dad to snowshoeing.
Since Quartz Mountain Lookout was reachable by nordic trails, we decided it would be a safer option in bad visibility and hoped for clearing conditions. Proof that you’re never too old to learn new tricks, I unbelievably coaxed my dad into snowshoes and off we went!
During nordic season snowshoeing wouldn’t be permitted, but with grooming operations complete, we hit a sweet spot of being able to do a winter ascent without skis, though as a nordic skier, I would have loved to ski up!
We passed exactly zero other people all day and as we approached the final climb to Quartz, the sun started to break through the fog. Once on top we couldn’t believe the views combined with the dramatic fog, clearing skies, and gorgeous snow. How lucky could we be!? Turns out my streak of fantastic lookout views was still alive!
It was really special to be able to visit Quartz in the winter and get my dad out for his first snowshoeing experience! Lookout #40 was a memorable one. I could have sat on the summit all day watching the clouds and the views disappear and reappear. Those kind of mountain days are priceless, especially when shared with your 70-year-old dad!
All around it was about a 5 mile trek, making 10 for us on the day. As a long-time nordic skier, I’m really excited to come back and check out the Mount Spokane nordic trails next winter. It seems like a fantastic winter destination.
With Saturday forecast as a monsoonal day, we took a lookout break and decided to do some local sightseeing, including the Fire Lookout Museum operated by Spokane resident Ray Kresek.
For fire lookout enthusiasts, Ray Kresek is a sort of celebrity. A retired DNR fire warden and Spokane Fire Department firefighter, he authored the famous book Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, the most complete guide to lookouts in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Out of print for several years, it will cost you $80+ to get your hands on. He’s led efforts to preserve the Salmo-Priest Wilderness and won a Smokey Bear award for his service and excellence in wildland fire prevention.
Ray maintains a fire lookout museum in his backyard in Spokane that is available for public visitation. I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet him, so I called Saturday morning to inquire about a visit. At the time it was dumping rain and he joked with me over the phone “Oh, you’re from Western Washington. Just wait a bit perhaps until the rain lets up, it’s a mud pit out there! Then come on by”.
In the meantime, my dad and I hit a local road-side restaurant called Grub & More in Elk, WA for a delicious breakfast before heading to Riverside State Park in Spokane for a small hike. We never take a day off, even in bad weather! Riverside State Park covers 12,000 acres of land along the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers and has plenty of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and even climbing. The 37-mile Spokane River Centennial Trail begins near here, continuing to the Idaho border.
We visited the Bowl and Pitcher area of the park that features a suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Trails meander along the river with great views of the rapids and surrounding basalt formations. With numerous little spur trails that invite you to go exploring, it’s pretty easy to spend a few hours here!
Hungry for a good post-hike lunch and beer, we stopped at the Onion in downtown Spokane for lunch and weren’t disappointed. They had an impressive list of 51 beers on tap, the service was excellent, and the food tasty. My picky dad gave their burgers a big thumbs up.
Before heading to Ray’s lookout museum, we made a quick sightseeing stop at Spokane Falls, one of the largest urban waterfalls in the nation. Construction in Riverfront Park makes walking around difficult at the moment, but it’s worth exploring as there are both an upper and lower falls. During summer a gondola operates over the top of the falls for a unique perspective!
The Fire Lookout Museum
As we drove to Ray Kresek’s home north of Spokane late that afternoon, we rather expected it to be out in the country, but instead, we were surprised to pull into a completely residential neighborhood. Could there really be a fire lookout museum here? Once in the driveway, there was no mistaking the lookout in the backyard! We were at the right place.
Ray was a welcoming and gracious host, inviting us into his home to sign his guestbook and starting the tour by showing us some classic Forest Service china and MRE meal kits, complete with cigarettes! He talked about some of his experiences at lookouts as well as restoration efforts underway. I chatted with him about some of the lookouts I had already visited and showed him a picture of the strange Hearse at Lookout Point we had visited the day prior. He then told us a story about the rifle-toting landowner nearby. I’m glad we didn’t have that little bit of important info at the time!
Ray’s backyard has a beautiful stream and every conifer tree species found in the Inland Northwest. It’s a gorgeous, meticulous backdrop for an L-6 lookout built from the remains of several former lookouts and a replica crow’s nest lookout.
A Civilian Conservation Corp warehouse/garage built in 1936 houses a staggering collection of fire lookout and fire fighting memorabilia including a 1953 Chevy 3/4 ton pumper truck. If you’re a history geek and love radios, fire finders, and vintage fire fighting tools, you’ll go crazy trying to see everything in Ray’s collection!
If that’s not enough, he has a whole room inside his house dedicated to Smokey the Bear memorabilia and another to lookout photos and vintage photographic equipment. For lookout and history lovers, visiting Ray is a must and you should plan to spend several hours at his house. He has so many stories that you could chat with him for days and still not scratch the surface!
It’s incredible the time and effort he’s put into curating all this historical information and artifacts that would have been lost and his service to wildland firefighting is second to none. It was a real honor to spend an hour or two with Ray and share some of his stories! I hope I can stop by for a return visit.
Sunday morning my dad and I packed our things to hit the road back to Seattle. Along the way we had two lookouts earmarked to visit: Wellpinit and Tower Mountain on the Spokane Reservation. Neither are close to anything unless you’re driving a very non-direct way west from Spokane!
With all the recent rain as well as lingering snow, we had no idea what to expect with road conditions. Or weather. As we turned up one of the tribal roads to head towards Willpinit, it started dumping rain. Not the best.
We hit some mud bogs in the road and I shifted the Jeep into 4-wheel drive. Instead of engaging, I heard a scraping, whirring, metallic sound that well, wasn’t good. “Shit” I told my dad. I tried it again a few times and every time, the 4WD sounded terrible and wasn’t engaging. What the heck was going on? I powered through a few of the muddy areas in 2WD, a little nervous, but the road was in good condition until deep snow stopped us about a mile from the lookout.
I suddenly realized I wasn’t sure if I was making my dad proud or terrified. Yep, this is what I do. I go out, in my Jeep, on backcountry roads, in questionable road conditions, and drive to lookouts. Or I drive somewhere on a backcountry road to hike to a lookout. In the middle of nowhere. Sometimes with Jake dog. But most of the time solo.
“This is what I do for fun dad!” I smiled. I’d like to think he was more proud than scared. After all, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree here!
We hiked an easy road mile up to Wellpinit, clad in rain gear. About 10 minutes later and short of the lookout, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. I couldn’t believe our luck again! We even had peek-a-boo views in all directions.
I took a deep breath and climbed up the 53’ lookout robotically. I’m sure anyone watching me would laugh at my deliberate steps. It’s ironic really, a person like me with an absolute fear of ladders climbing lookouts! But I also love them and feel strangely compelled to do it. I’m a weird person. Don’t ask me how in the world I’m going to survive Three Fingers!
I made it just below the locked catwalk and despite strong winds, persevered to snap a number of photos. Lookout #41!
Sadly, with the Jeep emitting horrible 4WD sounds, we decided it best to forego a visit to Tower Mountain and instead head back to Seattle. Since we left early, we made a nice long stop at one of my favorite places, Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park. My dad and I did some hiking (surprise!) and enjoyed all the gorgeous sunshine before returning to rainy Western Washington.
3 lookouts for the weekend was a great win but sadly I left two big orphans: the Mount Spokane Vista House and Tower Mountain, so it’s for certain another Spokane trip is in my very near future.
As far as the Jeep, a trip to the shop confirmed my 4WD woes were the result of a failing front differential. It’s good we didn’t do extra mileage! I guess the lookout and backcountry excursions finally took their toll. She is, after all, 20 years old with 250k miles! She’s now been fully serviced and is ready for more adventure!
I’m always happy to spend time in eastern Washington, discovering new backcountry roads and little towns to visit. The scenery is gorgeous and the landscape is BIG and when the time can be spent with my dad, that’s an even better bonus!
I certainly came away from this trip with a new appreciation for Spokane. I’d visited a few times, mostly because I had a former boyfriend with family there. This time I saw how beautiful the area is and how many amazing outdoor places there are to visit. Definitely put Spokane on your road trip list because there’s a lot to keep you busy and some incredible parks to explore in the area. Just stay away from the lookouts near gun-toting landowners!
Interested in more fire lookout details or following along on my journey to visit them all? Check out my fire lookout page!