North Cascades | Okanogan Range
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
Summit Elevation: 5,491′
Lookout Type: 14’x14′ L-4 with catwalk
Site Established: 1938
Current Structure Built: 1938
Date Visited: 10/6/17, 2021 (3x)
First Butte had always been one picturesque summit, especially with its beautiful old groundhouse. Sadly, the Cub Creek 2 fire in July 2021 severely burned much of the summit. The groundhouse was lost but somehow the lookout miraculously survived, as did the still gorgeous views of the surrounding North Cascades and Pasayten.
Photos are from 2017 and 2021 visits.
The First Butte lookout was built by the Forest Service in 1938 and staffed every season until 1997. In 1942, it was staffed year-round as a World War II Aircraft Warning System (AWS). After being used on an emergency-basis in 1998, it returned to use 5 days per week in 1999 and still remains active for emergency use. It was added to the National Historic Lookout Register in 2000.
Ray Kresek passed along that the ground house at First Butte was originally a garage/woodshed. In 1942 this building was converted to sleeping quarters for enemy aircraft spotters in the AWS mentioned above. Two people were assigned to each station on 12 hour shifts.
The Cub Creek 2 fire.
In the spring of 2021 I returned to First Butte with the retired Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu and members of the National Forest Foundation to inventory the condition of the lookout and aid in outreach and restoration efforts. I was disappointed to see how much the once photogenic ground house had deteriorated and the roof was in dire need of repair.
In July 2021, Filson, well known for their restoration work on Heybrook, stepped up to do much needed painting on First Butte and also helped do some emergency repairs to the ground house. They were just completing their work the day the Cub Creek 2 fire started on July 16, 2021.
The fire spread rapidly in high winds and burned over much of First Butte. Somehow the lookout miraculously survived with only a burned lower step. The ground house was very sadly, completely consumed. There are now only two other remaining in Washington: Red Mountain in the Gifford Pinchot and Big Hill in the Okanogan-Wenatchee.
You can drive right to the summit of First Butte, but road conditions likely require a high-clearance 4×4. You can always park lower and walk up. The lookout tower is locked unless staffed, but you can climb the stairs and enjoy the views of Silver Star, the Gardners, and the rest of the North Cascades from below the cab. There is plenty of room on the summit to explore.
I would highly recommend checking in with the local Ranger Station on the West Chewuch Road to inquire about road conditions. There are a few different routes to the summit and the Ranger Station is knowledgeable about recommending the best one. Below is the route I took, which requires a high clearance 4×4.
From Winthrop, head north on Bluff Street, which turns into County Road 9137 (East Chewuch Road). Continue 6.4 miles to a fork, then bear right onto Boulder Creek Road (Forest Road 37). Keep right at another fork in 1.3 miles, continue 6 miles, then turn left onto Forest Road 800. Follow this road 2 miles to a left turn with Forest Road 825 and continue the remaining 2.2 miles to the lookout.
Due to prior washouts, this road can be impossible in anything other than a high clearance 4×4. I had no trouble in my Jeep, but a regular passenger car likely won’t make it past the junction with Forest Road 800. There is a longer access route to the west side of First Butte that uses Forest Road 100 and may be a preferable alternative.