Written by | Derek Carlson

Ultimate Guide to Hiking and Staying at Fivemile Butte Fire Lookout

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Back in April, we were lucky enough to score a last-minute WEEKEND reservation to one of the most popular fire lookouts in the Pacific Northwest: Fivemile Butte Fire Lookout. The timing meant we would be hiking up in the snow but it was worth it for the chance to finally stay at one of these amazing lookouts.

Fire lookouts around the Pacific Northwest have become some of the most highly sought-after reservations in the outdoors space. These lookouts are reservable 6 months in advance those dates are grabbed within seconds of them becoming available.

This is despite many of the lookouts being rustic, remote, and often requiring a long trek through the snow or driving down backcountry forest service roads to access them.

Once you have stayed at a fire lookout their allure is undeniable. You have views for miles and quickly settle into a simple life of relaxing, cooking, reading, and lookout out over the landscapes just as the employees of these lookouts did for decades.

Fivemile Butte Lookout At Night

All About Fivemile Butte Lookout

Quick Facts:
-Sleeps 2 (4 if you bring camping pads or cots)
-Available to rent year-round
-$85 per night
-includes a wood stove, propane cookstove, and oven
-has a sink but no running water
-fully stocked with firewood

Fivemile Butte Lookout is located in the Mt. Hood National Forest just east of Mt. Hood.

The current lookout is actually the 3rd lookout that has been constructed at this spot as the other two succumbed to snow and storms over the years. The current iteration stands 40 feet tall and was built in 1957. Despite its age, the lookout is in incredible shape!

There were once 100s of lookouts that dotted the hills in this area but the numbers have dwindled as the Forest Service no longer relies as heavily on fire lookout staff to monitor the surrounding terrain for wildfires.

Fivemile Butte Lookout through the trees

While some of these remaining lookouts are still used by forest service staff in the summer months Fivemile Butte has been converted to use as a rental full time. This means you can reserve the lookout any day of the year…provided you’re willing to snowshoe or ski in during the winter and spring months!

Our Winter Trip to the Lookout

I won’t lie and tell you that I’m the most on top of things when it comes to making reservations months in advance. And that is absolutely what is required to score a reservation at one of these fire lookouts. Reservations are available 6 months in advance at 7 am PT, SHARP!

Fivemile Butte is one of the most in-demand fire lookouts anywhere and there is usually competition each morning to grab a coveted spot as soon as it goes live. So grab some coffee and warm up those clicking fingers if you want to stay here 6 months from now.

inside of fivemile butte lookout at sunset

Grabbing a Reservation

With that said there is another way and that is grabbing a cancellation. While there are apps that monitor sites for cancellations I just go about it the old-fashioned way. By checking Recreation.gov a few times here and there and hoping one comes up.

That was exactly how I lucked into our spot. Note that you’ll probably see a lot more cancellations during the winter months as the travel requirement is a lot more onerous than during the summer when you can simply drive up to the lookout.

Reserving a fire lookout on recreation.gov

This was the second lookout I had booked during the winter/spring of 2023. The first was a Warner Mountain Lookout which was canceled by the Forest Service as the group before us had to be rescued due to storms and deep snow.

That should tell you everything you need to know about whether there is real risk involved in traveling to these lookouts during the winter months!

Anyway, somehow I just happened to look at the site at the right time for Fivemile Butte and was able to hop on a Saturday (!!!!) cancellation. It was only for one night but that was perfect for us as I was bringing my son and he is currently in Kindergarten and hates to miss school.

So this is kind of crazy but as I was working on writing up this post I went to Recreation.gov to take a screen shot of their reservation page and Fivemile Butte just happened to be available for an upcoming Wednesday - Friday in June. I had looked at it earlier today and it was all booked up so this cancellation must have just come through. So anyways, we now have more weekend plans and look forward to adding some updated info for staying at the lookout in the summer. You can always find up-to-date photos from our adventures on our Instagram page.

Driving to the Sno-park

Despite having a reservation for April there was still A LOT of snow on the ground at the lookout. This meant planning for winter travel from Billy Bob Sno-park up to the lookout.

Driving to the sno-park takes around 2 1/2 hours from Bend and we budgeted another couple of hours for the 3-mile hike from the sno-park to the lookout. This meant we were on the road early as there was some nasty-looking weather moving in later in the afternoon that we really wanted to avoid.

note from the future – we avoided it and it was pretty nasty!

The drive from Bend was uneventful as it follows a pretty remote stretch of road and the road leading up to the snowpark had a lot of snow alongside but the road itself was totally clear.

We ended up being the only car at the snowpark when we started hiking and the only car we saw on our return trip was that of the next person staying at the lookout.

Snowshoeing up to Fivemile Butte

The snowshoe route up to the lookout follows the roads so, while you’re walking or skiing on snow, there isn’t anything technical about the climb. Overall you ascend a little over 700 ft over the length of the 3-mile snowshoe so it isn’t nothing, especially if you’ll be working with fresh snow on the trail.

Our trip was late enough in the season that the snow had been very well compacted by the snowmobilers that use these roads. We were able to forgo the snowshoes entirely and just walk on the snow.

My 6-year-old handled it like a champ and made it all the way to the top on his own. Even though I did have to carry his pack in the sled for portions of the walk.

A lot of snack breaks definitely help keep spirits high when doing a hike like this!

Arriving at the Lookout

As we arrived at the lookout the forecasted weather had just started to arrive with some gusty winds. We quickly climbed up the staircases (totally doable for a 6-year-old wearing a pack. They are steep but nothing all that treacherous as long as you go slow and pay attention

Because it had been a sunny morning the inside of the lookout was actually pleasantly warm despite the near-freezing temperatures outside.

sunrise and coffee at fivemile butte lookout
A few of Mt Hood from our latest summer visit to the lookout

The group before us had left us an excellent stock of firewood and kindling so we quickly (after a quick panic that I had forgotten the matches and couldn’t find any in the lookout) made a fire and warmed the lookout to a pleasant temperature.

The wood stove in the lookout is comically oversized for a room of that size so it doesn’t take much to bring the temperature up to an uncomfortably warm level.

It was snowing and blowing 35mph outside the lookout but we still had the door opened to keep from sweating inside for half the evening!

Related Post | Hiking Tumalo Falls

Items Stocked at Fivemile Butte Lookout

One of the big questions I had before setting out on this trip was what exactly was stocked at the lookout.

There are some general answers out there and I know the Forest Service doesn’t want to create an extensive list as some of these items may appear and disappear as the months and years go by but here’s what was stocked at the lookout for our visit in April 2023.

Inside of Fivemile Butte
  • cast iron pan
  • nonstick pans
  • small and medium pots
  • tea kettle
  • large snow melt pot (had a small hole in the bottom)
  • plates/bowls/cups
  • silverware
  • knives
  • spatula
  • books
  • games
  • pencils/pens
  • notepads
  • dish soap

I was very surprised by how well-stocked it was and, while I don’t regret bringing as much stuff as I did in my pack, I certainly could have gotten away with bringing a lot less.

In addition to these small items, the lookout has a table with four chairs, a double bed, a propane oven/stove, a wood stove, two side tables with drawers, and a center table. Outside there is a fire pit, picnic table, firewood shed, and outhouse.

There is a single light bulb in the lookout that is run off of a solar panel. It put off more than enough light for us so there is no need to bring any additional light sources other than a headlamp for using the restroom at night.

The woodshed was well stocked with wood on our visit and had two brand new axes for splitting firewood. There is a metal bucket on a pulley on the side of the lookout for hauling up wood.

Our Overnight Stay at the Lookout

Once we had everything set up we quickly settled into a relaxing afternoon at the lookout. I always find it to be amazing how quickly we can settle into a routine when plucked out of our normal life and put into a simpler place.

My son spent hours on the bed looking through the book about fire lookouts that is kept there. I’m not sure he’d ever willingly spend that long looking through a book at home. It helped that by this point it was blowing and snowing very hard outside so going out to play wasn’t much of an option.

sunset from the porch at the fire lookout
We were treated to a stunning sunset from the lookout

I cycled through getting snow to melt, chopping firewood, prepping our food for dinner, and reading through the fire lookout book as well.

Later I threw a couple of foil-wrapped sweet potatoes into the woodstove to cook for dinner and later cooked up a steak in the cast iron pan on the stove.

Overnight the storm kept blowing which made sleeping a bit of a struggle. The windows in the lookout tend to rattle and the whole structure will sway in the wind. It is totally solid though so there are no worries of something catastrophic happening!

We let the fire die out overnight and it surprisingly didn’t get too cold inside despite the sub-freezing temperatures outside.

In the morning we woke up to beautiful weather!

After a quick oatmeal breakfast, we packed up our gear, cleaned the lookout, and hiked the 3 miles back to the car. This return trip was all downhill and the snow was well-frozen so it was a very fast trip back.

Sleeping Setup in the Lookout

The Fivemile Butte Lookout has one double bed that can easily sleep two people.

During our recent summer trip, we also brought a double camping pad and that fits perfectly next to the bed so sleeping four people should be no problem.

You could also fit two single pads or cots on either side of the bookcase in the center of the cabin. Unfortunately, this bookcase is attached to the floor so you have to work around it a bit to make everything fit.

Getting to Fivemile Butte Lookout

Getting to Fivemile Butte is a much different experience depending on whether you are visiting during the summer/fall versus winter/spring.

Driving to the Lookout in Summer

During the summer months, you can drive all the way up to the base of the lookout. This makes shuttling gear an easy task and longer stays a breeze.

If you’re coming from the Mt. Hood side do not follow Google Maps as it will take you down a road that turns into a trail that is definitely not drivable.

The easiest route is to drive until you see Billy Bob Sno-Park and turn down Rail Hollow Rd. Follow that for about a mile before turning left at the sign for the lookout. This road is single-lane and fairly rough but it should be doable in a 2wd car.

There is a route from the other direction but it was a lot rougher and would make me nervous in a low-clearance vehicle.

The forest service website has up-to-date driving directions that should always be referenced before heading out as road closures can and do happen. Generally, the drive is easy and takes approximately 2 hours from Portland or 2 1/2 hours from Bend.

Snowshoeing or Skiing to the Butte in Winter

During the winter months, the road up to the lookout remains unplowed so your only option up is to park at nearby Billy Bob snowpark and hike, snowshoe, ski, or snowmachine (snowmobile for you non-Alaskans) up to the lookout.

Luckily the trail is only a couple of miles and follows the road so it is a pretty easy trek so long as you don’t run into any severe weather.

One vital piece of information to know is the road leading up to the sno-park is only open from the east side near Dufur, Oregon. This means if you’re coming from Portland it will require a bit of a detour rather than simply driving around Mt. Hood.

The snow-covered road up to the lookout is well-marked so navigation should not be an issue. I’d still recommend bringing a device for backcountry navigation just in case. I use the Gaia app on my phone and download the map area before starting out on the hike. There is some cell reception so keeping track of your location on the app should be no problem.

Packing List for Camping at a Fire Lookout

Now that we have made both a winter and summer trip to the lookout here is a list of what I would pack for each season on a trip up to a fire lookout.

Summer Fire Lookout Packing List

  • Sleeping bag
  • Pillow
  • Sheet (double or larger)
  • Camping pad if there are more than 2 people in the cabin
  • Water (enough for drinking, cooking, handwashing, and dishwashing)
  • Matches/lighter
  • Firestarter
  • Food/salt & pepper/oil/coffee/etc
  • Paper towels
  • Garbage bags
  • Headlamp (there is a light in the lookout but this is handy for late-night bathroom trips)
  • Knife or multitool
  • Cell phone (there is decent cell service at the lookout)
  • Toiletries
  • Dish soap and sponge
  • First aid kit

The lookout is well stocked with mugs, plates, pots, pans, and cooking utensils so bringing cooking supplies isn’t necessary. I brought a basic cooking set and my Jetboil as a backup but didn’t use them.

Winter Fire Lookout Packing List

  • Backpacking pack or sled with tie-downs for hauling gear
  • Sleeping bag
  • Camping pillow
  • Water (snow can be melted at the cabin)
  • Matches/lighter
  • Firestarter
  • Food/salt & pepper/oil/coffee/etc
  • Garbage bags
  • Headlamp (there is a light in the lookout but this is handy for late-night bathroom trips)
  • Knife or multitool
  • Cell phone (there is decent cell service at the lookout)
  • Toiletries
  • Dish soap and sponge
  • Sled
  • Snowshoes or skis
  • Emergency shelter
  • Backpacking cooking supplies (Jetboil, backpacking stove & pot, etc – this isn’t necessary but in the winter I like to have a backup in case something doesn’t work at the lookout)
  • Camp slippers

In the winter you’ll be 3 miles from the car so if you forget something or something doesn’t work at the cabin then you’re out of luck.

You’re often relying on the last person who stayed at the cabin to leave it in workable shape and this is not always the case so be prepared in case of extreme weather or other emergencies!

Final Thoughts on Staying at the Fivemile Butte Lookout

These lookouts are insanely popular and their future lies in our hands. Over the years the number of rentable lookouts is slowly declining as the Forest Service takes more and more out of service due to maintenance and vandalism that occurs way too frequently.

Do your part in taking care of these treasures so they can be enjoyed for years to come. Clean up after yourself, close the doors and windows when you leave, don’t burn excess firewood outside the lookout, and leave the lookout better than you found it.

Thanks for reading! Take a look at our latest posts here and follow us on Instagram (@RoamtheNorthwest) to follow along with our next adventures!