A cabin in the woods
We were led astray, serendipitously, by a guidebook.
Last winter, looking for an easy day hike in the Columbia River Gorge, my husband and I settled on the Trapper Creek Wilderness, an hour away from Portland. One of our hiking books described the area as open year-round but noted that it “could get snow.”
And how. Heading north from Carson, Wash., the two-lane highway wound through snow that quickly grew from a light dusting to packed walls several feet high. At the trailhead — or what we assumed was the trailhead, based on the number of cars parked there — we got out, clambered up a 5-foot snowbank, and began our “hike.”
The trail had been packed down by cross-country skiers and snowshoers, but we had no gear and repeatedly sank knee-deep in the soft white fluff. Still, we were determined. The frosted woods were lovely, dark and deep, and peacefully silent despite our stumblings.
We’d been tramping for about 20 minutes when the trees on our left suddenly parted, revealing a little pale-green cottage. Dark green shutters decorated the windows and snow piled in gentle drifts around the house.
A creek in snowy woods.
“Do Hansel and Gretel live here?” I blurted, startled by the sight. A sign outside the cabin announced “Government Mineral Springs Guard Station Built 1937.” So, it was a Forest Service building — probably closed for the winter. We began trudging on, but stopped when the door opened and a woman came out.
“Are you a forest ranger?” I asked.
“Nope,” she replied, loading gear onto a sled. A few other people came outside, toting backpacks and bags. “We rented the cabin — you can rent it through the Forest Service — and we’ve just finished up a weekend here.”
She began hauling the sled back toward the parking lot, while we just stood and stared. You can rent these places? Well, whaddaya know.
Since the early 1990s, in fact, the Forest Service has rented cabins and fire lookouts around the country to the public. In Oregon and Washington, what started as a few dozen rentals has grown to more than 60. Rental rates vary, from as low as $25 a night to around $80; some locations sleep just a few people, others can handle several dozen.
What do you get for these bargain rates? The accommodations are admittedly rustic: The cushiest cabins have running water, electricity and propane heat, but some of the fire lookouts have just propane available. In exchange, however, you get solitude, often incredible views and a sense of your own private wilderness.
“They’re an unbelievably special recreation experience,” says Tish McFadden, an Ashland music teacher who spent 12 years with the Forest Service as a cultural resource manager. “The fire lookouts are like castles in the sky, and the cabins feel like the lap of luxury compared to camping. And the logbooks or journals are often just left there for guests to fill in; they’re fabulous reading, full of poetry and stories.”
In 1996, McFadden and a friend, Tom Foley, published a guidebook with the practical title of “How to Rent a Fire Lookout in the Pacific Northwest.” (The book was updated for a second edition in 2005.)
Like the Government Mineral Springs cabin, many of the Forest Service’s fire lookouts and guard stations were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. The lookouts are generally square boxes with windows on all sides, while the cabins range from small houses to spacious lodges. Not all have been converted to full-time rentals; some are still used in the summer months as old-fashioned fire lookouts.
A few summers ago, while hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail near Ashland, some friends and I came across the fire lookout perched atop Soda Mountain. We climbed the wooden staircase and were welcomed by the lookout’s summer staffer, a man in his 60s snacking on freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies.
We all squeezed inside the one-room lookout (as McFadden says, most lookouts are just 14 feet square) and turned slowly, taking in the 360-degree view of rolling green hills and blue sky. The staffer happily showed us how he sighted fires and plotted them on huge maps laid out on a table in the center of the room. Not a bad spot for a summertime gig, we agreed.
For a winter stay, my husband and I decided to rent the place we’d come across last year and spend a couple of days snug in the woods.
Since we’d been there before, we knew exactly where to go, and once we’d strapped on our snowshoes, we just had to haul ourselves and our supplies to the cabin: food, water, sleeping bags, pillows and clothes. (Yes, it was a lot, but if we’d been backpacking, we’d have needed cooking equipment and a tent as well.) The cabin, which accommodates nine, was far bigger than we needed, with two upstairs bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a dining room.
We lit the propane lamps lining the walls and started a fire in the wood stove. Dinner was a reheat job on the gas range in the kitchen, and the evening was spent in front of the fire, flipping through the notebooks, hiking maps and other ephemera left by previous visitors. (Our favorite literary oddity: Jeane Dixon’s “Do Cats Have ESP?”)
In the morning after breakfast we went snowshoeing, down campground access roads, over a creek and along a ridge. The only sounds were the rain dripping through the trees, the stream rushing nearby and our snowshoes crunching out fresh trails. The air was cold and clean-smelling, and we had it all to ourselves.
Renting the Government Mineral Springs cabin was easy, in that the Forest Service consolidated reservations for its recreation rentals onto a single national Web site a few years ago (see sidebar). The only difficulty? The cabin is quite popular because of its proximity to Portland and its ease of access. Weekends were long gone, so we booked for midweek instead.
“A lot of people continue to go to the same rental locations over and over,” says Jocelyn Biro, who oversees the recreation rental program for the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington.
A few years ago, Biro created and now maintains a Web site listing all the recreation rentals in Oregon and Washington by forest; the site includes basic info, photos, and seasonal availability.
“You get to live a piece of history,” Biro says. “It’s truly an experience you can’t duplicate anywhere else.”
Renting a Forest Service cabin or lookout
Pick a location: Flip through the book “How to Rent a Fire Lookout in the Pacific Northwest” or browse the Forest Service recreation rentals Web page for Oregon and Washington. Select a location and click on “check availability” to go to the national reservation Web site, or call the national reservation service at 877-444-6777.
Book ahead: You can book six months in advance, and for some popular locations, you’ll need to do exactly that. If you can book midweek or at a more remote location, your odds of getting what you want improve greatly.
Pack accordingly: In addition to the gear you’ll need for the season (such as a shovel for digging out your car in winter) and the rental location (you’re on your own for towels), be sure to bring flashlights, batteries, matches, soap, toilet paper, pocket knives and the like. Yes, the rentals are generally well stocked, but it’s a good idea to be on the safe side.
Call ahead: Where are you supposed to park your car? Which parking permits do you need? What are the access conditions at the rental right now? Call the local ranger station to find out last-minute info a day or so before your stay.