Sunday, July 21 – Tuesday, July 23, 2019
For the first part of our vacation this year Greg and I stayed at the McCart Lookout in the Bitterroot National Forest of Montana. I have now rented seven lookouts in Oregon, but this was the first one in another state. The biggest difference was the price, just $30/night (lookouts in Oregon are about twice that).
The weekend before our visit this area had some major thunderstorms that actually started some fires, all of which were fortunately extinguished. Check out these amazing photos taken from the Spot Mountain Lookout in Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness:
We drove all the way from Portland to the Spring Gulch Campground near Sula, MT on Saturday. Between all the generator racket from the RVs, and the highway noise, it was not a very quiet place.
Before heading up to our lookout on Sunday we drove 3.6 miles up a gravel road to visit the Sula Peak Lookout, which was built in 2001 to replace the previous lookout that burned in a 2000 wildfire. The design is unusual:
It has great 360-degree views, including a nice view into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness:
We met Debbie and her sweet dog Piper:
Because this lookout has a line running up to it and is fully wired for electricity, it has a fridge. Wow!
After bidding goodbye to Debbie we headed up Highway 472 towards our trailhead. The day was young s0 we decided to take a detour to visit the Teepee Lookout.
The lookout came out and chatted with us for a few minutes. He said that the flagpole snapped in last week’s storm:
This lookout also has a pretty nice view:
Loo with a view!
The small white dot in the center is McCart:
And there is Sula Peak way off in the distance:
After that we drove to the Johnson Peak Trailhead. You can see beyond the sign that the final 0.2mi of the road has been decommissioned so we would start our hike here:
My pack weighed 45 pounds and Greg’s weighed 35. There is no water up there and we didn’t want to have to hike back to the car to get some, so we each had our three liter drinking reservoirs filled up in our packs plus I had an additional two liters in my pack. We each carried an eight-pound jug of water:
We paused for a break next to the wilderness sign:
After a 1.3 mile hike from the car (it felt longer) we made it!
This lookout was built in 1939. The interior was in good shape, although we were disappointed to discover that the windows had no screens. That meant we could keep the windows closed against the bugs (resulting in a hot and stuffy cabin), or open the windows for a breeze and have lots of bugs:
The old phone is still here, from the pre-radio days when lookouts communicated via phone line strung through the forest:
There was a fire pit outside and firewood, but it never got cold enough to use it:
The views are pretty great. Looking south:
Looking northeast at an area burned in a 2017 fire:
This is the view to the west, taken the next day, with the Bitterroots in the distance:
And we could see Teepee Lookout where we had been a few hours earlier:
We were delighted by all the wildflowers growing in the meadow around the lookout, especially the thousands of paintbrush:
The beargrass around the lookout must have looked amazing back in June, but was all done blooming now:
Traditionally the logbooks in lookouts are some type of notebook, but this custom one had wooden covers with pages inserted inside:
The outhouse was cramped but serviceable:
We chilled out on the deck as evening approached:
We spotted a pretty yellow bird flying around. I looked at it through the binoculars and looked it up online and determined it was a western tanager. Beautiful! Greg got some good shots on his camera:
Watching the golden mantled ground squirrels was also entertaining. Another shot from Greg:
There is a camp stove and propane for cooking here, but we didn’t want to bother with the hassle of prepping ingredients and cooking from scratch, so we ate backpacking meals while we were up here:
Sunset was lovely:
With clear skies that night we got up half an hour before moonrise to see the stars. We were very far from civilization so there was no light pollution and it was quite a show:
Sunday’s clear weather gave way to clouds on Monday. It was still a beautiful morning, though. I loved that the lookout cast a shadow on the trees to the west:
Looking south into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, where we would be hiking today:
After breakfast we continued along the Johnson Peak Trail that we had hiked in on the day before. It continues deep into the wilderness:
This trail hasn’t seen maintenance in awhile, and there was quite a lot of blowdown:
We hiked through this big meadow full of buckwheat wildflowers:
We knew that in the meadow a side trail descended to a spring, so when we saw a cairn of rocks we followed a faint trail 0.2mi down the slope to a very small spring. We didn’t see flowing water, and the little pond looked stagnant:
It was a lush little spot with a few wildflowers:
Back on the main trail we left the the meadow and entered the trees:
There was a channel down the middle of the trail in places from last week’s thunderstorm:
This forest is incredibly dense and the fallen trees looked like matchsticks:
While most of the beargrass had peaked weeks ago, there were some left, including a nice big patch in the trees about 40 feet off the trail:
A nice patch of lupine:
Rocky Mountain Columbine:
We entered an old burn:
There’s Johnson Peak:
Sections of this trail are deeply eroded and hard to hike:
We reached the junction with the Swift Creek Trail, which was marked by a sign, but the trail itself was totally invisible:
We had considered the possibility of continuing another 3 miles up to Johnson Peak, but Greg wasn’t feeling well, plus the weather was starting to turn a bit stormy, so we made the junction our turnaround point and headed back:
About halfway back we got a peek at the lookout through the trees:
We sat on the deck for the rest of the afternoon (so glad we brought our backpacking chairs!), playing gin rummy and reading our books:
We heard distant thunder and watched a thunderstorm approach from the south:
The storm passed us by to the east:
At sunset a thunderstorm passed up the Bitterroots and it was great to watch. We saw a lot of lightning, although I didn’t capture any of it on camera (very hard to do):
We had some crazy strong wind that night, and I thought of all the dead trees in the forest, wondering how many would fall in the wind. In the morning it was sunny and calm again:
We packed up our gear and headed out. Bye, McCart! We had a great time!
Before driving to Idaho for the next part of our trip, we stopped at the Camp Sula store and got some ice cream. YUM.