Destinations, Featured Places, Oregon, Photography, Where to Stay

Three Stories Up: A Lookout Tower Weekend in Central Oregon

April 5, 2014

A short time after Lucie was born last September, Ted called me from work and said, “Here are the dates for a four day weekend in February, I want you to have fun finding somewhere to go, just the three of us.”

Let me tell you, if there’s anything a house-bound postpartum traveler wants to hear, it’s “Cheer up, love! Let’s book our next adventure. Put a bit of fun on the horizon.”

– Photo collection & travel notes from our first vacation as a family of three –

lookout-tower-weekend-in-central-oregon

It felt so good signing in to one of my favorite day-dream corners of the internet (Airbnb), and getting the trip-planning gears turning again. I assembled a quick handful of picks for a vacation rental within driving distance from Portland (i.e. reasonable to reach with an infant in tow), and a favorite rose instantly to the top: as soon as my eyes landed on “Cozy Three Story Lookout Tower,” I was smitten. We messaged the host, locked in our dates, and returned to daily life with that wonderful little ace-up-the-sleeve: no matter the sleepless new-baby nights, the grad-school homework stacks, and the 9-5 grind (well, 7-3 in Ted’s case), a restful spot waited for us in the high desert of Central Oregon…


On the Way to Central Oregon

A few months later, on the morning of departure, Ted loaded the car, commenting on the difference between packing for two for a year and packing for two adults and a baby for one weekend: generally something like ten times the amount of stuff for the latter. (I dwelt on the inefficiencies of packing under time constraints.)

We drove south from Portland to my family’s farm, swapped our bursting-at-the-seams Corolla for a Toyota Pickup, and made our way out and over the Cascades by way of the Santiam Pass.

Lucie slept from Salem to Sisters, waking in time for the pit stop at Sisters Coffee Company where a hot drink and a bite to eat tided us all over until the small town of Terrebonne.




The Solar Lookout

After attempting a back-road route suggested by Google Maps (and doubling back at the polite request of a rancher rather accustomed to travelers blindly following computers onto his land), we eventually found our trail. On we drove, through the patchwork of farms and residential lots tucked among 10,000 acres of sagebrush and juniper in Crooked River Ranch country. The Lookout Tower emerged at last from between scrubby trees as our dusted out pickup rounded the bend on the red lava rock road.

We pulled in, parked, and headed up, up, up.



Unpacked. Drank wine. Read books by the late afternoon sun. Took naps.


Of course we forgot the pack-n-play after all that pack-n-driving, but a pile of wool blankets for a mattress and Lucie’s favorite blankie did the trick, and since she hadn’t yet started rolling or scooting, she was safe and happy lounging around in her own little way.


I made dinner and – the ultimate sacrifice – tapioca* for my true love. We stood in the cold night air and listened to coyotes from the third story deck. Drank hot tea. Curled up. Called it a night.

(*Tapioca: aka manioc-root-gone-wrong; give me Brazilian farofa any day…)


An Exploration

With the effort of packing, driving, unpacking, and settling with a baby, we saved our outside explorations for the second day. A foggy silence surrounded the tower that next morning while inside Lucie characteristically chirped, “Up and at ’em!” with the same energy as the local jackrabbits.


The only thing to do? Bundle her up in her sock monkey hat from great-aunt Sandi, the tiniest, cutest little Patagonia puffer jacket known to man (thanks to the treasure trove of second hand clothing stores in Portland), and head down the stairs and out the door past the scraggly trees, mossy rocks, and minor mud pits leading toward a scrappy little bench and the bluff overlooking the Deschutes River.




We didn’t stay out long.

Partly because the fog blocked most of the view, partly because the baby’s nose was turning pink, and partly because we could hear the siren song of cocoa calling from back at the lookout.



Craftsmanship, Rest, and Features of the Lookout

At several points over the long weekend, hot drink in hand, I enjoyed paging through the tattered copy of Glenda Kaser Alm’s book, View from the Solar Lookout. I believe it’s self-published (I couldn’t find it in print online); I’d pay money to own it but was glad for the chance to read the paperback living in the tower library.

How rich to enjoy the original owner/builder’s dreams and descriptions of conception through construction while spending time within the completed project.

(The designer in me squeals over beautiful projects brought faithfully to fruition!)

Sitting on the high catwalk deck of the Solar Lookout, watching the magenta sun sink behind silhouetted Cascade Mountain peaks, I have to pinch myself to be sure that this is real. The side for this three-story, 20 ft. by 20 ft. home modeled after the 1930’s fire lookout towers was planted over 50 years ago when I was a little girl. It has simmered somewhere deep within me ever since. I have spent the last decade refining that dream, scheming and vividly imaging the details of this very structure. Powered by its own solar panels, built primarily out of recycled materials, it is often called a mentor to energy efficiency and a testimonial to simpler living.

I spent three years living in a little 22 ft. travel trailer with no running water, electricity or heat (except a propane oven) in the high desert of Central Oregon. But I was living on the land on which my future “home” would be built; they were three great and fulfilling years. I learned how much I love simple living. I often had friends over for a nourishing one-dish meal with candles, wine, sunset, and stars. During all seasons, I roamed the five acres, climbed junipers for views, felt the wind patterns, charted the sun’s angles, listened to the river’s undulating flow 300 yards to the west and the call of the coyotes, owls, eagles and dozens of other songbirds and raptors. And allowed the dream seed, the structural image, to grow…
As the dreamer and general contractor, I share in this writing my story, but it will perhaps nudge, trigger, strengthen your dreams about a place to call HOME.
-View from the Solar Lookout, November 2002 Prologue




“Every dreamer has a different dream. There is no right and wrong. Perhaps, reveries bring images of a cabin in the woods or by the sea or lake, a prestigious house in a gated community, a little trailer by a wildlife preserve, and RV with wheels to take you on carefree explorations, a small cottage with window boxes and a garden, a sailboat with teak and adventure, a loft in a vibrant city, or a myriad of other images in town or in the country or somewhere in between. What makes it right is if it’s your image, your dream, and you’ve given thought to how you want to live. Whatever style or size or location, if it reflects your values and interests and if it has real meaning for you, it stands a good chance of becoming HOME.”
-View from the Solar Lookout

As a visiting guest, I’m so grateful that Glena Kaser Alm built her spot on this spread of land in Central Oregon. A beautiful place to daydream, to unwind, to take in snow and sun and good company…

The inscription inside the front cover of Glenda’s book (dated on Ted’s and my wedding day: July 1, 2006) gave a few clues about how the lookout came to be a vacation rental property: the current owners, Patti and Lonnie, visited as guests, and when they remarked that they’d buy if she ever sold, the spark took. The tower changed hands, Glenda carried on in a new chapter of energy-efficient design and living, and Patti and Lonni began sharing the Lookout on Airbnb in 2013.


My Fascination with Lookout Tower Rentals

I was in college ten years ago when I first learned from my aunt that US Forest Service fire lookout towers are available for rent in the off season. How fantastic the idea sounded to me: drive, hike, ski, snowshoe in (depending on location and time of year), march with your gear and food up several flights of stairs, and enjoy a spectacular perch on the top of the world.

Since then, staying at a lookout tower has been high on my adventure wish-list, but logistics never quite lined up.

A few of my backpacking girlfriends entertained the idea with me when we were in our early twenties, but the towers book up super far in advance, and it seemed nearly impossible to coordinate our cattywampus young-professional schedules. After Ted and I got married, he repeatedly laughed at the idea (before he blew me away and trekked through Patagonia by my side!).

I’ve come to accept the fact that after surviving my notions of wilderness fun, Ted’s roughing-it days are legitimately limited for a while. Rather than backpacking, setting up tents, and cooking over a propane camp stove, we’re a bit more geared toward driving to our destination, unpacking a large cooler full of all sorts of food, and preparing meals in a comfortable kitchen.

I hate the word “glamping,” but…if the shoe fits…

[See also: Spending time in Patagonia With an Indoorsy Spouse … Staying in a South African Tree House … and Camping in an Airstream Trailer in downtown Cape Town!]

Ask Ted: Why hike through rugged terrain to a creaky tower when you can head directly to the front door of a solid one? Especially one with a bosun’s chair and hatch doors allowing less agile guests to bypass the stairs entirely?

(Pst: There’s a reason you don’t see a tall refrigerator taking up space and blocking windows in that kitchen photo above: a re-purposed chest freezer doubles as counter top while taking care of cool storage. I kinda loved it.)

I won’t lie. As a new mom I’m easily convinced to trade notions of blistering backpacking ventures for the opportunity to prop my wool-clad feet on the coffee table. Everything in due season, right?

Besides, enjoying views of the rugged outdoors (and hubby cooking delicious feasts) from a warm and toasty living room is a pretty fantastic vacation in my book, no matter the season of life.


Putting my feet up (again) while Ted and (a slightly dazed?) Lucie lounge in PJs. (And Dolly crashes on the floor.)

Don’t worry. We balanced out the hermit-tendencies a little bit, too. When we weren’t sipping cocoa sock-footed three stories up, we enjoyed a few Central Oregon classics: visiting downtown Bend, taking in the scenery at Smith Rock, and (attempting) a hike at Steelhead Falls…


Downtown Bend, Oregon

Bend’s the hub of Central Oregon: the big city in the high desert, the spot where skiers and snowboarders, cyclists and climbers, locals and visitors come to do their shopping, eating, and unwinding.

It’s less than a 40 minute drive from the Lookout to the city center; short enough to be accessible and long enough for the nap we hoped Lucie would take…but didn’t.

First order of business: Highland Chai at Townshend’s Tea on Bond Street.


The Little Peach herself, looking a bit worse for wear after a 16 (yes, sixteen) minute morning nap.

We went for a little walk down memory lane in front of the Historic Firehall Building on NW Minnesota Street.


Image Source: Bend Fire History

You thought I was joking about memory lane? Ted’s and my engagement pictures, circa winter 2005, and a return 8+ years later, with the Little Peach:



Engagement Photos: Linden Photography

A walk through Drake Park along the Deschutes River

I must admit, we were aiming for a pint and a burger at 10 Barrel Brewing, but when there’s a two hour wait for lunch at 2:30pm, it’s a no go…

No matter, Lucie seemed pleased with the house special at Drake.

Before leaving town, we meandered down Tin Pan Alley, making a predictable pit stop at Lone Pine Coffee Roasters and casting a wistful look toward Tin Pan Theater.




Smith Rock

Admittedly, in this season of life we’re a little less nimble than adventure sports connoisseurs. We amble with baby in tow rather than race to finish lines or peaks of mountains, and when we visited Smith Rock we opted for a few photos at day’s end rather than climbing at dawn.


Smith Rock lives in family lore.

My mom has a tale from college about hiking all the way to the top in her flip-flops, coaxed by friends to come “just a little farther before we turn back.” A testament I suppose to how far you can go when you a) disregard appropriate footwear and b) have prodding friends.

When I visited in college for myself the first time and hiked the Misery Ridge Loop Hike with friends, I could see why my mom had been proud of the near-barefoot accomplishment.

These days, Travel Oregon’s putting Smith Rock in a lovely spot of limelight (see the video at the end of the post, too):


Image: TravelOregon.com

Smith Rock’s worth a stop, whether you’re just driving through on Hwy 97 or staying nearby for an extended retreat.




Steelhead Falls

The final adventure (attempt) just beyond the Lookout Tower was a hike along the Steelhead Falls trail with Lucie in the Ergo.

Ted and I both wore our same hiking boots from the 2012 trip. They’d seen us through the mountains of Patagonia, up the shores of the Mekong River, across the concrete jungle of Skopje…and seven minutes into the half mile hike they saw us back to the pickup at the trailhead, sans any memories of waterfall views.

Even with the sunshine warming the canyon, the leftover snow and ice from a recent storm rendered the otherwise not too terrible trail too precarious to navigate with 15lbs of baby.

What’s a good trip, though, without saving something fun for next time?


Friends at the Tower

One of the treats of traveling closer to home is the chance to share the fun with friends. Our sweet pals Sam, Amber, and Owen came out from Sisters, Oregon (where Sam teaches in a historic two-room-school house), and joined us for dinner on our final night, perfectly capping off our lovely retreat from day-to-day life in Portland. Amber and I sat exchanging stories up on the third floor while the dads took the little ones on a mini-hike to the canyon overlook. Ted cooked another feast, the fireplace flickered, and we watched the perfect sunset over the Cascade Mountains.



A Little Secret

Truthfully, the best moments of the long weekend came in the the sunrises, the sunsets, the quiet and the stillness experienced high above the world, through the windows and on the Lookout decks…







I’d say the Escape Plan worked.

Last fall we put that bit of fun on the horizon when we booked our first family vacation, and this winter-finally-turning-spring, we’re able to reflect on the scenes and the memories…and feel just a little more confident that we can manage this big life as a trio.

And let me tell you, if there’s anything a traveler-turned-mother-of-an-almost-seven-month-old wants to hear, it’s “Cheer up, love! Many more adventures are yet to come.”


How about you? Have you spent time in Central Oregon? Do you remember your first family vacation (as a kid, or as a parent with a new baby along)? Do you share my obsession with lookout towers??

Stay: The Solar Lookout
Lookout for What? For a start, see if you can spot the series of mountains all along the Cascade Range: Mount Hood, Olallie Butte, Mt. Jefferson, Three-fingered Jack, Mt. Washington, the tops of Belnap and Black Craters, North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor (and don’t forget to look for Black Butte in the foreground, just 18 miles to the west).
Watch Out:
For birds! Over 40 species of birds have been identified on the property, including Mountain bluebirds, quail, strawberry finch, goldfinch, Northern Flickers, chickadees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lazuli Buntings.
Roughin’ It:
If you’re still dreaming of the real-deal lookout towers, check ReserveAmerica.com and Forest Fire Lookout Association Rentals Page (and invite me along!).
Eat: Make your own gourmet meals in the lookout kitchen! Shop at Newport Avenue Market (Bend’s Whole Foods alternative) for a better selection of quality meats, cheeses, and the like. If you’re looking for lunch while downtown, check the great plate of mussels and fries at Drake.
Imbibe: The best chai tea at Townshend’s on Bond Street, locally roasted beans from Lone Pine Coffee Roasters, and pints of Apocalypse IPA from Ted’s favorite, 10 Barrel Brewing. On your way to/from the Willamette Valley, stop for small town drinks at Sister’s Coffee Company (a family favorite pit stop since the 12’x12′ cabin days).
Watch a Movie: Snag one of 28 seats at the Tin Pan Theater.
Drive: If you’re game for a mini-road trip, make a point to drive 40 minutes north from The Solar Lookout and take the red lava rock road to the top of the Round Butte overlook at Cove Palisades State Park. (Check the amazing views here here and here.)
Hike: Head just down the road from The Solar Lookout to the Steelhead Falls trailhead or ten minutes east to Smith Rock State Park for scenic views and world class climbing. (Try the Misery Ridge Loop Hike for yourself — just do yourself a favor and don’t wear flip flops.)

More Oregon Trip Tips: Visit TravelOregon.com and follow us for more favorites from the place we call home.
More on the Solar Lookout: check #thesolarlookout on Instagram, and see this 2006 article written by the original builder: A Lookout Above: A Cozy, Solar-Powered Home in Oregon.

“Where are today’s rock piles and swing alders for children (and adults)? Where are the carefree hours, the mindless time, to allow the heart and mind to wander to future possibilities, those Huck Finn lazy days? How have we let life become so involved and frantic that there is no time for daydreams?”
-View from the Solar Lookout

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15 Comments

  • Reply ursulamarie April 5, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    Your hubby is so sweet. The best is yet to come. Some of my favorite memories are from traveling with my parents as a kid — so I’m looking forward to many adventures with Marie in the coming years. Haven’t been to Central Oregon in several years but this inspires me to get back over there!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm

      You’re right! Some of my favorite memories are the same. We took a lot of road trips as a family – sleeping all over the beds and floor of the RV since there were so many of us ;) The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Yellowstone… It’s going to be great to go back now as our own family.

      I have good memories from another trip to Central Oregon – with you and Spencer and friends from the Onyx House :) Believe it or not, I still have a picture from that trip on my to-go coffee cup I use all the time. You and Danielle and Tara and I are all sitting in a row in the snow. Good times…

  • Reply bonniejoy April 5, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    What a magical place!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      It is! I can’t remember — have you guys been to Oregon at all?

  • Reply pdxrobbins April 6, 2014 at 11:34 am

    You make me homesick! I miss Sam and Amber too. Hope to see you soon.

    • Reply twoOregonians April 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      That’s right! You guys lived in Redmond, eh? You know the land of sagebrush and juniper like the back of your hand… Give the Denver crew our love. Miss you guys!

  • Reply Lesley Peterson April 9, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Love love LOVE this post! The photos made me feel as though I was right on the road trip with you. Did I read correctly that you did all this in four days? Lucie is a beauty and so, apparently, is Oregon.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians April 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Thanks so much, Lesley! And thanks for sharing the post over on Twitter :)

      You read it right – we left town on Friday and came back late in the day on Monday. I’m so thankful we decided to stay for Sunday night, too.

      I try hard not to take for granted how gorgeous and accessible Oregon is. We live in Portland and can easily experience city life, and then we can turn around and make it to the coast or the mountains or the desert in just a few hours’ time. So glad you felt like you were on the trip with us — I hope it gave you enough of a taste for our beautiful state to lure you out for an in-person visit. :)

  • Reply francaangloitalian April 11, 2014 at 4:01 am

    What a lovely road trip and the pictures are fantastic, I love your style :) I’ve never done any travelling with my parents when I was a kid and I wish so much I had, your child is so very lucky!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians April 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

      Franca, thank you! It’s a joy to me to be able to share my pictures and experiences, and I’m so glad you got a glimpse of Oregon by visiting the blog.

      I was just chatting the other day with a friend about how much fun I had traveling with my family as a kid, and it made me all the more excited to share those experiences of wonder and discovery and new sights and people with my own little ones over the coming years.

      Safe and beautiful travels to you and Dale!

  • Reply Antonette Spaan April 15, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Great to see that you are adventuring with your little one. I know so many people who give up travel altogether because they think they can’t do it anymore when they have kids … makes me scared.
    You really inspired me to go to Oregon even more. Somehow I’ve always been drawn to this part of the USA – and after reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed I have the urge to go. I met quite some ppl in the USA on last year’s roadtrip who told us we’d love it there … Happy traveling and will keep an eye out on your blog – thanks for visiting we12travel earlier on :-)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians April 22, 2014 at 8:43 pm

      Anonette, I’m very glad you dropped by for a little digital visit to Oregon! ;) It does sound like you’re really enjoy an in-person visit, too.

      I think growing up here I always knew it was wonderful, but especially after venturing out and seeing even more of the world, I’ve come home and fallen even more in love with this place. I now know how special of a spot Oregon truly is. Like anywhere, it has its faults and blemishes, but if you come with a curious heart and an appetite for nature’s beauty and delicious foods and new friendships, there’s so very much to be found.

      I think that there’s a reason I love the similarities of places like New Zealand and Patagonia and even parts of South Africa… Speaking of – I’ve enjoyed perusing your Patagonia posts! They make me want to go back in a heartbeat. I added your site to my Feedly reader – looking forward to following your stories.

      Thanks too for reading about our adventures and for the encouragements about traveling with a little one. I hope she’s bitten by the travel bug! Next week is her first airplane ride… We’ll see how it goes :)

  • Reply heather April 20, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Wow, bring me right back to my roots! I sometimes miss Central Oregon, and these pics really did it for me. I LOVE seeing you tote Luci around in the ergo- Ramona went on many a hike in that carrier all around Denver. Traveling is more challenging with kids, but no reason to just give up and stay home. Onward to more adventures!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians April 22, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks, friend! I’ve been so grateful to have the Ergo lately – and I think of you all the time when I wear it. (P.S. I’m so glad you picked the color green. I love it!) As for travel with kiddos, you’re an inspiration. If you could pack up and move across the country with a toddler and an infant, I can manage a jaunt to Central Oregon and back, right? ;) xx

  • Reply Seven Wonders of Oregon - twoOregonianstwoOregonians April 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm

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