In the early days at the turn of the 20th Century, the U.S. Forest Service was primarily a security force, tasked with guarding our public lands from timber thieves and squatters. This role expanded to include fire suppression in the early 1900s, a move that we see today as ecologically disastrous, but at the time, responded to massive fires destroying living trees that were valued in board feet, not biology.
The most enduring legacy from this era was the construction of thousands of fire lookouts, hundreds of forest guard stations and a sprawling network connecting trails and primitive dirt roads.
Though the lookouts and guard stations are mostly gone, the trail network still survives as the backbone of today’s recreation trail system. A few trails still lead to surviving lookouts scattered across the country. This article describes one such survivor, the Flag Point Lookout, located at 5,636 feet on a rocky, flat-topped bluff two miles east of Lookout Mountain.
The Flag Point Lookout is unique in that it continues to serve as an active fire lookout during the summer. The view from the lookout surveys a broad sweep of the eastern slopes of Lookout Mountain, far into the Eastern Oregon sagebrush and ranchland, and south into the rugged Badger Creek Wilderness.
Since the establishment of the Badger Creek Wilderness in 1984, The Flag Point lookout and the long, rugged 1930s-era dirt road leading to it have been surrounded on three sides by federally protected wilderness (The same 1984 legislation left two other surviving lookouts in the Mount Hood area, the Devils Peak and Bull of the Woods towers, inside new wilderness areas, where they are now maintained by volunteers as hiking destinations).
The first lookout structure at Flag Point was a six-foot square cabin on a 40-foot pole tower, built in 1924. It must have been terrifying in rough conditions, and was soon replaced with the popular L-4 style cabin (pictured above) on a 30-foot pole tower in 1932, a design that was found across Oregon.
Later improvements to the second tower were made in 1955, and a series of outbuildings were added over the years, replacing the original tent camp that accompanied the first structure.
In 1973, the third and current lookout structure was built — an R-6 flat top cabin on a 41-foot tower constructed of sturdy, pressure-treated cross-timbers. Like many lookouts, the structure is primarily held in place by stay cables, and simply rests upon its four concrete foundation feet.
Though the current structure is still too young to be listed on the National Historic Register, it has been listed on the National Lookout Register. It will become eligible for the historic register in just 13 years, in 2023.
The Flag Point Lookout is also notable for the remarkable forest ecosystem that surrounds it, where stands of fir and mountain hemlock blend with western larch and ponderosa as east meets west. The rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range is plainly visible from Flag Point, where the sweeping view extends far into the sagebrush deserts of Eastern Oregon.
Ironically, these are fire forests, an ecosystem that has specifically evolved around wildfire cycles, and thus have suffered greatly from the well-intended “protection” from fire that the lookouts have provided. Today, natural fires in the Badger Creek Wilderness are likely to be allowed to burn, with the Forest Service intervening only when homes or private property outside the wilderness are threatened.
Beneath the forest canopy, the wildflowers of Flag Point are as diverse as the conifers, with mountain and desert species mingling in the sunny, open meadows. The Divide Trail, connecting Flag Point to Lookout Mountain, provides one of the best wildflower hikes in the region in early summer, traversing through miles of meadows and rock gardens along the way.
Flag Point was an important forest destination in its time, and still serves as the hub for several forest trails that are a legacy of the early lookout era. In addition to the Divide Trail, the lookout has trails radiating to Ball Point, Gordon Butte and Badger Creek. Today, most visitors to the lookout arrive via the access road, but hikers and horse packers also regularly visit the lookout from this network of wilderness trails.
The cabin atop the Flag Point lookout consists of a 14-by-14 foot interior, surrounded by an airy exterior catwalk. Steel mesh fills the gap between catwalk railings, adding some degree of confidence for vertiginous visitors.
The small cabin is furnished with a bed, a wood stove for heat, gas cook stove, table and chair, and a solar lighting system — a modern amenity that early lookouts couldn’t have imagined.
At the center of the cabin is a map table that echoes the original Osborne fire finders used to pinpoint fire locations. Outside, a rope and pulley system is used to haul supplies and firewood to the catwalk from the base of the tower.
Water for drinking, cooking and washing must be hauled in to the tower by truck, though early lookouts simply carried water from the nearby Sunrise and Sunset springs. Outbuildings include an outhouse, woodshed and an A-frame communications shack has been added to the west of the tower.
Visiting the Lookout
Anyone can visit the Flag Point Lookout by simply parking at the locked gate, and hiking about one quarter mile to the lookout complex. The tower is generally staffed from June 1 through October 15, so be courteous and let the lookout know you’re visiting before climbing the tower. If you’re lucky, the lookout will be on site and invite you up for a tour. If the tower is closed, you can still climb to the lower catwalk for a close-up look at the structure, and views of the surrounding terrain.
The Flag Point lookout also makes for an interesting add-on to the Divide Trail hike to Lookout Mountain. You can simply hike to the lookout along the Flag Point Road from the Divide Trail (about 3/4 mile each way), or shuttle your car to the gate, saving about a mile of road hiking, round-trip.
In winter, the Forest Service rents the lookout cabin to skiers looking for a rugged, remote experience. Of the handful of lookouts open as winter rentals, the Flag Point Lookout is one of the most challenging to reach. You can learn more about winter rentals at the lookout here.
How to Get There
Reaching the lookout is an adventure in its own right. The last few miles of forest roads are generally open from June through October. From Portland, drive east on US 26 through Government Camp, then follow Highway 35 across the White River, and down the East Fork Hood River valley, beyond the Meadows ski resort.
Turn east (right) on Road 44, where signs point to Dufur and Camp Baldwin, and follow this paved road for 8 miles to the poorly marked junction with Road 4420. Turn south (right) and follow this paved forest road as it eventually curves past the Fifteenmile Campground. Just beyond the sharp bend at the campground, watch for dirt road No. 200, heading abruptly uphill and to the right. This is the Flag Point road, and it bumps along for the next 3.5 miles to the lookout gate. Parking is available near the gate.
Note: unfortunately, the Forest Service has recently ditched this road with a series of water bars that make for very slow going, and make the trip a rough ride for passenger vehicles – take it slowly!