What a weekend we had at Shorty Peak Lookout! Standing in solitude atop Shorty Peak in the Cabinet mountains of far northern Idaho, this primitive cabin is a special treat for those who have the gumption to reach it.
To begin, I’d like to stress that fire lookouts are a wonderful getaway, but are EXTREMELY hard to book. Six weeks after the booking window opened I was only able to reserve a mid-week stay at the tail end of the season – in fact, we were the last reservation of the year and were on our way out of the lookout when the Forest Service lockup crew arrived. So if you are planning on booking a lookout in 2019, be sure to be online at midnight on January 1st to get the days you want at the location you want!
That being said, it was an adventure as unforgettable as they come.
Day 1 – It began to rain as we suited up to hit the trail. Before we hit the quarter mile mark we had to stop three times and take refuge beneath the massive pines that stand tall and proud alongside the trail. They made for dry shelter while we waited for the worst of the storm to pass. After that it continued to sprinkle all the way to the lookout – and when I say ALL the way, I mean it in the nicest way possible. While the trek is relatively short at only 2.5 miles, it is a moderate one, and a long-winded journey with fully-loaded packs. Our stay would cover the better part of four days, so me with my 35lb pack and my husband with his 37lb pack, took almost 2 hours to reach the top. Although I do have asthma and require frequent stops to recover my breathing rate I still feel like we pushed through at a pretty good pace. Even hiking unburdened it takes over an hour to reach the top – but more on that later.
We reached the antique cabin by about 4pm, and while we brought two half-full bladders of water for the hike it wasn’t nearly enough to get us through the night, so we dumped our packs and headed back down the hill to the “spring” to pump water. I use that term loosely because while there was relatively fresh water to be had – barely more than a puddle – we were lucky it was there at all. Another hiker told us that some years it is completely dry, and while the USFS web page does mention either to A.) pack in your water or B.) bring equipment to purify, it does NOT in any way state that there’s a possibility of no water supply. That being said, I strongly suggest you make this determination prior to departure to avoid a hike back to the trail head to find another water source and haul 4 gallons of water back up to the peak.
By the time that was all said and done we were swiftly approaching the first sunset of our trip, shrouded unfortunately by thick, ominous-looking clouds rolling in from the west. We quickly changed out of our sopping wet clothes before retiring for what would be a minimally restful night.
On a side note, when Aaron attempted to hang a clothesline for our damp clothes he learned the hard way that there was a map hanging from the ceiling on a piece of painted particle board. Upon stretching the line tight it unlatched the map which swung down with incredible force and struck him straight between the eyes. He wrote a warning on the map but he suggested I mention it here just in case – it did leave a nice shiner and a pretty good ache on his forehead.
I snapped some pictures of the storm breaking just before dusk which was a surreal thing to watch. You could see the rain coming down in sheets starting half a mile a way, then creeping steadily toward the cabin with what seemed like alarming speed for weather. I’m sure the improved visibility made this seem more abrupt than it really was.
Luckily there wasn’t any thunder or lightning, so we didn’t have to get out of bed in the middle of the freezing night to stand on the glass-bottomed chairs that are provided in case of a storm. It was a cold and windy night but we stayed relatively warm bundled up together in a double sleeping bag, and Cookie settled into her kids’ mummy bag nicely.
Day 2 – We awoke to the wonderful warmth of sunshine on our faces on the morning of the second day, and we probably would have done some exploring had our shoes dried out at all. After the rainy hike in our feet were swimming in their socks, and although we laid them out to dry overnight, none of the moisture had left them in the freezing temperatures. Aaron built a fire in one of the pits below the cabin in an effort to dry them out, and after a day of hard work, we came away with dry shoes and some toasted socks! Luckily he had a few pairs to spare.
Spending the day tied to the cabin (there was no way I was going hiking around in socks or bare feet in that weather – can you say frostbite?) gave me a great opportunity to photograph the interior of the lookout and get some fantastic photos of the panoramic views we came for. I had made the decision to leave my Canon at home this trip because with a four-day pack, our longest backpacking trip to date, I knew I’d need to cut ounces wherever I could, and given the quality of my cell phone camera and my Sony ActionCam, I decided the weight wasn’t worth the reward. Regardless I managed to capture some breathtaking shots with my Google Pixel phone camera and my ActionCam, a Sony product similar to a GoPro, although a much better product in my humble opinion.
The day indoors also allowed for me to lay out and photograph everything I like to take backpacking, which I will discuss in a later post. I am very particular about what I pack and I’d like to offer an in-depth explanation for other backpackers who have struggled with the ever-changing luxury-to-necessity ratio that plagued me as a novice packer.
The latter part of the day became overcast once more, and after some light showers we were able to enjoy not just one vibrant rainbow, but two! I managed to capture a panoramic shot of one before it faded into twilight and we retreated from the biting wind into the cabin for dinner and card games. That evening was slightly warmer on this night than the first, undoubtedly due to the sunshine that graced the tar roof of the lookout during the day. An overcast but colorful sunset closed out a relaxing day spent at the cabin in the clouds.
Day 3 – After breakfast and some knitting we set out for our only excursion away from the lookout – a hike back to the trailhead, over to Red Top Mountain Trail to find West Fork Cabin, a seasonal hunting cabin maintained by the Forest Service and open for public use.
The hike to the cabin was very relaxing compared to the hike up to the lookout, so it made for a nice, peaceful walk. We stopped to play in the creek before greeting the occupants of the cabin, a group of hunters, joined by a single traveler on vacation from city life on the East Coast.
I didn’t manage to get any pictures of the cabin so I’ve borrowed one from the Forest Service website.
The day was relatively uneventful until the hike back to the truck. On the return trip from West Fork we ran into a black bear! Luckily Cookie barking scared it off, but it was a close call nonetheless. We barely saw the tail end of it before it sprinted down the mountain, leaving us startled and wielding our bear spray. Surprisingly enough that was the only major wildlife we saw on the entire trip! It seemed like the entire area was devoid of any indigenous wildlife. I say that because there was a large number of cattle roaming the national Forest, but these obviously were working visitors.
After making it safely back to the truck we headed up Shorty Peak once more for our last night of relaxation at the lookout. This was the best sunset of the entire trip and it was absolutely breathtaking. It dawned upon me that I could take a video of the whole sunset, which was only about 30 minutes worth of film, and speed it up into a neat fast-motion video.
It also made for some fantastic pictures, the below one of my personal favorites.
It was this night that we decided to make a fire and try to roast marshmallows, but due to the high wind at that elevation the heat quickly blew off the fire and hardly made for a relaxing night. We were both bundled up next to the fire and were still cold!
Soon after our shivering a later postdessert the wind began to blow snow flurries at our faces, with no sign of letting up. We took the hint and headed inside.
Day 4 – Again we awoke to the sun shining but the last morning spent at the lookout was a somber one. I put our entry into the logbook, one of my favorite parts of staying at lookouts. I always love to read the stories of guests who come to the same place on vacation or as a tradition, returning year after year. We drug our feet at the prospect of leaving, stretching breakfast out as long as we could before packing up and tidying the cabin. One of the things I love most about my husband is that be likes to fix and improve things. He used a sharpie to label many of the more obscure items at the lookout, as well as tightening a screw or bolt here and there. I organized the pamphlets and games and swept before we locked her up, just in time for the Forest Service board-up crew to arrive for end-of-season closeout. We were the last guests to stay at Shorty Peak for the 2018 season!
The hike out was much less strenuous with most of our food and water used up, but was a good workout anyway. Hiking downhill with a pack is always hard on the thighs and calves! It was a beautiful day to hit the trail for the pack out, sunny and clear and with the wind at a comfortable bellow.
I am torn on whether or not I would return to Shorty Peak. On one hand, the experience was unforgettable. We had a wonderful time and made some great memories this trip. But given the number of lookouts in Idaho, I think I’ll be trying a few others before I consider returning here. Here’s why:
The wind was so cold. I think even in summer it would make the nights too brisk for comfort, and I’m not sure I’d want to pack up there in summer because there aren’t any bodies of water close to this lookout for swimming. We always like to be able to swim if we backpack in the hotter months. Aside from the chill, it made it difficult to have a fire.
There wasn’t a ton of stuff to do. Once you reach the lookout, that’s pretty much it. There aren’t any major hikes to be taken from the lookout, which for the day-hike kinda people (like us), requires hiking back down to the truck to take a day trip and makes it almost not worth it. If you plan on staying put for a few days to relax, this is a great trip for you. Those who have children or who are high activity/adventure-seekers, find a lookout that’s on a major trail system. This is not the place for you!
There was next to no wildlife. Aside from some chipmunks and a pair of grouse, there wasn’t as much as a songbird as far as the eye could see – and that’s for miles! We like to spot mammals and birds as well as fish when we can find them, so this was disappointing.
It was a tough trek. We don’t normally attempt difficult hikes with fully loaded packs, and this being our most extended trip to date, I think if I was to return here I would take a shorter trip to lessen the load on our backs. Even the trip down was a fair workout.
All in all, Shorty Peak was an experience like no other. I’m so glad to have taken my husband here for his first lookout experience. It definitely did not disappoint!