Trail Report: Blue Mountain Lookout

Determined to keep active in these last weeks of her pregnancy, Amy wanted to get in a Labor Day hike. We had failed in our second attempt on Bear Creek Overlook a few weeks back, so we wanted something even easier.

Consulting our venerable (seriously: published in 2001) Day Hikes Around Missoula, Montana, we chose Hike 25: Blue Mountain Saddle to Blue Mountain Lookout in the Blue Mountain Recreation Area.

The main problem for Amy right now is steepness, partly because-with about 50 percent more blood volume than usual(!)-it’s easy for her to lose her breath. Then there is simply the mechanical difficulty of lifting her legs high with all that belly in the way.

The description of Hike 25 indicated there would be a brief section of steep climbing, but then we’d be on gentler switchbacks the rest of the way to the working fire-lookout tower at the top. We stopped by Safeway for sandwiches and we were on our way.

After the 10-mile drive in on a rutted Forest Service road (Toyota should make a commercial about our Corolla), we parked on the pullout described in our book and set out. As described, the first section of the trail straddled a rolling ridge and was easy enough. Then came the steep section, a poorly-thought-out route that simply carves straight up the face of the mountain.

We were looking for a right-hand fork at 0.7 miles to take us to the switchbacks and thought we had found it when we saw a little sign for trail 3.01. This new trail cut to the right straight across the mountainside and so was much flatter than the route we’d been following, but after about 10 minutes we saw no signs of any switchbacks and decided we must have made a wrong turn. (If the route’s official turnoff was really 0.7 miles from the trailhead, I’d say this turnoff was at about 0.5.)

We walked back to the main trail and returned to clambering up the steep trail, at one point having to make a wide detour around some big downed trees. The whole time, we were treated to the droning roar of some ATVers powering up and down the mountain somewhere nearby, which was unpleasant but at least minimized the bear risk.

The trail was extremely overgrown narrow and after a while we began to wonder if we were still on the right branch. We picked out a dead pine about 50 yards above us and decided we’d turn back if we couldn’t see anything promising from there. But a little past the pine we found a right-hand fork that quickly matched the description of the switchbacks we’d been looking for.

This part of the trail was no better maintained than the lower section. Along one 30-yard stretch, branches from plants on either side of the trail had grown completely across to meet in the middle. It had rained recently, so the branches were wet, and pushing through them was cool and refreshing.

Because of the poor visibility in all of that brush, it seemed (to this admitted ignoramus on the subject) like the kind of place where one might surprise a bear, so I unholstered my pepper spray and held it in my hand as I moved into the lead.

After a few more switchbacks, we found ourselves at Blue Mountain Observatory, a green, cinder-block building with about the same size footprint as my garage and a smooth metal dome on top, all locked up today tight as a drum. About a tenth of a mile distant stood the lookout tower.

We made our way over. According to the book, the lookout is about 50 feet tall. A smiling, white-haired man with a beard came out on the walkway to greet us. He didn’t invite us up, but he certainly seemed friendly enough and probably would have been amenable if we’d expressed interest.

The problem, of course, is that in situations like this what looks like a nice old man from the bottom of the tower often turns out-once you climb to the top-to be a serial killer wearing the Forest Service employee’s skin. Plus, as Amy observed, the tower looked kind of rickety, so we decided to just circumnavigate it and then rejoin the trail that had brought us up. As we looped back around the tower, the man called down.

“You came up the hard way,” he said.

He directed us to what he described as an easier trail. We sought it out and found that it was the other end of what we had earlier decided was a wrong turn, trail 3.01. Sure enough, this was a much easier route back, taking us on a long, single switchback before doubling back toward the original trail. This mostly level route took us through gloomy firs and across an avalanche chute right in the thick of the forest, a spooky vista of dozens of huge, jagged snapped-off trees above and below the trail, all pointed downhill.

I think this alternate trail probably added to the 2.2 miles of our book’s described route, but the ease of the return route made up for any increased distance. With frequent stops for breathers and water, Amy did just fine, and we were back to the car no more than two hours after we’d set out. We were both glad to have finally completed a hike for a change.