Sunday, August 28, 2016

Timber Butte Lookout - Forest Service

We've fallen in love with renting Forest Service cabins...old guard shacks and lookouts that are no longer used in an official capacity and are now in their Recreational Rental program.  Most of the cabins are very rustic, often very remote, and almost completely without amenities.  But there's a certain charm to them that makes staying in one a lot of fun.

You can reserve a cabin via six months in advance.  So this year, in February, I started eyeballing dates and researching cabins and lookouts.  We liked the look of Timber Butte Lookout and it was close to home.  I picked out dates and one morning in March, I woke up early and got ready to score our reservation as soon as it was posted.

Timber Butte is located high in the Cascades at about 3600' elevation.  It's in the Willamette Valley in the Fall Creek area.  Located on a ridge top, it promised sweeping views, gorgeous sunrises, and more stars than you can count.

Sunrise on our first day.  I was lucky enough to catch every gorgeous moment, thanks to our 5-month-old.
When it was our day to travel, I called the Forest Service to get the gate combo.  This is important, because once you're standing at the gate, it's too late.  No cell service at the gate.  We followed the driving directions and arrived with no trouble at the gate.  I tried the combination on the lock...nothing.  Uh oh.  My husband tried.  The kids tried.  I tried again.  Nothing.  There's a path around the gate where people have obviously driven.  I eyeballed our minivan, skeptical, but really it was the only hope.  Hope that as we reached the ridge top, maybe we'd have cell service and could call.  And if not, then at least we'd be in, right?  My husband drove the van while I navigated him over the rough terrain.  The bottom of our van scraped terribly, but we made it over.  Started up the (very) steep hill to the cabin as our tires spun in the gravel.  After 1/4 mile, we reached an opening in the trees, high above the surrounding hills.  And voila, 2 bars of service.  Called the Forest Service.  Oh, you're at Timber BUTTE.  New combination in hand, we head back down to the gate to let in our car, which had no hope of making it around the gate.  Whew.

From the gate to the cabin is 1 mile and it's very steep at times.  The Forest Service recommends a high clearance vehicle.  We have a minivan.  And a sedan.  So we took them both up and hoped for the best.  They didn't disappoint, we arrived at the parking area in no time.

Vault toilet just off the parking area.

From here, the cabin is still invisible.  There's a trail, though, and just a few feet into the forest you'll get your first glimpses of the cabin.  It's about 300 feet uphill.  Your kids will run up the hill, but you, hefting water, sleeping bags, and babies, will be huffing and puffing by the time you get to the top.  It's the elevation, of course.  But the view at the top is well worth the effort.

Inside, the cabin is charming and bright.  Windows surround the cabin--it is a lookout, after all--and a cast iron stove is a guarantee that you won't be cold at night.

Best news yet?  This stove is PROPANE.  And propane is piped in from the parking area, so it's provided.  In fact, the pilot light should already be lit and ready to go.  But if you have kids, the glass will be HOT.  We ended up blowing out the pilot light during the day.  There are directions for relighting it in the guest binder.

The bed is a double.  I took queen sheets and they fit fine.  I hate my sleeping bag so I was happy to be able to use sheets and a blanket.

You'll be pleasantly surprised to find a lot of basic provisions...pots and pans, cutlery, plates, bowls, mugs, a teapot, etc.   Honestly, you don't need to take your own and lug them to the top.  The Forest Service, and probably other campers, have done it for you.  There was also plenty of bug spray, matches, lighters, and battery-operated candles (real candles are not allowed).

A puzzle and several decks of cards were a welcome discovery.

These are hidden in a drawer under the table.  There's a drawer of silverware, too.
Outside, you'll find another super awesome feature...a propane cookstove.  I was absolutely delighted to find this.  I can, and do, cook over a fire, but it's so much easier on a stove.

Directions for lighting the stove are also in the guest binder.

Cooking with a view!

We eat well on camping trips.  This became german pancakes.  I prepared the batter before leaving home.

Fettucini alfredo with chicken and broccoli, along with focaccia bread, to celebrate my husband's birthday on our second night.
Cinnamon rolls from a Pinterest recipe.  Yes, please.

But if you really LOVE cooking over a fire, explore just a little and you'll find a fire ring and picnic table.

We had a fire our second night for s'mores and roasted strawberries.  

If the bugs are getting to you, head inside and pick up the decks of cards.  We found 3 decks and each had all the cards!  My husband taught our kids to play Hill and they spent several hours playing.

But toward evening, be sure to take a chair outside and watch the sun set.  The trees will mostly be in the way, but we were rewarded with wraparound color our first night.

When you head for bed, don't lower the shades.  For one, half of them don't really work.  For another, the sunrise is so incredibly beautiful, you won't want to miss it.  The guest book in the cabin suggested that the stars are also amazing, but during our stay we enjoyed a full moon and couldn't really see the stars.  But the sunrise, oh my.  Our baby made sure I was up to witness it, and I wasn't disappointed.

The sun just beginning to color the horizon.  This is the view from the bed.

You may wonder what the mountains in the distance are.  Lucky you, someone has written the names of each peak on the deck railing.  There are about 6-7 peaks that are mostly visible from the cabin deck.

There are several short trails and skid roads around the cabin and parking area.  We explored these and found abundant wildflowers.
Take time to read through the guest binder, not only will you find experiences and tips from previous guests, but there are maps to trails, instructions for how to use the stoves, and practical tips like how to avoid poison oak (we didn't see any).

We drove down the hill to play in Fall Creek for a few hours on our second day.  It's about 6.5 miles from the cabin, and there are maps in the guest binder.  There are lots of swimming holes, hiking trails, and even a cave to explore.
We spent most of our second day down the hill at Fall Creek. 
All in all, it was an amazing trip.  We only stayed for two nights, but they were utterly relaxing and peaceful, despite the treks down the hill to the bathroom.  I'd love to stay again, with or without our kids.  The kids had a blast, even our little ones.  The cabin was a safe place for them to play and there was just enough to occupy our older kids.  Cell service is actually possible at the cabin (we have AT&T), but only sporadically and only for phone calls.  I did manage an occasional, short text to my mom, but it wasn't dependable. 

Cost per night: $65 via
Amenities: pit toilet, fire ring, picnic table, stove, cook stove, double bed
Our kids ages at the time of visit: 11, 6, 3, 5 months
Gear needed: pack n play, baby carrier, coolers, sleeping bags, portable sink, large water container (there is no water at Timber'll need to pack it all in with you)

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Slick Creek Cave Trail at Fall Creek - Forest Service

There are several ways to reach Slick Creek Cave, but the only route I've ever taken is the one described here.  It's a safe route, even for fairly young hikers, and it's mostly level.  There's a little poison oak near the cave, so be alert for that, no matter which direction you approach from.

During a recent camping trip to Puma Campground, we took a short day hike to Slick Creek Cave.  It's a small cave near the junction of Fall Creek and Slick Creek that is believed to have been used by Native Americans.

We parked in the Bedrock Day Use area near Bedrock Campground.  We passed through the campground to site #7 to the trailhead.  The first part of the trail is pretty overgrown, obviously we didn't choose the most popular route!  But we could see where we needed to go, so it was fine.

Soon we emerged from the shade into a burned over part of the forest from a 2003 fire.  This section of the trail is neat, partly for the post-fire terrain, but also for stunning views of Fall Creek.  There were abundant wildflowers in purple, yellow, and white.

After maybe 1/2 mile (I didn't keep track, but it wasn't a long hike), we came to a bridge and a sign designating the area as the Slick Creek Cave Interpretive Site.  We'd arrived at the cave, but first we checked out the bridge.  The bridge is over Slick Creek, right before it joins Fall Creek.  It's steep, and from prior hikes down to the creek, I can tell you that it IS slick on the bare bedrock. 

A short walk from the marker are signs explaining the history of the area and the possible history of the cave. 

From here, there's a steep wooden staircase up to the cave.  The cave isn't very deep and it's safe for kids, as long as you make sure they don't venture too close to the steep slope nearby.

The upper walls of the cave show black, possibly from decades of fires from Native Americans.
A pano which fails to truly show the beauty and scope of the cave.

We spent 30 minutes or so at the cave, then hiked back along Fall Creek.  All together, our hike took about 2 hours and we hiked at a leisurely pace.  The trail was very safe for our 6 year old and 11 year old, but parts of it had steep drop-offs and so would not be safe for younger children.  We carried our 3 year old in a frame pack, and of course our 5 month old rode in style!

Cost: free
Amenities: pit toilets at the parking lot, water in the campground
Our kids ages at the time of visit: 11, 6, and 3, and 5 months
Gear needed: good quality, comfortable baby carrier; water
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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Puma Campground - Forest Service

Several years ago, we discovered the Fall Creek area near Springfield, Oregon.  A beautiful creek that winds up into the forest for miles, packed with swimming holes, picnic areas, hiking trails, and more.  There are several campgrounds, but since it's only 40 minutes from our house, we never stayed overnight.

Until now.  There's a particular part of the creek that we've come to love, and the access is through Puma Campground.  So this year, we thought, why not go up and stay for a few days?

Puma Campground is a first-come-first-served campground, and there's no way to know ahead of time if there's space.  But we spoke to the campground host (at Bedrock Campground, 2 miles away, the host is at Site #22) and he said there are usually spots available at Puma.  It's the last campground on the road, so it fills up last.  Especially midweek, you're pretty much guaranteed to find a spot.  Our first night there, a Tuesday, we shared it with two other campers.  The second night we were the only ones.

Puma has 11 spaces.  Most of them can accommodate a camper or small RV.  Several are wheelchair-accessible.

In a nutshell...

Sites 1, 2, 3 - very small sites (not even sure #2 can accommodate a tent), ideal for pulling in a camper and using it as a jump-off for fishing or other activities

Site 4 - Good for tent or camper

Site 5 - pull-thru site, has a steep trail leading to creek

Site 6 - on the creek, very steep trail down to water, good swimming hole, not wheelchair accessible

Site 7 - our site--see our full review below, trail to water with steep access, campsite is wheelchair accessible with an accessible picnic table

Site 8 - large site, multifamily, less privacy

Site 9 - a primo site, could easily set up 8+ tents or pull in a camper, river access is good, no swimming hole but lots of bedrock places to play, good privacy (at least from other campsites)

Site 10 - little privacy since the water pump is at the edge of the campsite

Site 11 - a fun little site with a pull-through for vehicles.  Best feature: a hidden glen for tents.

I may kick myself for this, but...our very favorite spot on Fall Creek is the swimming hole off site #7 in Puma Campground.  We've gone there several times and it's now our only destination on the creek.  It's PERFECT for families, even with very young kids.  There's a nice swimming hole for older kids and adults, but a rocky beach perfect for little ones.  The creek flow is slow here, so no fear of anything floating downriver and getting lost.  You can hunt for crawdads, shiny rocks, or itty bitty fish.  It's just a fun place to spend a hot summer afternoon.

Those underwater ledges in the background are perfect for jumping off of.  The water there is about 4.5 feet deep and the bottom is smooth and clean.  An adult can easily touch, but kids can safely cannonball into the water.

If you're willing to schlep pool toys down the steep bank, then this is a great spot to use them.

It's hard to show depth, but this is an example of the steep path down to the river.  This is the final 10 feet and you'll need that rope.  However, the kids handled it just fine (over and over) and the adults managed it with kids, pool toys, etc in one arm.
Our goal for the trip was to score campsite #7, and we were thrilled to see it was empty.  It's across from the bathroom with an occasional eau de toilette smell, but with kids, having it close is pretty nice.  Trash service is also nearby, and the water pump is just a short walk away.  There are good trees for stringing up a clothesline (but sadly, not for a hammock) and a perfect tent site.  Privacy is good with lots of underbrush between sites.

Creek access is beyond our clothesline.  Water isn't so close, though, that I worried for the kids' safety.  It's a short hike beyond the campsite.  Do keep little ones close, but you don't have to worry about them falling in right at the campsite.

The campsite host (stationed at Bedrock) said Puma is the most family-friendly campground.  Apparently, nearby Bedrock has a reputation with college-aged campers, and that's why a camp host is stationed there.  Puma, in contrast, is quiet and well-suited for children. 

We also hiked to Slick Creek cave while we were at Puma.  I'll put that in another post for day users who only want to come in and do the hike.  But rest assured, there may not be showers or playgrounds, but Puma has a lot to offer and you won't be bored!

Cost per night: $15, first come-first served
Amenities: pit toilet, fire ring, picnic table, potable water, garbage service
Our kids ages at the time of visit: 11, 6, 3, and 5 months
Activites: hiking trails, an interpretive site at a cave, swimming holes, fishing
Nearest town: Lowell is 17 miles away, with gas and convenience stores
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