A Visit to Burly Mountain Lookout

Burley Mountain Lookout was a product of the 1910 'Big Blowup' fires that devasted large areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana

Cispus Valley

Although people have called this area home for thousands of years, we’ve only been coming out here over the last few years. It all started after I had read a book on the Mt. St. Helens eruption and wanted to get a close look at the crater from the Johnstone Observatory. Since then, we’ve just been extending our exploration in an ever-widening circle which in turn led us to the Cispus Valley, which in turn led to the Burley Mountain Lookout.

The geological history of Cispus Valley dates back to around 50 million years ago when the area was covered by a shallow sea. Over time, sedimentary rocks such as sandstone and shale were deposited on the sea floor, eventually forming the region’s bedrock.

Around 20 million years ago, the area experienced significant tectonic activity as the North American and Pacific plates collided, resulting in the uplifting and folding of the bedrock. This process also caused the formation of the Cascade Range, which can be seen to the west of the valley.


Yellowjacket Creek
A nice spot on Yellowjacket Creek to have a picnic.

Glaciers played a significant role in shaping the landscape of Cispus Valley during the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. Glacial activity carved out the valley’s steep, U-shaped canyons and left behind large deposits of glacial till, a mixture of clay, sand, and rocks.

In more recent times, volcanic activity has also contributed to the geology of the region. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 deposited volcanic ash and debris throughout the area, which has since become incorporated into the soil and geology of the valley.

Today, Cispus Valley is a diverse and geologically complex region with a rich history of geological processes that have shaped its landscape over millions of years.


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Burley Mountain Lookout was a product of the 1910 'Big Blowup' fires that devasted large areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana


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Burley Mountain Lookout

Nestled amidst the pristine forests of the Cascade Range in the state of Washington, Burley Mountain Lookout stands as a testament to the long history of fire detection and prevention in the region. Serving as a vital component in the early fire detection system, the lookout has since evolved into a symbol of the area’s rich past and inspires admiration among hikers, naturalists, and historians alike.

The Origins of the Lookout

The Burley Mountain Lookout traces its origins to the early 20th century, during an era marked by devastating forest fires across the United States. The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the “Big Blowup,” raged across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, incinerating over three million acres of land and claiming the lives of 87 people. This catastrophic event prompted the U.S. Forest Service to establish a more comprehensive fire detection system, leading to the construction of numerous lookout towers, including the Burley Mountain Lookout.

Built in 1934, the Burley Mountain Lookout was a critical element of the fire detection network in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The lookout consisted of a single-story wooden cabin with a cupola on top, allowing for a 360-degree view of the surrounding terrain. The cabin was strategically placed atop the 5,331-foot Burley Mountain, providing unparalleled visibility of the region.


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The Golden Age of Lookouts

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Burley Mountain Lookout flourished as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts to enhance the nation’s forests and parklands. The CCC, established in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, sought to provide work for unemployed young men while also improving public lands. During this time, the CCC constructed roads, trails, and bridges, as well as more than 800 fire lookout towers, including the Burley Mountain Lookout.

The Burley Mountain Lookout’s primary function was fire detection. A lookout staffed the cabin during the fire season, keeping watch for signs of smoke or flames. Once a potential fire was spotted, the lookout would use an instrument called an Osborne Firefinder to pinpoint the location of the fire and communicate the information to the nearest ranger station. The swift detection and reporting of fires often proved crucial in preventing small fires from becoming larger, uncontrollable blazes.

Decline and Restoration

Advancements in technology, such as aerial surveillance and remote sensing, led to a decline in the use of lookout towers by the mid-20th century. As a result, many towers fell into disrepair or were dismantled altogether. The Burley Mountain Lookout was no exception, with staffing discontinued in the 1960s.

However, recognizing the historical and cultural value of the Burley Mountain Lookout, a group of dedicated volunteers and preservationists formed the Burley Mountain Lookout Restoration Committee in the 1980s. Through their efforts, the lookout was restored to its original condition, complete with period-appropriate furnishings and equipment.

Present-Day Significance

Today, the Burley Mountain Lookout is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular destination for hikers and history enthusiasts. The lookout offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Cascade Range, including nearby Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. While the days of the lookout’s active fire detection service are long gone, it is a poignant reminder of the region’s history and the enduring importance of preserving our natural heritage for future generations.

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