A strenuous snowshoe trip leads to Buck Mt Lookout with contrasting views of forest and fire. Whether the views are worth the effort is up to the traveler!
First some necessary info: The trip follows the Buck Lookout Road through Washington Department of Natural Resources land. Given that few of the road junctions are signed, a map is necessary to follow the correct route. Secondly, the middle section is on a groomed snowmobile trail with lots of weekend motorized traffic. Lastly, the viable mid-winter parking is 0.4 mile from the start of the road.
Starting at Highway 20 (elevation 3500 feet), the first half mile is the typical ungroomed surface through an older forest with lots of animal tracks (deer, coyote, snowshoe hare, vole). From the half mile point until 3.8 miles, the road is part of the North Summit Snowmobile SnoPark trail system. The packed surface can be easy walking (with or without snowshoes), or done on cross country skis as it gradually climbs through the selective logged forest.
At 1.2 miles (elevation 4030 feet), the lookout can be seen in the distance as the trail enters a more open forest. The road makes a long switchback before going through a gap in the ridge. (At 1.5 miles a steeper shortcut can be taken going directly uphill following 300 degrees True for 0.2 miles to rejoin the road at the gap, but you'll need to know how to navigate to use this shortcut.) After a short descent, the road winds through the open forest as it climbs.
At 3.8 miles (elevation 4960 feet) the route leaves the groomed snowmobile trail. The junction is marked by a large fir tree with pink ribbons but is otherwise indistinct. The route to the lookout starts a climbing traverse to the southeast, on a narrower road. The route rounds the end of the ridge, passing through a fence line, coming to a second viewpoint for the lookout at 4.2 miles (elevation 5180 feet).
The road stays near the end of the ridge, then turns to the northeast on a climbing traverse (don't go to Buck Spring). The traverse breaks out into the open and enters the edge of the 2015 Okanogan Complex Wildfire zone. The black and tan trees provide a stark contrast to the green forest and white snow. The road crests the ridge at 5.2 miles (elevation 5770 feet) and follows the ridgecrest through the burnt forest to three short switchbacks just below the top. The lookout is reached at 5.8 miles (elevation 6135 feet).
The north view is the aftermath of the Okanogan and Tripod wildfires, with Old Baldy Mountain and Tiffany Mountain in the distance. To the south is the mix of older forest and selectively logged areas. To the southwest are the Sawtooths and to the southeast is the Okanogan Valley. The 1961 lookout is maintained by the DNR and is locked, making the deck inaccessible.
WTA Pro Tip: For those adept and comfortable with cross-country travel on unmarked routes, a lollipop loop is possible. It adds 1.0 mile and 150 feet of elevation gain with a steep cross-country climb to reach the ridge crest. It may be more appropriate for skiing than snowshoeing, since it takes advantage of 1.8 miles of groomed snowmobile trail.
At the 3.8 mile point, stay on the groomed snowmobile trail and continue climbing, reaching Buck Pass at 4.4 miles (elevation 5400 feet). The groomed trail descends past an open area, goes right and descends past a small lake. It continues descending to a junction with USFS Rd 42. Turn east on Rd 42 and follow it to a cattle guard at 5.6 miles (elevation 5310 feet) which marks the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon Creek.
At this point, the goal is the ridge crest to the south and there is no trail or marked route. The specific objective is the low point in the ridge at 105 deg True, 0.4 mile away, where the Buck Lookout Road reaches the ridge crest. The 460 foot elevation gain crosses slopes with 30%-50% gradients and is through a forest of burned tree trunks. Snow condition and traveler experience, along with the type of equipment will determine the best route.
One successful route leaves the road on the south side of the cattle guard, heading directly up the gully to the southeast and onto the bump. It crosses the fence line and carefully works up the steep hillside. Once on the ridge crest, follow the Buck Lookout Road to the east to reach the lookout.