When the weather cools and the snow falls, cozied up in a quaint Pacific Northwest cabin is where I like to be. Somewhere off the grid with the flames of a crackling fire projecting shadows onto the walls and a cup of hot chocolate in hand, accompanied by the warmth of a faux fur blanket as I gaze out at the trees, dusted white from crystallized rain. I know, I know, me and everyone else right?
Well, the good news is, this hidden gem checks off all the items and more on my cozy cabin list, and isn't quite as overbooked as the trending cabins on social media (yet!). The Crystal Peak Lookout is nestled atop Crystal Peak Ridge outside of Fernwood, Idaho. Population: 684. It really is off the grid, and it's way more than just a place to rest your head. Kristie, the owner, went all out to make this getaway a year-round adventure in and of itself, but a winter visit gets you an extra treat.
It is important to note that this winter wonderland of a hidden escape is truly for the adventurous! It requires a little extra work for a remarkable reward.
This post was made possible by the wonderful people behind the Crystal Peak Lookout Airbnb.
Backpacking pack to stow your items for easy carrying
Snow pants and a jacket
LAYERS! It gets super cold at night if you don't keep the fire going. I slept in a down jacket, leggings, and socks.
Extra pair of warm socks
Slip-on shoes for in the lookout - the floor is cold and the deck is icy!
Simple and quick food and snacks - there's a provided cooler to store your food
A swimsuit for the sauna if you'd like. Clothing is optional.
This lookout didn't always call Crystal Peak home. It was built by the Washington Department of Natural Resources in Eastern Washington in 1959 atop a 40' wood frame and served the area for about 24 years. That is, until it blocked the view of the new Stranger Lookout tower and therefore had to be removed. In 1983, Dave Kresek bought the tower for just $1 under the condition it be removed from the grounds in 30 days and he moved it to its current location on Crystal Ridge. The metal framing that keeps the lookout in the canopy came from the old Geiger Field military prison (now the site of the Spokane Waste to Energy plant), purchased at a US Government auction. The lookout stands 24 feet tall!
A new owner gave the lookout a new purpose as a hunting lodge for a few years until Kristie bought the property in 2017 and got to work remodeling. The whole family came out to help; Kristie reworked the floor plan, her mom helped build the deck, and her brother moved the woodshed to its new location so Kristie could transform it into the sauna.
The Vintage Ride
We were greeted with smiles as we pulled up to our meeting point in town. Kristie provided an in-depth guide before our arrival to prepare us for the trip, including detailed directions, specific instructions for the sauna, outhouse, and stove, and more. It made our entire trip go so smoothly!
George, the caretaker, stepped out of the vintage 1960's Thiokol Snowcat and his wife Josie bundled up and waving from shotgun. We opened up the side door to discover a couch with blankets (faux-fur yay!) on one side, a bench on the other, and windows took over three out of the four walls. The wood in the floor and ceiling, George mentioned, was re-purposed from the lookout itself.
This part of the Winter Wonderland Experience isn't just for for show. 4WD cars with chains don't make it to the Crystal Peak Lookout trailhead/driveway in this much snow. It's cute, efficient, and necessary!
We picked up our thermoses, chose our hot chocolate flavors, threw in a little Baileys and marshmallows, sat back and enjoyed the 35-45-minute ride to the top.
Note: Snowcats don't make for a smooth ride. If you get car sick easily, make sure to prepare appropriately!
The Final Stretch
We took in the scenery, gazing out into the valley below as we followed the ridge line to the bottom of the snow-covered driveway. We packed our hot chocolate thermoses to go, and strapped into the provided vintage snowshoes.
"I haven't been up there for about a week now and there's been a lot of snowfall, so you'll be breaking trail today!" said George. The hike to the top is just about 1/4 of a mile up, but with that much snow and elevation gain, it was HARD! They gave us a sled to load up our gear, which would have been great in just a little less snow! We ended up carrying our backpacking packs on our back and dragging the sled behind us with our little bag of food. It was awesome for carrying firewood at the top and loading with gear on the way down, though!
Moose tracks weaved back and forth across our trail - there's a resident moose that likes to hang out in the area! Although, no matter how hard I tried (and I tried hard; we're talking moose calls that probably made me sound like a dying animal now that I think about it) I couldn't find the guy. Ah well, next time.
After many breathers, the bright red paneling of the lookout peeked through the trees. We were there!!!
We climbed up the staircase, pushed open the heavy hatch, and immediately got to work opening the shutters to brighten up the space. I'm 5'7" and I had a hard time pushing them up high enough to fit the support into the slot, so if you're shorter than that, I'd recommend grabbing something to stand on.
Once up, the lookout filled with light and we could finally take it all in - It was better than the photos! A little navigation table with a topography map sat to the left of the bed that could be propped up with wooden supports underneath. A bookshelf housed adventure books of all tales, a few games, and a weather log on top. Two chairs were folded up on the bottom shelf, a third next to the table. Coffee, hot cocoa, and tea sat on the counter, a sink sat in the middle, and a stack of containers housed delicious snacks - nuts, m&m's, marshmallows for your hot chocolate and more!
Lights hang in all four corners, but only two worked during our stay, so George hooked it up with two additional battery powered lanterns for a little extra light. Those combined with our headlamps provided all the light we needed.
But with limited daylight hours and it taking way longer than it probably should've for our out-of-shape butts to get up to the lookout in the first place, we had to get to work!
Get to Work!
We cracked some kindling with the kindling cracker on the deck and built two fires: 1 in the lookout to warm it up - those single-pane windows don't provide much insulation - and 1 in the sauna. We read that it takes a VERY long time to heat that bad boy up, and we can confirm. It took about an hour to get the sauna to the recommended 100-140 degrees. The Lookout came equipped with lighters, matches, paper, and wood to set the wood stoves ablaze.
But, before we could get to the sauna, we had to do a bit of shoveling. Same goes for the outhouse. Once all was shoveled and fires were blazing, the sun had set, so we began making dinner by lantern light.
Outhouse & Sauna
The outhouse is visible from the deck and just a short walk from the bottom of the lookout. I kid you not, it's nicer than plenty of restrooms I've encountered. It's a composting toilet, which means after each use, you're asked to throw a bit of sawdust down the hatch. When it's full, take out the compostable bag and throw it in the bin behind the outhouse. Sitting there with the door slightly ajar with a view of snow falling against the forest background is the most magical business I've ever done!
The sauna is just a touch to the right and is painted red like the lookout. Set your fire ablaze and use the provided glove to handle the hot door handle. Once the fire is going, pour on some water to create steam, then sit back, relax, take in the salt candles' glow and gaze out the window at the snowy trees. If you're feeling bold, hop out for a quick dip in the snow before warming up once again in the comfort of the sauna. It was THE BEST way to end the adventurous day.
On the Menu:
The kitchen area is fully stocked with cast iron pans, enamel pots, plates, and mugs, a pour over coffee maker, coffee, tea, seasonings, utensils and knives, foil, spatulas, tea kettle and a gas stove, and more! Pretty much everything you could ever need.
Since we were only staying for one night, we spared no taste bud, but kept it simple. There is soap available but we limited our use of pans and dishes as much as possible so as not to waste our limited water supply.
We brought salmon, broccoli, corn, and bread for dinner, wrapped them all in foil and cooking them in the fire. We also like to try as much local beer as possible in every place we visit, so we picked up a six pack of Ale 208 from Grand Teton Brewing - a light session ale. For breakfast, we heated up our pre-made eggs and potatoes in the cast iron skillet and wrapped them in a tortilla with avocado for a delicious breakfast burrito. We also brought Wild Salmon Corn Chowder by fishpeople in case we needed a little extra nourishment. It's pre-packaged in little single-serving pouches (and not freeze dried!), making it great for short backpacking trips! For extra water, we scooped up some fresh snow and melted it over the fire in the tea kettle, but I recommend bringing along as much water as you can carry.
Additional quick and easy food ideas include:
Pre-baked potato warmed up in the fire
Ramen - gotta love it!
Protein-packed snacks are also a good idea:
Apples and peanut butter
Pre-hard boiled eggs
If you find yourself with a bit of free time, Kristie recommends giving "forest bathing" a go! Otherwise known as Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing is meant to support well-being through sensory immersion in forests, and with 13 acres of forest to explore, you're in the right place for such a bath! It was developed in Japan in the 1980s and has since been used as a form of preventative health care and healing. Their extensive research on the matter is spreading forest therapy to more corners of the world! Simply strap on those snowshoes and wander through the evergreens; relax and rejuvenate. Highly recommend.
Rise & Shine & Goodbyes
We woke bright and early - a little cold but in an incredibly comfortable bed - built a fire, poured some coffee, downed our breakfast burrito, and admired the light snowfall through the windows before getting back to work.
Before departing, we pulled wood from the pile to the lookout in the trusty sled and hauled it up to the deck using the rope and pulley system to replenish the supply. I did one last sweep hoping to spot the resident moose, but again to no avail.
One night was definitely NOT enough. I'd recommend spending at least two nights in this mountainous escape so you can get the shoveling and sauna prepping out of the way and still have ample relaxation time. We felt a little rushed with just our one night.
One last look and I lowered the shutters, climbed out the floor hatch, locked up, strapped on my snowshoes, and began the trek down to the snowcat; a much easier and quicker trip down than up, that's for sure!
Once again, George greeted us, helped us get settled in the back, and down we went. This was an adventure of a lifetime! Huge thanks to Kristie, George, and the Crystal Peak Lookout gang for the wonderful stay.
How Do I Stay Here?
For a deeper look, make sure to visit their Instagram: @crystalpeaklookout.
Thanks to Fabletics for keeping me warm and cozy with the two pairs of leggings and white tank pictured above, and to Uphill Designs for always having me prepared for my outdoor adventures with their Saffron Waffle Beanie, Small Divide Charcoal Backpack and Multi-Tool.
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