Some trails are so long and strenuous that they’re intimidating, but so scenic that you just don’t want to miss them. The spectacular Lookout Mountain Trail in the Ochoco Mountains of Central Oregon is just such a ride. The trail is 12 miles long (one way!), but it has trailheads at both ends you can do a trailer shuttle and experience the entire trail with half the effort.
The Lookout Mountain Trail #804 begins at the Lookout Mountain Trailhead on Road 123, across the road and about 1,000 feet west of the site of the old Ochoco Ranger Station (now just a parking area with a toilet and a kiosk). The trail gains a whopping 3,000 feet of elevation in its first 8 miles as it travels up the northwest side of its namesake mountain, the highest point in the Ochoco range. Along the way you’ll see a historic spring, wildflower meadows, splendid views of the ridges to the west, a remarkable rockslide, and a 360-degree panorama from the mountain’s tabletop summit. You may even spot some wild horses along the way. (Keep an eye out for fresh manure in their stud piles on the trail.)
After it crosses the summit, the Lookout Mountain Trail travels down the north side of the mountain, past the site of the old Independent Mine (which extracted cinnabar, the stuff that mercury is derived from). You’ll see evidence of the mining activity, including an old mine building and the entrance to a mine shaft. And with a short detour from the trail you can visit the abandoned mine’s headquarters, smelter, a bunkhouse, and other historic outbuildings.
To ride this amazing trail from end to end, drive two trailers to the Round Mountain South Trailhead off Road 42 near the Independent Mine. Leave one trailer at this trailhead and transport all of the horses the 6.5 miles back to the Lookout Mountain Trailhead on Road 123. (You will have driven past it on your way to the Round Mountain South Trailhead.) Start your ride there, at the Lookout Mountain Trailhead. At the end of your ride you’ll arrive at the Round Mountain South Trailhead and can load the horses in the dropped trailer and drive back the trailhead where you started your ride. By doing a shuttle you can cover a lot of terrain and see some delightful sights without racking up an exorbitant number of trail miles.
When you start the ride, the Lookout Mountain Trail climbs steeply for the first mile, then settles into a moderate but steady ascent to the broad, flat summit of Lookout Mountain. After 2.5 miles you’ll pass the historic water troughs at Crooked Tree Spring, a great place to water your horse. Then you’ll ride a couple of miles through pretty ponderosa pine forest before passing a rock outcropping with a great view of the ridges to the west. About 3.5 miles after Crooked Tree Spring, the trail goes up a series of switchbacks through hanging meadows of seasonal wildflowers. Near the end of the switchback section you’ll pass an interesting rockpile of hexagonal basalt, where other passersby have stacked the rocks to create whimsical tables and bridges and Stonehenge-like structures. About 0.5 mile later the trail makes another switchback at the edge of a steep dropoff. Mercifully, this breathtaking moment is over almost as soon as it begins, and shortly afterward you’ll arrive at the broad tabletop summit and can enjoy the splendid views.
At the top of Lookout Mountain you’ll come to a trail junction. Three trails of differing lengths lead down the north side of the mountain, converging at a hiker car trailhead called the Upper Lookout Mountain Trailhead, located about 1 mile up the mountainside from where you dropped off your trailer. The Independent Mine Trail #808 is the longest of the three, the Motherlode Trail #808A is the shortest and steepest, and the Lookout Mountain Trail is in between. We recommend staying on the Lookout Mountain Trail, since it will take you past an interesting snow shelter and several relics from the mountain’s mining era.
When you reach the hiker parking area at the Upper Lookout Mountain Trailhead you can continue on the Lookout Mountain Trail for 1 mile to return to your dropped trailer. Instead, though, we suggest you ride down the trailhead road for 0.3 mile, then turn right on the Baneberry Trail #812. It will take you to the cluster of buildings that once was the headquarters and smelter of the Independence Mine. These abandoned buildings are slowly crumbling, so don’t wait too long to visit this fascinating site. Return to the road and follow it about 0.7 mile to the trailer parking area, then drive back to the Lookout Mountain Trailhead to retrieve your dropped trailer.
Ride Statistics: The one-way ride (with trailer shuttle) is 12 miles if you follow the Lookout Mountain Trail from one end to the other. If you take the Independent Mine Trail down from the summit of Lookout Mountain you’ll have a 14-mile ride. And if you follow the Motherlode Trail you’ll ride 11 miles. Total elevation gain is 3,000 feet, and elevation loss is 1,500 feet. Stock water is available on the trail. The best map of the trail is the Ochoco National Forest map. Hoof protection is recommended, as the trail is quite rocky in places.
Getting to Lookout Mountain Trailhead: From Prineville, take Hwy. 26 east for 15 miles. Between mileposts 34 and 35, turn right on Road 123 toward Walton Lake. Drive 8.3 miles. Just past the site of the old Ochoco Ranger Station, park on the wide right shoulder of the road, next to the trailhead sign.
Getting to Round Mountain South Trailhead: From the Lookout Mountain Trailhead (above), continue on Road 123 for 0.2 mile, then veer right on Road 42. Continue 6.5 miles and turn right to enter the trailer parking area just off the highway.
Season: Summer through fall.
Trailhead Facilities: The Lookout Mountain Trailhead has parking for 3-4 trailers, depending on where hiker cars have parked. Additional parking and a toilet can be found 1,000 feet west on Road 123, at the site of the old Ochoco Ranger Station. The Round Mountain South Trailhead has parking for 6-8 trailers.
More Information: The Lookout Mountain Trail is covered in the Western Ochocos chapter of Riding Central Oregon Horse Trails, by Kim McCarrel, (Ponderosa Press, 2012).