Fire Tower Lookout Camping

Nothing says “room with a view” more than a fire tower lookout with its 360-degree views and endless sky. Dotted across the country in remote areas atop mountains and surrounded by trees, retired lookouts are getting new life by serving as rentals for backcountry adventurers.

Last summer, I set out for an overnight stay to the Shorty Peak Lookout in northern Idaho with my friend, Tracy, and her two dogs. We drove about 45 miles northwest of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, winding up the mountain to a quiet trailhead. We were the sole tenants at the lookout for the night and, maybe because of that and a late start, we also had the three-mile hike to ourselves.

Access to fire towers varies. Some have a fire road that can be approached by car, while others require a hike or allow the use of horses. We were working on human power, hiking a trail that varied from moderate to steep, with a 1,300-foot elevation gain. The Forest Service notes that elk, deer and black bears inhabit the area, but that day, they steered clear of us and went unseen.

Less than two hours later, we caught sight of our home for the night atop Shorty Peak, a square cabin with a “sky print” of 15 feet by 15 feet with seven windows on each side and a catwalk around its perimeter. Since it was perched so high on the peak, it had a short set of stairs – unlike other lookouts I’d seen that sit high atop a stilt-like framework with countless steps.

Shorty Peak Lookout offers views of Idaho, Montana & Canada

It wasn’t until 1910 that attention was given to creating an organized forest fire reporting system and fire lookout network. That year, devastating forest fires raged through Idaho, Montana and Washington, consuming 3 million acres and killing close to 90 people in what came to be known as the “Big Burn” and the “Big Blowup.”

By the late 1930s, more than 5,000 fire lookout towers had been constructed, according to the U.S. Forest Service. They provided housing and protection for “fire lookouts” whose duty was to search for wildfires in the wilderness.  At one time, there were over 8,000 fire lookouts in 49 states, based on a national inventory completed by the Forest Fire Lookout Association in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.

But the use of fire towers has waned in recent decades as infrared detection devices, video surveillance and other means have supplanted the human eye. Today, many towers have been enlisted as rentals, ranging in price from $20-$40 per night.

Most cabins are stocked with bare necessities, and usually do not have electricity or running water. Shorty Peak was renovated in 2005 and had just had a fresh coat of paint thanks to a recent stay by a Boy Scout troop. The interior had wooden floors, two twin beds with pads, a couple chairs, a table and cabinets.

Twin bed with mattress pad

It's advised to sit in a chair with your feet on the stool if lightning strikes

It also had a historic fire finder – known as an Osborne Firefinder – which helped pinpoint fire locations, and a district map so we could identify surrounding landmarks. A pit toilet about 100 yards from the lookout also offered its own unique view.

Osborne Firefinder and map used to pinpoint fires

A short trail leads down to the bathroom

Since we were so far north in the Idaho Panhandle, we had views of the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges of northern Idaho, Montana and British Columbia. After exploring around the lookout on foot, bench seating on the catwalk allowed us to enjoy the fair weather and absorb the surrounding views.

Surrounding mountain ranges include Selkirk and Purcell

There’s quite a cult surrounding lookouts and they come with their own etiquette. So before you leave the lookout cabin, remember to:

  • Clean up after yourself – leave the cabin cleaner than you found it
  • Pack out all garbage, empty bottles and cans
  • Make sure fires in stove or fire pit are out
  • Leave a token behind (board games, cards, toiletry items, matches, hand warmers, candles, cooking utensils, etc.)
  • Don’t forget to check out the visitor’s log – read about other people’s experiences and stories…and leave one of your own.

Traveler’s Notebook

Check out these resources for fire tower lookout information and rentals:

Remember to bring:

  • Combination lock code or key to enter the cabin (provided by the rental agency or ranger station)
  • Drinking water (most lookouts do not have running water or a nearby water source)
  • Food, stove, cooking utensils, dish soap
  • Bedding or sleeping bag
  • Light source (propane or battery powered)
  • Binoculars & camera
  • Toilet paper (in case the pit toilet is out or there is no pit toilet)
  • Garbage bags for trash (most facilities are “pack it in – pack it out”)
  • Hiking boots & appropriate clothing for weather conditions
  • Trail map, GPS, mobile phone
  • First-aid kit

 

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2 Responses to this article

 
SANDRA McNEILLY June 19, 2012 Reply

What an excellant idea! Would love to do this!

 
Wendy, Editor June 21, 2012 Reply

You should, Sandra! It’s a lot of fun and a totally different experience. Cheers! Wendy

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