Historical landmarks and symbols of our complicated and ever-evolving relationship with wildland blazes, the fire lookout towers of America’s wildernesses and semi wildernesses also make one-of-a-kind backcountry accommodations. Scores of decommissioned towers are available for rent, offering charming and generally pretty unforgettable overnight lodgings with invariably awesome views.
Gold Butte Fire Tower in the Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Photo by Cheryl Hill
For decades, fire lookout towers (sometimes called firewatch or ranger towers) provided surveillance of wildfire activity in rough, rugged, often roadless country. As fire suppression became basically nationwide policy in the early 20th century, lookout towers proliferated—especially via Civilian Conservation Corps work during the Great Depression, and during World War II when the vantages also served as part of the Aircraft Warning Service. (A piece of fire-tower historical trivia: A lookout in the Siskiyou National Forest of southwestern Oregon spotted the smoke from an incendiary bomb launched by a Japanese submarine off the Pacific coast on September 9th, 1942 with the intention of sparking a forest fire.)
The Former Fire Lookout Site Register suggests more than 8,000 were in use in the country at one time, in every U.S. state except Kansas. Lookouts used binoculars and Osborne Firefinders to detect and locate wildfires, being treated as they monitored their viewsheds through the course of a season to some spectacular panoramic wilderness scenery, dramatic lightning spectacles, wildlife viewing, and plenty of solitude. Many fire watch towers were literally towers raised above surrounding woods; others were essentially cabins perched on alpine ridges or summits.
Modern innovations in aircraft and computer fire-detection technology resulted in the decline of active-duty lookout towers in the latter half of the 20th century, which also saw some important shifts away from blanket fire suppression in recognition of the intrinsic role wildfires play in most ecosystems in the country. According to the National Forest Foundation, fewer than 1,000 lookout towers remain on the American landscape.
But some areas are still remote or rough enough to keep fire lookouts on the job: Several hundred of those remaining towers are still staffed during the fire season. Many of the existing decommissioned towers, meanwhile, have been maintained or restored to serve as rentals, giving overnight visitors the chance to experience a little bit of lookout life and appreciate these special pieces of wilderness history.
Not a few famous writers have done stints serving as fire lookouts, enjoying the inspirational backdrop, meditative pace, and solitude of the work. They include poet and wilderness thinker Gary Snyder, Beat visionary Jack Kerouac (inspired by Snyder to take a lookout job at Desolation Peak in the North Cascades), desert sage Edward Abbey, grizzly expert and wilderness warrior Doug Peacock, and A River Runs Through It author Norman Maclean, to name a few. So in some cases hiking to a particular lookout tower is also a literary pilgrimage, maybe embellished by packing along Earth House Hold, Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, Desolation Angels, The Journey Home, Grizzly Years, and other lookout-penned works.
Rentable fire lookout towers are scattered across the American West, and there’s now at least one in the East: Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in West Virginia’s Seneca State Forest. You can reserve a night or two in many of these lookout towers via Recreation.gov; have a look at available options with this handy Forest Fire Lookout Association list. Quite a few of these fire tower rentals are in high demand, so you'd be wise to book your stay as soon as reservations are open.
You can drive to some lookout towers (often via pretty gnarly primitive roads); others are only reachable by hiking trail, and typically you can expect a pretty decent workout getting up to the promontory! It's also a blast to cross-country ski or snowshoe your way to a lookout tower (whether along a snowed-in road or a trail) for a wintertime overnighter.
Be sure to assess a given lookout’s facilities and amenities via its Recreation.gov or analogous online profile and/or by calling the appropriate management agency (often the Forest Service). Water and pit toilets may or may not be available at the lookout site. You’ll often have some barebones sort of bed (bring a sleeping bag and perhaps a sleeping pad) as well as a cook stove: perfect for a Mountain House meal with an absolutely killer view!
Even those fire lookouts that aren’t available to rent make worthy day hiking destinations: from the actively staffed tower atop 10,243-foot Mount Washburn in the heart of Yellowstone National Park (watch for grizzly bears and bighorns on the way up) to the far flung (and closed to the public) Desolation Peak Lookout in North Cascades National Park, where Kerouac spent a summer (inspiring his novel Desolation Angels), and where you can nab a stirring panorama of staggering peaks, including the mighty Hozomeen. Fire lookouts may allow visitors into their towers for a quick visit, or they may not; it goes without saying you shouldn’t intrude upon their private space without permission.