Photo: Clear Lake Lookout, Courtesy of Mt.Hood National Forest
The attentive forest service firefighter scans the horizon diligently from their aerie lookout tower.
It’s an improbable structure in an improbable place, perched high on a rocky summit overlooking an immense landscape of evergreen trees. The tower itself has stood the test of time and many winters above treeline. Its aged, riveted steel skeleton has a patina of mottled red rust and layers of chipped paint, but it stands strong nonetheless. The living quarters of this fire lookout are simple, basic in both comfort and design. It’s a wooden box with 360 degrees of glass. Amenities include a bed, some storage for gear, a tiny food prep area, and a platform in the center of the room for the Osborne fire finder. And if you think that this sounds like the perfect place to spend a night under the stars, then you are in luck.
To this day, there are fire lookout towers all over the United States, although very few are regularly staffed. Their demise was the result of slashed federal budgets and new technology, but most were built to last, and many of these steel or stone structures still stand solidly atop the peaks where they were installed. To their credit, instead of removing them, the Forest Service has added many to the Recreation.gov database of reservable campsites, letting recreationists book them for the ultimate backcountry cabin experience.
Renting a Fire Lookout Tower
If you want to rent a fire lookout tower, this database provided by the Forest Fire Lookout Association is a great place to start your search. They have many towers listed (and linked to their respective recreation.gov listings) with the highest concentrations in Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. Here are a few of the most popular ones.
Hager Mountain Lookout– Located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, this lookout is one of the rare few that are still staffed during the summer months. Accordingly, you can only book a stay at this lookout during the winter. The Hager Mountain lookout is located at 7,195 feet above sea level with panoramic views, including Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta. Hager offers bunk beds, a wood stove, propane heat, lighting, and a small refrigerator. Beyond that, you’ll need to bring everything you need for a comfortable stay.
Photo by Suzanne Bruen, Courtesy of Territory Supply
Girard Ridge Lookout – This lookout was originally constructed in 1931 but was fully restored in 1997, offering an authentic experience. From its perch above the Sacramento river canyon at 4,809 feet, this lookout offers views of Mt. Shasta, the Castle Crags Wilderness, and occasionally Lassen Peak (if it’s a clear day). Amenities are limited to storage, beds, and an outhouse.
Photo by Chase McMunn, Courtesy of Territory Supply
Squaw Mountain Lookout – At 11,486 feet above sea level, Squaw Mountain lookout is one of the highest fire lookouts in the country. Located just outside Denver, Colorado, this stone lookout offers some basic amenities, including a refrigerator, heater, and toilet. You can drive most of the way to Squaw, but you will have to hike the final mile. It may not sound like much, but above 11,000 feet, even a short hike can feel quite strenuous if you are not acclimated.
Photo by Matthew Eaton, Courtesy of The Outbound Collective
Clear Lake Lookout– Clear Lake lookout is perched on the side of Mt. Hood, the highest peak in Oregon’s Cascade Range. This 40-foot-tall lookout comes stocked with firewood for its wood stove, beds, chairs, a table, a propane cooking stove, solar-powered lights, and an outhouse. Getting to Clear Lake Lookout requires an 8-mile round-trip effort on foot, skis, or snowshoes (or you can take the easy way out and rent a snowmobile).