Fire lookouts boast spectacular views across the American West. The lofty cabins are gorgeous and available to guests for the night.
Found in iconic wilderness areas, fire lookouts are rustic, beautiful, cheap lodging full of adventure. But they tend to book up early and often, so we’ve put together this little primer to help you plan a night in one of these very special bunks.
After the great fire of 1910 — which burned a contiguous region the size of Connecticut — 5,000 or so mountain-top structures were erected across the nation, manned with spotters who would endure months of isolation to keep vigil over its forested radius.
Fast forward a century and technology has replaced manpower. Many of the original towers have crumbled into rock and ruin. But for those with a stomach for potentially dizzying heights a handful are still in vintage condition, ready to rent at amazingly reasonable rates.
The Hyatt they are not. Lookouts are spartanly small cabins — 15 by 15 feet or so — typically furnished with a table and chairs, bunks and a wood stove. If you’re lucky, the shelves might be stocked with minimal supplies: lantern, toilet paper, kindling.
There is no running water or electricity (or WiFi, and probably not cell service). The outdoor privy is usually a hike down the hill or a bucket that leaves you and your imagination to solve the puzzle.
But the perks are bountiful in eye candy, with panoramic views, uninterrupted silence, and star-choked nights.
Book Your Room
Lookouts are first-come, first-served and obtained through Recreation.gov, where a search for the term “fire lookout” brought up 225 results.
Each facility entry includes a brief history of the lookout along with things to do and things you should know before clicking ‘book it now’ (toilet or bucket, mattress or bunks, refrigerator or BYO-ice…). A map and directions round out the details.
When To Go
Being perched on the precipice of a void and nowhere, rentals are at the whim of the winter snowpack. Some will open as early as June, others as late as mid-July, with service ending late September.
Remember that fire towers served a purpose in a potentially dangerous region — it would be wise to book a date just after the spring snow melt but before the summer heat sets the hills ablaze (read, as early in the season as you can).
So What’s It Cost?
Reservations typically run between $20-60 a night with the average running about $40. Recreation.gov charges a nominal service fee in addition to the reservation.
What To Bring
It depends on the amenities of the lookout. Some will be stocked with mattresses and refrigerators. Others are modest digs. In the least, you will need to bring your confirmation letter–the forest service will request to see it before they hand over the keys.
Contact the forest service prior to your departure to arrange the exchange ahead of time.
What’s the catch?
Some (but not all) towers stand stilted above the ground so pets are often not allowed, and towing children under 12 is discouraged. Most reservations will cap your visit for a long weekend.
And just when you think you are on to something new, know that lookout reservations are fiercely sought after. Plan to book six months in advance.
For more information, check out your Department of Agriculture’s regional site, where you can read up on the history of the fire tower rental program, the risks, rules and regulations. Or head over to the Forest Fire Lookout Association’s site, which gives you a good overview of lookouts in the nation and around the world.
For a unique spin on Montana towers, go to Casey Greene’s blog. A sort of Montana lookout aficionado, Casey has bike-packed extensively through Montana’s lookout system, and he provided many of the photos for this story.
What are you waiting for? At this very moment there are views to dazzle the eye over pristine forests, a sunrise or sunset, or a starry night just waiting for you to complete the picture. Grab the ladder and climb.