Sky-High Sleep: Touring Montana Fire Towers

Punctuating the horizon where mountains meet the sky, a fire tower yields one of the best cabin rental opportunities available. Touring towers by bike makes for a summer trip you won’t soon forget.

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Pedaling out of Thompson Falls, Mont., we craned our necks upward to spy our destination. By the end of the day, we’d camp on top of one of these peaks in a rustic cabin with a spectacular 360-degree view. But not until we churned through a 4,000-foot climb, bike slumped with gear for the weekend.

We sat back in the saddle, dropped our heads and simply spun our legs until we ran out of road. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

If you are considering visiting one (or two or three) of these Montana towers by bike—and we whole-heartedly recommend you do it at least once in your life—read on for need-to-know facts.

Renting A Montana Fire Tower


Montana and Idaho have more than 30 towers available to rent through the recreational rental program. Additional towers can be rented in Oregon, and to a lesser extent, Washington, California, and Wyoming.

We looked at what was available on back-to-back days then went to the maps to divine a route that looped two likely candidates. With some advanced planning, several other options would have been available.

To make your own plans, go to firelookout.org and check out the tower options. Then surf over to Google Maps to gauge how far apart the available towers might be. Fire lookout will link you to www.recreation.gov for reservations.

For more information about the fire towers in general, check out the USDA page on forest cabin and lookout rentals. The rental season generally runs from the end of June through the end of September. Tower reservations become available six months in advance.

Fire Towers: Rent Far In Advance

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With winter nearly upon us, it’s reasonable to ask why we’re running a bike tour story. In short, fire tower rentals are managed by Reserve America and rentals become available six months out from the reservation date. Fire towers are a fiercely hot rental commodity and late spring reservations will roll out as early as January.

If you are even slightly interested, get on it soon. Rentals are hard to come by, especially for weekends.

What to Bring

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No pump or flowing water is available at the mountain top cabins, so be prepared to stock up on water below and haul it to the top. We each carried 5 liters of water: enough to keep us hydrated on the way up, reconstitute dinner and breakfast, and still have some water for the ride down.

The lookouts are spartanly supplied and you’ll need to bring your own stove and cookware. To keep our kit light, we brought a DIY alcohol stove that weighed in the ounces and boiled water in minutes. But the cabins are heated with wood burning stoves and are stocked with wood weekly. We were able to boil water in our Sea To Summit kettle pot right on the wood stovetop.

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Tower cabins will have at least one bunk, perhaps two, but bring your own bedding. The wood stove can quickly heat the small interior to the mid-80s, so you don’t need a lot of insulation. For cabin-to-cabin bike packing, I brought a lightweight 45-degree quilt from Brooks Range, and was plenty warm. And because one of you will eventually draw the short straw, bring a spare pad or you’ll be sleeping on the slats.

Recreation.gov lists what amenities are available with each cabin so you can better anticipate what to pack.

Pack It In, Pack It Out. If you pack it in, please pack it out. The cabins are rented daily; who wants to arrive to the top of a pristine location only to find someone else’s trash?

Weather

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Montana exemplifies alpine weather, where you can experience hot temperatures, rain, snow, and wind all in one day. And the snow sticks around long into summer. Fortunately, the lookouts don’t open until after the snow melts.

The middle of September, when we toured, was a fantastic time to visit. You will be able to enjoy cooler temperatures, changing fall colors, potentially rain or snow, but nothing that will deter you too much.

If touring in late September, wear bright colors so hunters can easily spot you.

Bears

It’s Montana and bears live in the “59000” zip code. We strapped bear mace to our packs, ready to use at a moment’s notice. You can’t fly with it, and it’s not cheap ($50). If you are flying in through Spokane, swing by REI to purchase mace.

Fire

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Fire towers were purpose built. Riders should check the latest fire incidents and status as posted on the USDA Forest Service Fire Page. To stay clear of fires, plan your ride early or late in the season, when it tends to be cooler and wetter.

Towers We Visited

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Cougar Peak Lookout

  • Size: 14′ by 14′
  • Beds: 1 (can sleep four)
  • Chairs: 2
  • Wood stove: Yes
  • Privy: Yes
  • Climb: 4,000′
  • Miles climbing: 15
  • Season: July 1 – September 23
  • Water: no
  • Price: $30

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Gem Peak Lookout

  • Size: 15′ by 15′
  • Beds: 2 (can sleep four)
  • Chairs: 2
  • Wood stove: Yes
  • Privy: Yes
  • Climb: 4,000′
  • Miles climbing: 8
  • Season: June 27 – October 10
  • Water: no
  • Price: $35

Touring the Montana fire towers was a trip I won’t soon forget. We found two available towers reasonably close that matched our timeline. If you get on it early, the options are innumerable. But don’t wait too long, the choice towers and times will be snatched up quickly. For your own tour, get a map and get online in January. Good luck and enjoy the ride!

Author’s Note

The author rides with XPDTN3, a collective of writers, photographers and bike industry insiders who tackle epic 3-day rides. You can read more about their ride and and other micro bike expeditions at XPDTN3.

Steve Graepel
By

Contributing Editor (and Gear Junkie Idaho Bureau Chief) Steve Graepel is allegedly a crook and a thief, conning his friends to steal away time from their families in pursuit of premeditated leisure, which typically involves a bike, a pack-raft, skis, running shoes, climbing rack, or all of the above.

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