Spotlight: Experience the Forest from a Fire Lookout
Expansive views, solitude, and heritage perched on higher grounds as you overnight in a fire lookout tower!
“I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of 'thinking' and 'enjoying' what they call 'living,' I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds." -Jack Kerouac
What You’ll Find
These peak-top cabins offer the best views in the forest—sitting high atop the mountains, each with a 360 degree bank of windows and an observation deck to experience the entire landscape all at once.
Lookouts are remnants of an early wildfire detection system, and forests still use some of them to spot fires today. Towers were built on mountaintops high above the trees and provide the people who serve as lookouts the ability to spot smoke and alert firefighting forces on the ground. The towers are equipped with comfortable living space and provide a unique experience for those who seek amazing views.
There are dozens of reservable lookouts located across the country available through Recreation.gov. Here are just a few examples from California, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.
- Black Mountain Lookout Plumas National Forest, California — Constructed in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lookout offers striking views of Honey Lake to the north, and Last Chance Creek to the south.
- Little Guard Lookout Idaho Panhandle National Forests, Idaho — This fully furnished lookout was one of the last remaining fire lookouts used in the Coeur d'Alene River area.
- Mt. Wam Lookout Cabin Rental Kootenai National Forest, Montana — Visitors hike five miles to access the lookout and are rewarded with panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies to the north, the Galton Mountains to the west, the Whitefish Range to the south and Glacier National Park to the east.
- Bald Knob Lookout Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Oregon — Originally developed in 1931 as a lookout site, Bald Knob served as an Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) observation station between 1942 and 1944.
Make Sure You
Bring your binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras. The views from these unique structures provide an experience like no other. Most lookouts are above treeline and offer opportunities to view wildlife, enjoy wildflowers and soak up solitude.
Visit the U.S. Forest Service History site to learn more about the origins of fire lookouts, the tools of the trade (such as the Osborne "firefinder," a directional fire sighting device) and the people who chose a life of solitude in these rugged, secluded and beautiful places.
Lookouts are often isolated and without easy access to services. They are not generally stocked with water, bedding, cooking supplies, toilet paper or similar necessities. Visitors must bring their supplies and pack out what is left, including trash. Carefully read the description of the lookout you wish to reserve and make sure you come prepared with everything you need.
Lookout towers are usually at high-elevations that can sometimes cause altitude sickness. Read Preventing Altitude Sickness to learn how to detect symptoms and take action.
To find a lookout, simply enter the place you wish to visit on Recreation.gov, choose the "camping and lodging option" and select "lookouts." Lookouts are extremely popular in many areas and may require that you book your reservation several weeks or even months in advance.
Did You Know?
During the summer of 1956, the author Jack Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout at Desolation Peak within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State.
Early fire detection became a top priority for the U.S. Forest Service following a series of devastating wildfires in 1910 when more than three million acres burned across Washington, Idaho and Montana; known as the Big Blowup. In response, fire lookout towers were built in forests across the country. By the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps joined the effort to build lookouts; many of which still stand today.