Travel Tip: Riding to a Fire Lookout
Like wooden crowns, fire lookouts once perched atop the rocky summits of hundreds of western peaks, mountains with evocative names like Camels Hump, Cerro Pelado, UpUp, Bare Cone, and Two Trees. A relatively small proportion of these lookout cabins and towers still stand.
One of them is in Montana’s Lolo National Forest on a peak called West Fork Butte, where years ago a friend of mine, a now-retired Montana high school teacher, worked as a paid fire lookout. (“Lookout” describes both the structure and its occupant.) Through his work, my friend became addicted to the views, the silent solitude -- and the violent electric storms.
“You can see these storms building, approaching,” he told me, with a faint smile and a distant, excited look firing his eyes. “You feel anticipation, anxiety. You hope it turns electrical, and if it does, the buildup of energy and power can be exquisite. There’s an exchange between the clouds and the mountains. If you’re outside on the catwalk you can sometimes actually feel the surge in your face, your eyeballs, your scalp. Suddenly there’s lightning and thunder everywhere, and you know you’d better get inside, fast.”
Sounds like fun, eh? Well, thrilling anyway. Of the lookout towers and cabins still standing, approximately five dozen of them are available for nightly rentals (some in winter only, some in summer only, and some year-round). The accommodations are spartan; typically a wood-fired heating/cooking stove and a sprung spring-mattress on a frame. But the views these lookouts command cannot be beat, and they more than make up for the lack of niceties.
The rental lookouts are situated in the seven western states of Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, with the majority in the final three states. Some have primitive dirt roads leading right to them; others are accessible by hiking trail only. But even for many of those, you can make the approach by bicycle over Forest Service roads, stash your bike in the woods for the night, and hike the rest of the way in. Just be aware: It's typically uphill all the way in on day one, and downhill all the way back on day two.
It’s a view with a room, providing for a Bike Overnight you will never forget.
Check out Adventure Cycling cartographer Casey Greene's photostream from a trip he took, staying at eight different lookouts on a ten-day ride.
Photo by Casey Greene. The McGuire Fire Lookout is located at 6,970 feet in Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. The cabin was built in 1924. After several decades of disuse, it was restored in 1983.