For those who really want a taste of solitary living, have you ever dreamed of getting away from it all in a fire lookout tower? In nearly every state of the U.S., fire lookout towers have been built in wilderness areas to watch for forest and wildland fires.
The first fire lookout was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad on Red Mountain near Donner Summit in California to watch for train fires. Initially, fire lookouts were crude camps temporarily set up at “patrol points” where an observer might ride his horse to make observations. Others were “crows nests” – platforms built on top of the highest trees. Fire watchers often doubled as fire fighters. Spotting smoke, he would hop on his horse or hike cross-country to quench the fire.
By 1914, construction standards were in place and soon thereafter, both wooden “live-in” cabs and steel “observation only” towers were being built. Two years later 81 permanent lookout structures stood on key mountain tops.
Each of these lookouts were similiar in that they were small, usually between 9×9 feet to 18×18 feet, supplies had to be hiked or ridden to the tower and they each had a 360 degree view of the surrounding area.
Many fire lookouts have now been abandoned, vandalized and even destroyed, but there is a growing trend towards lookout revival. Groups of enthusiasts are organizing to share information and enhance public knowledge and awareness of fire lookouts. Lookouts are now considered functional for non-traditional uses and are being restored to serve as museums, interpretive centers, wildlife observation posts and vacation rentals.
In the recent issue of Via Magazine by AAA, an article gives tips on how you can rent a fire lookout tower. The U.S. Forest Service offers them for about $40 a night. To rent a tower:
1. Go to the recreation.gov website.
2. Choose cabins or lookouts from the ‘Looking for’ pull-down menu on the left under the “Find Sites” sidebar.
3. Choose your state in the State field pull-down menu.
4. Leave the Park of Facility name field blank unless you know the name of the lookout that you want to rent.
5. Choose specific camping dates to search.
6. View the results and reserve your tower!
Lookout towers are not luxurious destinations so be prepared for primitive accommodations. Most lookout towers do not have showers, flush toilets or running water. You will need to carry water for all your cooking, cleaning, and personal grooming needs.
Many towers do contain simple furnishings including a mattress, propane camp stove, desk, chairs, and, if you are lucky, a propane refrigerator.
If you do fall in love with living in a lookout tower, you can build your own. This couple built a tower retreat in Western Montana with many of the same aspects of an original fire lookout tower.
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