Fire Lookout Towers

by Christina Nellemann on June 29th, 2009. 29 Comments
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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.

Bear Basin Lookout in Six River National Forest, CA

Bear Basin Lookout in Six Rivers National Forest, CA

Yellow Peak Lookout Tower in Northwestern Nevada

Yellow Peak Lookout Tower in Northwestern Nevada - Photo courtesy of Christina Quigley

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.

Swede Mountain Lookout Tower in Libby, MT

Swede Mountain Lookout Tower in Libby, MT

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 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.

Montana Fire Tower Retreat

Montana Fire Tower Retreat

Montana Retreat Family/Sleeping Area

Montana Retreat Family/Sleeping Area

Montana Retreat Patio

Montana Retreat Patio

National Forest Service Fire Lookout Program

Forest Fire Lookout Association

Mt. Washburn Lookout Tower Webcam

By Christina Nellemann

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29 Responses to “Fire Lookout Towers”

  1. janet says:

    Oh wow! Those are beautiful!

  2. Christina says:

    Thanks EJ. I’ve seen that one before in the book “The Cabin” by Dale Mulfinger. Gorgeous! Montana seems to be the place for these types of dwellings.

  3. Switcher says:

    That last image looks GREAT!

  4. Eric says:

    Book about a trio of beat poets (including Jack Kerouac) who’s work was heavily inspired by their summers spent alone in these fire lookout towers.

    The book and site both have tons of beautiful photos of the towers.

  5. Ryan M says:

    OMG! I want that first fire tower!!! Great post Kent!

  6. Dan says:

    Talk about having a room with a view. Beautiful.

  7. [...] the necessity of being “hotel-bound.” Source: Travel and Leisure: Vacation Rentals Articles Fire Lookout Towers – 06/29/2009 For those who really want a taste of solitary living, have you [...]

  8. Ilana says:

    “WOW!” is right!

    I set that last image as my desktop background – whata view :-D

  9. larry says:

    Kerouac’s book about his time as a fire watcher is called The Dharma Bums.

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  15. Dorinda says:

    Does anyone know of a source for building plans for a fire lookout?

  16. OMG, this are the most beautiful houses I have ever seen. They have it all: great view, they are in good place and look awesome. If only I could buy myself one and transport it back here. :)

  17. Astonishing place, one of my favourite (off course I havent been there, but I like it)

  18. brian mcclure says:

    i realy like the look out tower pictures,there is a web site called www. these pole houses can be built 10 ft off the ground great web site

  19. David Vana says:

    Loved these timber fire towers. My business is to completely restoring the old metal FIRE TOWERS and finding new homes for them. Currently working on three projects. Hope to keep one long enough to get it set up on my farm here in the Adirondack mountains.They are used as private observation retreats, wildlife viewing and big kids hang outs.Even engineering one to take a 1 t0 2 kw wind generator on top.
    Something so special and peaceful about being up above it all in your own restored historical fire tower. I love it everytime I finish up a project.

    • Brian Ruesch says:

      Hi David,
      I have a tower sitting on the ground. Would like to know how much it would cost to put it up. located in central wisconsin.

      needs bolts for sections. i think 100 ft.

  20. Hey Sweet Post! I found it on Google. Keep up the great work!

  21. Daniel Westman says:

    Wow, I love the Montana retreat! Isn’t it hard to get a building permit for a tower like that? Most likely you’ll never get a building permit here in Sweden.

  22. Keiran says:

    It’s put a different view on the term ‘log cabin holiday’. Scenic views are a must for me, and being able to get them in the middle of a beautiful, natural wood is fantastic.

  23. JackStraw says:

    Wow, what an amazing view from the tower house.
    Now that’s how I wanna camp!

  24. Hadi says:

    wow,very beautiful
    i want to developed those in my country.

  25. Homer king says:

    Hello out there,
    I live in western n. c.. I own some property that a structure such as a fire tower would most appropriately sit upon.I would live there partly and use it as a vacation rental also. I absolutely love the images of the Montana family tower thinking of doing something similar on my property .am curious where in Montana this is and would consider visiting in person to get a better feel .Is that something that is possible?My companion has family in Bozeman.would combine visits if possible .many thanks, homer king
    Bryson cty . N. c.. 828 4885251

  26. 0-60 says:

    My wife and I purchased a couple acre lot to build our house on that is wooded and hilly. We are thinking about one of these amazing fire lookout tours to build as a place to oversee the property.

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