Inns & Lodges: Sleeping Beauties

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1997

Inns & Lodges: Sleeping Beauties

Smoking out the overlooked fire-spotting towers
By Lorien Warner

In 1981, when the forest service first got the notion to convert some of its outmoded and decommissioned fire-spotting towers into ultra-primitive wilderness hostels, it expected mild interest. But today, with 28 of the lookouts open in the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, the agency can't keep up with demand. Reservations for the most popular towers are required months in advance.

Of course, a crowd often means there's an overlooked jewel elsewhere. So as the Forest Service works toward opening at least two more towers to the public this summer, we asked local outfitters, as well as sources within the Forest Service itself, for their recommendations on the finest of the less-utilized lookouts. Their choices:

A 1940s-era leftover, McCart Lookout, in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, stands atop high stilts and features wraparound windows but, like most of the towers, no indoor plumbing. Locals in nearby Sula insist, however, that the inconvenience of descending 15 steps to the ground-level outhouse is easily offset by McCart's access to one of the prettiest, least-hiked trails in the West: a five-mile jaunt through white birch and wildflowers to the summit of Johnson Peak, where the trees fall away to show breathtaking views of the Sapphire Mountain Range. To reach the tower, take County Road 472 east from Sula, follow the signs to the Johnson Peak Trail, and hike in a mile and a half. McCart Lookout rents for $25 per night. Call 406-821-3201.

Shorty Peak
For those who get queasy at the idea of bunking in a "tower," the well-named Shorty Peak Lookout, in northern Idaho, sits only five feet off the ground — but has views clear to Creston, British Columbia. Instead of height, it supplies frisson by being among the few lookouts situated in grizzly country, commanding a thrilling lecture about precautions from the ranger who takes your reservation. Shorty Peak sits at the end of the 2.4-mile, hemlock- and cedar-lined Shorty Peak Trail; the trailhead is 45 miles from Bonners Ferry on Forest Road 282. Shorty Peak Lookout rents for $20 per night. Call 208-267-5561.

For information about other renovated towers, call the Forest Service public affairs line (202-205-1760). And remember, the towers offer only shelter and views. Pack in your own water, food, cooking fuel, and sleeping bags. And if you spy a wisp of smoke as you scan the scenery, report it.

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