Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 manning a fire tower on Washington’s Desolation Peak, in the northern Cascades. He didn’t do much writing there, apparently, despite being alone with pencil and paper. But he stayed for 63 days. The views were good.
Over the following decades, as new technologies made fire lookouts mostly obsolete, some were torn down. Others were left to rust and splinter, becoming squatter’s dens and canvases for high-altitude graffiti artists. But dozens around the country have survived and are available for rent, evolving into modest sources of revenue for the U.S. Forest Service’s depleted accounts. The Forest Fire Lookout Association maintains a list of available towers; many are available for as little as $20 a night.
Curious, my girlfriend, Maria, and I booked three of them and took off from Atlanta in my overstuffed Honda Civic for a meandering road trip around the West.
Hornet Mountain Lookout is 54 miles from Columbia Falls, in northwestern Montana’s Whitefish Range, just west of Glacier National Park.
You negotiate a series of roads—many unpaved—to get there. The most stunning and steep is the last: Hornet Road 9805. Narrow with few pullouts, this dirt road offers staggering views to the south, though you’ll want to focus on driving. My Civic stuttered a few times but made it to the trailhead; the trail is short but quickly gains 800 feet.
The 12-by-12 lookout was stocked with things you’d expect to find—propane cookstove, lantern, ax, mousetraps—and some you wouldn’t: two dozen rolls of toilet paper, a recent copy of the New Yorker, and a nice desk. In a corner sat a little woodstove with scraps of kindling next to it. In another, shelves with books and camping gear.
We knew that snow is common here in early to midsummer, but this was the end of August. So when flurries arrived the next morning, we ate a quick breakfast outside in the clouds, and then put on all of our layers and headed down to avoid a whiteout at an exposed 7,000 feet.
If you go: The lookout is available from $20 a night. For weather and road conditions, call the Hungry Horse Glacier View ranger district office: 406-387-3800. This lookout is limited to two people and three days. Pets are not allowed. There is no water or electricity.
Shorty Peak Lookout is 46 miles from Bonners Ferry, in the Lower Kootenai River Area of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, just south of Canada. Like Hornet Lookout, the Forest Service roads up to the trailhead made the Civic buck and sway. But we didn't stop moving until we saw a grizzly bear at the start of the 2.5-mile hike to the summit. It had no interest in us, however, and we trudged on. The trail gains 1,300 feet all the way up to 6,295 feet. Just below the rocky final push up, we saw Shorty.
A closer view revealed a much more modern lookout than Hornet. Shorty has the sleek, simple design of a cabin torn from the pages of a Danish architecture magazine. The 15-by-15-foot structure, built in 1964 and refurbished in 2005, sits atop an eight-foot concrete foundation.
We could see two northern Idaho mountain ranges—the Selkirks and the Purcells—as well as Montana to the east and British Columbia to the north. The fire pit where we cooked dinner had a view of it all.
If you go: $25 a night. Call the ranger station (208-267-5561) a week in advance for the lookout lock combo. This lookout has a four-person limit. No water or electricity. Get groceries in Bonners Ferry, or cross into Canada for the nearest convenience store. Check in at 1 p.m.; check out at 11 a.m. Bring bedding.
Hirz Mountain Lookout is located in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, about 30 miles north of Redding. We had to walk the last mile and a half to the tower. Our first view of the tower—which stands at 3,540 feet—was more dramatic than the others we’d visited due to its classic fire tower construction. Nearing Hirz, I was struck by its profile against the sky. I ascended the steps and unlocked the gate, stepping onto a perforated metal catwalk.
Inside, the space was what I figured we’d find at some point: a lookout that was neither endearingly cluttered nor elegantly spare. Paint was badly chipping, the mattresses were slightly dingy, and there was an old bag of Almond Joys in a drawer. (I tried one: not bad.) Still, you spend the night in a lookout for the view of what’s outside, not what’s inside.
And the view was the best yet: We could see the snowy peak of Mt. Shasta to the north, the volcanic heft of Mt. Lassen to the southeast, and the McCloud River Arm meandering south, its waters dangerously low.
If you go: Book for $75 a night (taxes make California lookouts more expensive than those in other states). Call the ranger station (530-275-1587) a week in advance for the lookout lock combo. No water or electricity. Get groceries in Redding. Check in at 2 p.m.; check out by 11 a.m. No wood or charcoal fires allowed. A free California campfire permit is required to use a campstove. Bring bedding. Small pets allowed.