Montana is a state of mind as much as a place, embodying the frontier, the untamed—the wild west. Home to the grizzly bear, Glacier National Park and gobs of Ted Turner ranches, we went to Big Sky Country in seek of…what else…bigger skies! And there’s no better place to appreciate the bountiful vistas than atop a mountain in the rustic recluse of a fire tower. Here’s how you can capture big views and bigger memories…
The stance of a mountain top cabin has a certain romantic appeal. But history of the lookout tower is all business and harks back to the summer of 1910, when the U.S. mountain west was a tinderbox. Drought and dry timber were stirred by hurricane force winds, igniting one of the largest fires ever seen in the U.S. After the ash fell, over 3-million acres of land had burned, towns were decimated and the U.S. government turned its attention to aggressively fighting fires. 20 years later, Teddy Roosevelt put American muscle to work, building towers on the tippy-top of the Rocky Mountains and roads leading up to thus said towers.
Lookouts popped up on nearly every hilltop—over 5,000 of them in all—and the towers were manned all summer long to spot and squash early blazes.
Fast forward 80 years, high tech gadgetry now fights the front lines of fire detection, making lookouts nearly obsolete. While many of the lookouts have crumbled to wrack and ruin, the Forest Service has protected a handful of these as buena vista hostels.
A little known secret? You can have that view all to yourself for as little as $30 a night!
How to rent a fire tower
Montana and Idaho have more than 30 towers available to rent through the national recreational rental program. Additional towers can be rented in Oregon, and to a lesser extent, Washington, California, and Wyoming.
We picked a pair of towers to explore by bike. But the same kind of trip could be accessed by car and would make a fantastic weekend trip.
To reserve a tower, go to firelookout.org and check out the towers available in your area. Then head to www.recreation.gov for reservations, which will cost $30-60 a night, plus a reservation processing fee. Not bad, really, for your own slice of private Idaho (or Montana, Oregon or Wyoming…). You’ll receive a confirmation number after you pay. Bring it with you, it’s your proof of purchase.
The two towers we visited were unlocked. Though some towers may stand behind locked gates or require keys. Get in touch with the local forest service to get the keys or access code.
The rental season opens after the snow melts, usually starting at the end of June and wrapping up near the end of September. Tower reservations become available six months in advance. So now is the perfect time to put summer plans into motion.
For more information about the fire towers in general, check out the USDA page on forest cabin and lookout rentals.
What to Bring
The lookouts are spartanly supplied so you’ll need to bring your own goods. In addition to food and water, we packed a camp stove, propane, cookware, pads and sleeping bag. Recreation.gov lists the amenities available with each cabin, so you can better anticipate what to bring.
The towers are heated with small, wood burning stoves and are stocked with wood weekly. We were able to boil water for coffee right on the potbelly stove.
Tower cabins will have at least one bunk, perhaps two, but bring your own bedding. The wood stove can quickly heat the small interior to the mid-80s, so you don’t need a lot of insulation. For cabin-to-cabin touring, we brought a small lightweight 45º quilt from Brooks Range, and found it plenty warm. I’d recommend a spare pad just in case and, of course, a pillow from home.
Pack It In, Pack It Out. If you pack it in, please pack it out. And if you do find trash, pack it out, too. The cabins are rented daily and belong to the public, so it helps to remember the Golden Rule. Because who wants to arrive to the top of a pristine location only to find someone else’s trash?
Water. Situated at the top of the mountain, the towers are ‘dry.’ So bring your own water, and be prepared to haul it up to the towers. I always bring a water jug on any road trip. With it’s hefty handle and easy to use spigot, we’re fans of the 7-gallon Reliance Aqua-Tainer, available for under $20 at REI.
Weather. As they say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes…” Montana up high exemplifies alpine weather, where the mountains can bring 100°F temperatures, rain, snow…wind…all in one day. And the snow sticks around long into summer. Fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), the lookouts don’t open until after the snow melts.
Keep in mind that fire towers were purpose built. It would be prudent to check the last fire incidents and status. Skip on over to the USDA Forest Service Fire Page for the most recent status. Fire season generally picks up middle of July and can run well into fall. To stay clear of fires, plan your visit on the shoulders of summer, when it tends to be cooler and wetter.
The middle of September, when we visited, is a fantastic time to visit. You will be able to enjoy cooler temperatures, changing fall colors…potentially rain…potentially snow (but nothing that should deter you too much).
If you visit in September, pay attention to hunting season and if you have dogs, (which some cabins allow, others do not) make sure they are donning blaze orange vests to remain visible.
How To Get There
Recreation.gov does a great job of providing turn-by-turn navigation from the nearest main roads up to the cabins. Road conditions can vary both due to the season, and general terrain. These are, afterall, backcountry roads that can be narrow, steep, and exposed as they wind to the highest point in the area. High clearance vehicles are recommended.
Questions or unsure? Call the local forest service to ask before you depart.
Touring the Montana fire towers was a trip I won’t soon forget. We found two available towers reasonably close that matched our timeline. If you get on it early, the options are innumerable. But don’t wait too long, the choice towers and times will be snatched up quickly. For your own tour, get a map and get online in January. Good luck and enjoy the view!