In the fast-paced age in which we live, true adventures are more and more difficult to find. Those who seek enlightenment must forego the ready-made paths of escape and venture to where the only comfort available is the comfort of a still mind.
Or so we gathered from our reading of The Dharma Bums.
What we’re trying to say is that, while treehouses and desert lodges are fun and stylish, they’re often a little too close to civilization, which is fine if you’re just looking to unwind a little. But if samadhi is what you seek, you’re probably not going to reach it at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, okay?
As Confucius wrote, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” We’re pretty sure he was talking about renting a fire lookout tower.
In the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service built a large number of rustic shelters, known as fire lookouts, in various public lands to house employees whose job it was to spot the smoke of wildfires and notify firefighters. Typically located on a mountain summit for maximum viewing distance, these shelters consisted of one room surrounded by windows, flanked by shutters to block the unforgiving noonday sun. They are often outfitted with only a bed, a propane stove, and possibly a table and chair.
Every year, the U.S. Forest Service makes a limited number of fire towers available for sojourners to stay in. The rentals are cheap, but not easy to come by. You can only reserve at certain times of the year, for certain days. Depending on the location, you may have to share your space during the day when an actual fire lookout shows up for work. In other words, would-be dharma bums have to earn the right to stay in one of these iconic retreats.
Finally, fire lookouts must be reserved well in advance of your trip. Don’t be sore — it’s actually a mercy. The last thing you want is to arrive at your remote destination, only to realize you forgot to pack clean underwear and matches. Adventure at this level requires thoughtful preparation and mindful intention.
So what are you waiting for, grasshopper? Start planning your soul journey at one of these remote fire lookouts.
We have a series of volcanic eruptions that occurred about 8 million years ago to thank for Hager Mountain. With snow-capped peaks in the distance and volcanic landscapes giving way to meadows of sage, this place of solitude is a feast for eyes and cameras alike. The 360-degree views allow visitors to see Mount Hood and Mount Shasta on a clear day.
This rugged winter destination should be reserved for those with winter backcountry experience, as well as plenty of backpacking miles under their belt. Accessible by foot, snowshoe, or skis, weather conditions must be keenly observed by those wishing to enjoy the rare air and panoramic views of this lookout.
The Hager Lookout is one of the few remaining lookouts still staffed for fire detection during the dry season. It’s available for rent from November 15 to May 15.
In the nearby town of Lake Tahoe, $45 will get you exactly zero hotel rooms for the night. But, if you have the right gear, the right attitude and a desire for adventure, $45 will get you a secluded room to yourself with one of the best views in the Golden State.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps built this enclosed windmill-style fire lookout in 1934. It was used every summer until 1975. Sitting at an elevation of 5,980 feet, Calpine is a short drive from world-class mountain biking and the storied Pacific Crest Trail.
Guests of the Calpine Lookout will adventure sans electricity and running water, though a propane stove, heater, and trio of lights are at your disposal. You’ll also find some pots and pans burnished with the patina of history. Forget four-star restaurants — few are the souls lucky enough to dine in such a place of elegance.
Bring your own bedding and TP, and prepare to rest your head in a building handcrafted by men who knew the value of a hard day’s night under the stars. Note that this tower is currently closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
If sleeping at 10,000 feet elevation isn’t quite enough for you, the extra 55 feet of stairs in this lookout tower might just get you to where you wanna be. The Jersey Jim Lookout Tower can be found in the San Juan National Forest of southwest Colorado in the vicinity of the Four Corners.
Named after an old cattleman, the structure looks out over aspen-lined meadows toward Hesperus Peak, a mountain sacred to the Navajo Nation. The one-room tower cab includes the original furniture, propane heat and lighting. While there is a sink, stove, and refrigerator, there is no electricity or running water, so come prepared.
Reservations are available from late May to mid-October and guests should be prepared for high altitude weather throughout this range of dates. This means large fluctuations in temperature from day to night, and the possibility of snow on all but the warmest of July and August nights. In other words: dress in layers.
The cool green peaks of the Washington mountains were home to Jack Kerouac during one of the most influential years of his life. At the 5,587-foot Evergreen Mountain Lookout, you can get a taste of what the great poet saw as he endured the solitude and beauty of the Washington backcountry.
The Evergreen Lookout was built in 1935 for detecting wildfires, but during WWII it was repurposed as an Aircraft Warning Station. The tower saw continued use as a fire lookout until the early 1980s. It now holds a place on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The adventurers who hike in to Evergreen Lookout are rewarded on clear days with views of Glacier Peak, Keyes Peak, Mt. Rainier, and the Columbia Glacier. Wildlife is abundant, and guests of this tower can keep their eyes peeled for black bears, bobcat, elk and bald eagles.
The 14 x 14-foot cabin sleeps four and is furnished with one twin-sized bed and mattress as well as three extra mattresses for the short straw drawers. There is no water or heat so plan accordingly.
Located smack in the middle of Big Sky country, the visual landscape around Thompson Peak Lookout is not for the faint of heart. This lookout tower is surrounded by the two-million-acre Lolo National Forest, which means you’ll be seeing a lot of your neighbors: bighorn sheep, moose, elk, grizzly and black bears, bald and golden eagles, trumpeter swans … you get the idea.
Formidable location notwithstanding, consider Thompson Peak the luxury suite of lookout towers. Built on the third floor of a multi-use building, the lookout space is more of an apartment, with extra amenities like an electric stove, heater, microwave, small refrigerator, and cell phone service. Easily accessible by vehicle and not far from the town of Superior, Thompson Peak might be the best option for greenhorns looking to test their mettle.
Dating back to 1959, Webb Mountain Lookout served as a lookout for forest firefighters for more than 40 years. From the outside, the bland stone and concrete structure isn’t much to look at. But, panoramic windows and a 360-degree catwalk provide stunning views of the surrounding Kootenai National Forest from the tower’s 6,000-foot vantage point. The interior is likewise ascetic with minimal amenities. Although the 196-square-foot floor plan is reasonably spacious with room for up to five, guests are encouraged to pack in almost all of their own supplies. It’s mostly accessible by well-maintained forest roads, but the last quarter mile requires a high-clearance vehicle. Due to the remote location and Montana’s extreme weather, Webb Mountain Lookout is only available to rent for a brief period from mid-June to the end of September.
Situated 11,000 feet above sea level at the summit of its namesake mountain, Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout affords stunning views of Colorado’s Clear Creek County. The area offers world-class adventure opportunities, including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking and recreational shooting year-round. The 14 by 14-foot cabin is tight by any measure, but a wraparound catwalk and windows are enough to make guests forget all about the cramped quarters. Plus, it’s better outfitted than most fire lookouts. There’s a full kitchen with utensils, a refrigerator, and an electric stove. The working heat and beds mean guests really only need to bring themselves, water, and their own bedding or sleeping bags. A semi-private outhouse with an incinerating toilet adds a bit of faux luxury to the mix. Squaw Mountain is currently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic but is typically open from May 1 through the end of the year.
Fivemile Butte Lookout is a deceptively basic, one-story cabin perched atop a 40-foot wood platform in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest. The views from the top are anything but basic, however. At an elevation of more than 4,600 feet, the tower offers unparalleled views of Mount Hood, Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier. Neatly tucked into a vast forest of western hemlock, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine, it feels a million miles from anywhere. Not surprisingly, it’s also a haven for wildlife — everything from turkeys and blue jays to elk and coyotes to cougars and bears. Avid outdoorsmen will find plenty of opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and more. The good news is this lookout is open year-round for around $50 per night. In the summer months, it’s also easily accessible by car via maintained backroads.
These are only a few of our favorites. You can find more fire lookout tower options around the country at Recreation.gov.
Article originally published January 16, 2018.
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