Off the Beaten Path #11: Lookout Towers


After the intense cold winter temperatures and the sizeable snowfalls are a speck in the rear view mirror of the seasons, Big Sky country becomes much more appealing to visit. For persons interested in outdoor activities, the state of Montana offers fantastic fishing, hunting, bicycling, camping, and hiking opportunities.

One unique activity in Montana involves soaking up the view from historic towers. The US Forest Service provides plenty of access to visitors interested in seeing old lookouts. For decades, this network of towers was manned by agency personal and served as a critical early warning system for forest fires. In recent years, this job was replaced by aerial and other high-tech spotters; thus rendering the lookout towers obsolete.

Fortunately, someone had the good of idea of allowing interested travelers the chance to rent a fire tower for the night. Accommodations vary, but most are equipped with a small stove, food cupboards, bed, and other basic necessities. One thing that each fire tower will offer is a 360-degree view of the countryside’s rugged natural beauty.

One such experience can be secured at the Yaak Mountain Lookout. Located six miles north of Troy, MT near the Canadian border, this site features a forty-five foot treated lumber tower with locking access gate. The lookout can be reached by vehicle using paved and dirt roads.



Yaak Lookout’s tower height is 4,995 feet above sea level, and offers 144 square feet of interior space. It is located in the Kootenai National Forest and the site has been used by authorities since 1917.

When researching tower visits, I found that you do have to be careful. Discussing their stay at the Gem Peak Lookout Tower (also in Northern Montana), Dave and Diane relayed their experience:

…Finding the Gem Peak fire tower was easy. Although it was a 25 mile drive along back woods gravel roads, there were plenty of signs at all the intersections. This was also unfortunate in that it made it a lot easier for every Tom, Dick and Harry to also find the fire tower.

Also the access road was not gated and the tower was not locked. This meant that we had visitors to the tower and any hour of the day or night.

People would drive up and walk up to the catwalk and expect to walk around, irregardless (sic) of the fact that you were renting the tower. This was the worst fire tower that we've rented from the point of view of privacy.

The interior of the tower cabin was in the worst shape of any other tower. With so many day people coming up and accessing the tower, there had been a lot of use and abuse...
Nevertheless, after doing a little due diligence to select the appropriate site visit, spending a summer evening watching eagles soar and then staring at the stars while perched high atop an enclosed fire tower would be quite the experience.

On a side note, if I ever do make it up that far North, no visit to Montana would be complete without a stop at Little Bighorn National Park in Crow Agency (Southern Montana); the site of General George Armstrong Custer’s demise.

Lookout towers for rent in other states can be found here.

Note: Images were used from this site.

3 comments:

mappchik said...

Wow! What an amazing part of another western trip that would make. Not for my family as it is today, as we've kids with a serious fear of heights, but... they'll either grow out of it or grow up and head off to college.

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

FAR OUT! Literally. Bringing the luggage up must be a b_tch, though.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

"spending a summer evening watching eagles soar and then staring at the stars while perched high atop an enclosed fire tower would be quite the experience."

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