As the last glimmers of bloodred light fade behind the snowy silhouette of the mountains, we sit on the catwalk surrounding our shelter. We are perched at 6,157 feet in an aerie known as the West Fork Butte Lookout, a 14-by-14-foot room atop a cairn of lichen-covered shale rock. Our walls on all four sides are glass, offering us a 360-degree view of the wilderness of western Montana from our cots. This shelter, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, has been retired from duty as a watch post for wildfires—put out of work by modern technology. Radar now tracks the lightning strikes, and surveillance flights find the smoke that fire lookouts once spotted for the U.S. Forest Service. Yet the West Fork Butte Lookout and others like it have survived thanks to the efforts of volunteers who have restored them for use as retreats by the public.
There are 33 lookouts available for rent in the Western national forests, and about 15 more are undergoing restoration. Some are perched on towers as tall as 100 feet; some are built on outcroppings of rock, like landlocked lighthouses. All have spectacular mountain views. At some locations you can request a ranger to visit and provide an interpretive program on wildlife, local history and forest management.
The logbook at West Fork Butte is full of guests' poetic appreciations. "Oriental sunset tonight. Brisk west winds. And a Malamute for stimulating conversation." "This cabin was our castle in the sky. Our kids are with the babysitter. We are just up here reliving our honeymoon." One skier, arriving on a frigid January night, wrote an ode to the wood-stove.
After the catastrophic wildfire of 1910, which burned three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana and killed 86 people, lookout towers were strategically placed to command the broadest possible area. In the 1920s the Forest Service designed standard plans and used mule trains to bring precut tower kits to the roadless mountaintops. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps built thousands of these lookouts, mainly in the West.
The use of manned lookouts dropped steadily in the 1960s, when aerial surveillance became popular. The Forest Service began demolishing the towers and cabins rather than allow them to deteriorate into safety hazards. Probably fewer than 500 remain standing, down from a peak of more than 5,000 during the 1940s. In 1979 the agency's northern region began renting them out. Some have been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and a few are still manned for surveillance by volunteers during the fire season.
To rent a lookout or a cabin, contact the Forest Service regional office for the area you wish to visit and ask for a directory of rental lodgings. Some have indoor plumbing and are wheelchair-accessible. But most are quite primitive, with no running water or electricity, and many cannot be reached by car: You must hike, ski, snowshoe or snowmobile in. You may have to pack in your water and find and cut your firewood. In most cases you must bring your own bedding. There are no telephones or emergency services nearby, and parents are discouraged from bringing children under 12.
Permits are required and issued on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are accepted as early as six months ahead. Fees range from $15 to $50 per night, depending on the number of people the lookout sleeps and the quality of the accommodations. All rental fees are used for maintaining the lodgings.
"We're lucky we still have a fair number of lookouts left that we can put to this kind of use," says Jill Osborn, a Forest Service archaeologist and preservationist. Use, declares Osborn, is the best preservation for any building. It also cuts down on vandalism. "Once people saw the benefits, the program really caught on," she says. "People realized these old log cabins and fire towers they'd been burning down weren't eyesores but a connection to history—and a valuable recreational resource."