History of Fire Tower Lookout and Cabin Rentals

Fire Tower History

Prior to the devastating 1910 forest fires in Idaho, Montana, and Washington, little attention was given to any organized forest fire reporting system. Often referred to as "When the Mountains Roared", the 1910 fire consumed three million acres of prime virgin timber and killed 85 people. Photograph of Ralph Hand at Castle Butte Lookout construction.

This disaster provided the impetus for an organized fire lookout network as well as better trail and communications systems. By the late 1930's, over 5,000 fire lookout towers had been constructed. Of the 5,000 lookouts, 611 were built by President Roosevelt's "green army", the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Early fire spotters served as "smoke-chasers" also fighting fires with what tools they could carry -- shovels, pulaskis and axes; traveling on foot or by horse. Fire spotters also used a device known as the Osborne Firefinder. Early communication was by means of a heliograph, a device using two mirrors to reflect sunlight, sending Morse code messages.

Eventually, a telephone system was installed using single strands of #9 galvanized wire attached to trees with insulators providing significantly more efficient communication. By the time lookouts were on the wane, portable radios were standard equipment.

In the 1950's, only a few hundred fire lookouts were in service, usually staffed by volunteers. Today, due to the development of infra-red detection devices and the deployment of airplanes and helicopters, the lookout system is still utilized but to a much lesser extent.

The maximum effective range of surveillance for a lookout tower is normally a 20-mile radius. Many of the lookouts are run by forestry students who take the seasonal jobs as part of their professional training. Once the observation post is opened, it operates 7 days a week during the fire season.

The use of fire lookouts reached a peak about 1938. At that time there were more than 800 towers in use each summer in the Northern Region. Since World War II, the number has declined sharply. By 1964, only 250 lookouts were used.

Some of the lookouts are no longer used for fire surveillance and are maintained as scenic vista points for Forest visitors. Some are rented for short periods to recreationists. Some are accessible by road and others can be reached only by trails and supplies must be brought in by pack trains.

Rent a Historic Fire Lookout Tower or Cabin!

Photograph of the West Fork Butte Historic Lookout.

Many of our historic Fire Lookout Towers are for rent!

Cabins and lookouts are available on a first-come first-served basis and may be rented through he National Recreation Reservation System (NRRS), through the Recreation.gov website or by calling 1-877-444-6777, or International (518) 885-3639.

Lengths of stay are noted below with details of each cabin/lookout. Permits are not issued to anyone under the age of 18, and those acquiring the permit must provide valid identification.

The cabin and lookout facilities are rustic and primitive in nature. Most are in remote areas and many do not have modern conveniences. A local representative from the National Reservation System or the local Ranger District can inform you as to what the facility does and does not include; then help plan your needs. Occasionally, cabins/lookouts need unforeseen maintenance, at which time rentals may need to be rescheduled.

Cabins may be equipped with bare basics, table, chairs, wood stove and/or bunks. Some may or may not have mattresses and bedding is not furnished. You may need to bring cooking utensils. Electricity and piped-in water aregenerally NOT available. You may need to bring your own water or be prepared to boil your drinking water. You may need to find and cut your own firewood. Expect to use outdoor toilets. Some cabins have lanterns, but be prepared with a flashlight for night lighting. Telephones are not available.

Before leaving the cabin, you are requested to: burn all combustible waste materials; make sure fires in stoves are out; pack out all garbage and empty bottles or cans; clean the cabin; leave a supply of firewood and if a key is provided, return the key to the Ranger District.

Travel on the National Forests and use of rustic cabins and lookouts involve a degree of risk. Recreationists must assume the responsibility to obtain the knowledge and skills needed to protect themselves and members of their party from injury and illness.

Weather, snow conditions, predatory animals in the area, personal physical skills, along with many other factors caninfluence travel time and difficulty.

Parents are strongly discouraged from bringing children under 12 years of age to Lookout Towers. People afraid of heights or lacking physical strength should also avoid climbing Lookout Towers. Prior to the trip, permit holders are advised to contact the local Ranger District for current conditions.

Mission Lookout, Flathead National Forest, south of Swan Lake, Montana by Jan Oliver. Hogback Cabin, Lolo National Forest, Rock Creek Road, by Jan Oliver.


Scan of the cover of the Lookout Cookbook.



The Lookout Cookbook is a blend of recipes, history, personal stories and over 100 photographs. Seventy recipes from breakfast to dessert were collected from the people who have staffed or still staff fire lookouts. This book provides a glimpse into what it was like to spend a summer isolated in a lookout. The Lookout Cookbook raises awareness of these historic structures and their preservation. Published by the Museum of North Idaho.