From a 6,960-foot mountaintop above Stillwater State Forest, Werner Peak Lookout rules its realm. Through big windows, its kingdom seemingly spans a thousand peaks. It’s also a place during fire season for a pair of human eyes.
Werner Peak Lookout is unique. The two-story tower built in 1983 – the peak’s third lookout – is not only one of the few active regional fire lookouts accessible by road, but it lords over favorite huckleberry picking haunts and marks the southern terminus of the Ralph Thayer Memorial Trail.
“The panorama of Glacier Park from Werner makes one impressive view,” explains hiker Judith Moore. In addition, visitors may also glimpse to the south MacDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains above Flathead Lake and to the west the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness.
From Olney, 12 miles of narrow, bumpy road lead to the lookout – rough enough that you might covet a high clearance, four-wheel drive rig with enough oomph to haul up the final steep mile. Just ask Moore, who was rescued by a family of huckleberry pickers when she had two flat tires on the road before its recent re-grading.
In an extreme fire season, Stillwater State Forest staffs the lookout even though aerial patrols frequent the forest. While it sat empty last August, this season’s arid timberlands and torrid temperatures will likely draft it back into service. “With a constant set of eyes, lookouts can pinpoint smoke,” says Brian Manning, unit manager for Stillwater State Forest. “A lookout buys you quite a bit with eyes on the ground.” Those eyes record where lightning strikes – mapping places to check later on foot.
In mid-August 2001, lightning ignited an 860-acre fire east of Werner Peak, which firefighters contained within two weeks. Snags from the burn – now weathered into silver – poke through lush, fast-growing green underbrush.
From Werner Peak, hikers launch northward on the 18-mile Ralph Thayer Memorial Trail. Otherwise known as the Smoky Range National Recreation Trail or Whitefish Divide Trail, the route tiptoes along the crest to Red Meadows. At points, the trail yields broad sweeping tableaus – from Glacier’s Long Knife on the Canadian border to the Bob Marshall’s Stanton Glacier on Great Northern Peak. Other times, it nose-dives into thick, mosquito-infested firs.
For a short sample, a three-mile round-trip trail plunges from Werner Peak into China Basin, where an old log cabin leans askew. The basin was incorrectly named after Ichinojo Sakurai, a Japanese trapper who died in the 1918 flu epidemic and whose body was not found until late spring. But make your destination a half mile further, where the path reaches a small meltwater lake surrounded by rocky slabs where marmots sun.
However, like a yo-yo, what goes down, must bounce back up. Twice, in this case. For two ascents mark the return trip to Werner Peak. “When you’re done with the first climb up from the basin and swing around the ridge, you get such a great view of the lookout and Flathead Valley off to right,” says Moore. And the sights only get better in the last few footsteps to the summit.
Many a visitor to Werner Peak Lookout longs to spend a night in its picture-windowed room with a view. But on second thought, as Manning points out, “In a lightning storm, it’s scary.”
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