Cabins in the Sky

This fall, take a hike to one of dozens of historic fire lookouts that dot ridgelines throughout Northwest Montana, offering historic designations and spectacular views

By Micah Drew
The Numa Overlook fire tower. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

More than a century ago, the massive wildfires of 1910 devasted millions of forested acres across the West, prompting the U.S. Forest Service to prioritize wildfire detection and launch its fire lookout program. By the 1940s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed more than 5,000 towers across the country.

To be effective, the towers are located high on ridgelines, often in difficult-to-access locations. Hiking to these remote outposts has become a favorite pastime for those seeking a historical slant to their wilderness recreation. The U.S. Forest Service allows many lookouts to be rented for overnight use or used as first-come first-served spots for backpackers. The few fire lookouts that are still occupied by human lookouts — four in the Flathead National Forest and five in Glacier National Park — can also be accessed and offer hikers a look at one of the most remote, yet essential, jobs in the backcountry.

Mount Wam Lookout

Atop a rocky prominence in the Ten Lakes Scenic Area sits a 196-square-foot cabin lookout first built in 1931. Three trails through the proposed wilderness area access the building — trails #77, #78 or #339 — and has two twin sized bed platforms along with a wood stove. A nearby outdoor toilet and spring makes this a great stop for thru-hikers along the Pacific Northwest Trail or as a day trip into this little-visited area.

Cyclone Lookout

A short two-mile hike will take adventurers to this manned lookout on the edge of the Whitefish Range. The stilted, 50-foot-tall lookout is staffed by volunteers on rotating shifts throughout the summer, and visitors can climb up 65 wooden steps to the panoramic cat walk.

Cyclone Lookout in the North Fork. Beacon file photo

Hornet Lookout

Hornet Lookout is 101 years old this fall, but it doesn’t look a day over 65. The two-story lookout was restored in 1983 and is part of the Forest Service rental program. Hornet is one of several fire lookouts that can be accessed from the North Fork Road. The final approach to Hornet Lookout is via trail #349, which climbs 800 vertical feet to the summit. At an elevation of 6,744 feet, Hornet Lookout offers stunning vistas of the Livingston Range in Glacier National Park to one side and the Whitefish Range on the other.

Huckleberry Lookout

A popular six-mile hike in Glacier National Park brings visitors to the manned Huckleberry Lookout in the Apgar Range. Like the name suggests, this trail is ripe with the eponymous fruit in late summer and early fall, so watch out for bear sightings as the ursine locals gorge themselves before winter.

Numa Ridge Lookout

There are nine fire lookouts still standing within the boundaries of Glacier National Park, four of which are still in use during the summer. Numa Ridge Lookout, accessible via trail from Bowman Lake, has some extra historical context as famed essayist and environmentalist Edward Abbey spent the summer of 1975 there. The curmudgeonly writer espoused a view of Glacier National Park that is still held by visitor’s today, writing in his logbook one day, “Too many people; Not enough Grizz.” 

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