US Forest Service converts historic fire lookouts to vacation destinations

US Forest Service converts historic fire lookouts to vacation destinations


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SALT LAKE CITY — In the early to mid-1900s, lookouts were created for forest rangers to live in so they could easily spot forest fires. Now, these structures have been restored and are available for rent, providing a unique camping experience in remote corners of the West.

Though there aren’t many lookouts in Utah, surrounding Western states have a variety of excellent options. The sites all function as a way to both preserve historic structures that the U.S. Forest Service no longer has the budget to maintain and give people access to unique destinations.

“When communications and transportation improved, there was no need for all of these stations,” said Richa Wilson, an architectural historian for the U.S. Forest Service. “One of our struggles as an agency is to find uses for those because everybody (started) living in towns, and you can get there fairly easily on better roads with better vehicles, or you could call with a cellphone. So we really struggle finding ways to preserve some of these (lookouts), recognizing we have limited funds and resources.”

Renting the structures out provides an income, which the U.S. Forest Service uses to maintain the sites without having to draw from its own budget, Wilson told They have become very popular among the general public, and many get booked out well in advance.

Wilson added, “The fire lookouts, especially — the ones I know of — will often get booked a year ahead because they’re quite popular.”

Some excellent fire lookout options available for rent this summer include the following:

Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout in Idaho Springs, Colorado

Squaw Mountain lookout;
Squaw Mountain lookout;

The Squaw Mountain lookout contains a refrigerator, electric stove, beds, a table with chairs, dishes and cookware, an incinerating toilet and heat, according to the Located at the summit of Squaw Mountain, this site is directly off of Colorado Highway 103 near Bergen Park. It accommodates four people per night and is a pack-in-pack-out facility, meaning that visitors need to carry out all trash and clean up after themselves.

The lookout, a unique structure made of granite, was built in the 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, says. It is 14 feet by 14 feet, has windows on all sides and is surrounded by a catwalk. In addition to panoramic views of snow-capped peaks and Denver in the distance, the Squaw Mountain area offers a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities including hiking, scenic driving, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, picnicking and camping.

This lookout costs $80 to rent per night.

Squaw Mountain lookout;
Squaw Mountain lookout;

Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower near Laramie, Wyoming

The Spruce Mountain lookout is perched atop a forested mountain in Medicine Bow National Forest, located in south-central Wyoming. Guests can drive directly up to the structure, which is 55 feet tall, according to the

The lookout’s cabin is outfitted with two single beds, and as such comfortably accommodates two guests, says. It also provides chairs, dishes and cookware, and a propane-powered heater, stove, oven and lights. An outhouse and campfire pit with firewood are both located at the base of the lookout. This residence is also pack-in-pack-out and does not have running water or electricity.

Spruce Mountain is surrounded by nature, from wildflowers throwing splashes of color over forested hillsides to wildlife like black bears and elk, says. Around the lookout, there are plenty of opportunities to hike, mountain bike, hunt and go horseback riding. It’s also very close to Rob Roy Reservoir, where guests can fish, water ski and go boating.

This lookout can be rented for $40 per night.

Little Guard Lookout in the Idaho Panhandle

Little Guard is one of the last remaining lookouts in the region of Coeur d’Alene River and dates back as far as 1919, according to Located nine miles north of the Shoshone Camp, the two-story fire lookout is 14 feet by 14 feet, and has a gabled roof and an external catwalk.

Little Guard lookout;
Little Guard lookout;

The structure is outfitted for four guests, with one single bed and three fold-up cots available, says. There is a kitchen on the lower level, which has a propane-powered refrigerator and stove, a table with chairs and basic cooking items. There’s an outdoor toilet about 200 feet from the lookout that comes with biodegradable toilet paper, the website says.

Not only does Little Guard Lookout present spectacular views of the Coeur d’Alene River and Bitterroot Mountains, it is also swarming with wildlife from moose to hummingbirds, according to The lookout is proximal to excellent hiking, hunting and wildlife viewing.

This lookout is available for $55 per night.

Little Guard lookout;
Little Guard lookout;

West Fork Butte Lookout near Missoula, Montana

The mountains south of Missoula are a unique destination with spectacular views and excellent hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, biking and wildlife viewing, according to West Fork Butte Lookout provides a 360-degree vantage point of what Lolo Peak, the Bitterroot Mountains and Lolo Creek drainage have to offer.

This lookout is accessible by vehicle in the summer and can be accessed through snow travel (snowshoeing and snowmobiling) in the winter via a 7.5-mile trek to the facility, says. The lookout sleeps four people and has both bunk beds and mattress pads. It also has cooking materials, a table with chairs, a wood stove and a propane stove and lantern.

Spend the night at this lookout for $30 per night.

Learn more about renting a lookout on

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Cara MacDonald enjoys both engaging in outdoor recreation and writing about it. Born and raised in Utah, Cara enjoys skiing, rock climbing, hiking and camping. She is passionate about both learning about and experiencing the outdoors, and helping others to learn about and explore nature. She primarily writes Outdoors articles centering around wildlife and nature, highlighting adventure opportunities, and sharing tips and tricks for outdoor recreation.


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