Firetower Hikes: Rooms With a View

Hike to one of these nine fire lookouts for unbeatable views and a unique backcountry experience.
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Historic Harney Lookout Tower

Black Elk Wilderness, SD

Hikers who stand on the summit of Black Elk Peak enjoy a double dose of accomplishment—this 7,242-foot mountain is South Dakota’s highpoint and the tallest mountain east of the Rockies. And that doesn’t even include the 20-foot boost you’ll score from the stone tower at the top. Get there on a 7-mile loop from Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park: Take the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail across a creek and veer north onto the Black Elk Peak Trail. Ascend to a saddle overlooking the sprawling Black Hills (green in real life), then summit near mile 3.5 and savor the view: On clear days, you can see 90 miles northwest into Montana and 60 miles south into Nebraska. Close the loop on the Norbeck Trail and Trail #4, which passes the granite hulk of Little Devils Tower and the needle-like Cathedral Spires. Mark Wetherington

Permit Required, self-issue at trailhead Contact Black Elk Wilderness

Little Mt. Hoffman Lookout

Shasta-Trinity National Forest, CA

Perched over 7,000 feet above sea level on the rim of the Little Mt. Hoffman cinder cone, this lookout has views from Mt. Shasta to Mt. Lassen to Mt. McLoughlin. Sunrises and sunsets over the surrounding mountains bloom in spectacular gold and red every day, tempting residents into early mornings and late nights. The lookout was built in the 1920s, and is still used by the Forest Service in times of extreme fire danger. The site is reached by a series of dirt roads and makes an excellent base camp for several nearby day hikes.

Permit Reservation required; $75 per night Contact Shasta-Trinity National Forest

"Smoky015" by Kripptic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

"Smoky015" by Kripptic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mt. Cammerer Lookout

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC

Break out of the Appalachian Trail’s green tunnel for a view-packed ridgewalk to this lookout, perched on an outcrop at 4,928 feet. The stone-and-timber tower—with its wraparound porch—was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s for spotting fires in the newly established national park. Like a crow’s nest, it looms above the blue-hued peaks, offering a vantage across the Smokies all the way to the edge of the Pigeon River Gorge. From Cosby Campground, link the Low Gap, Appalachian, and Mt. Cammerer Trails on an 11.2-mile out-and-back to get there. Near mile 5, weave past rhododendron and mountain laurel (peak bloom in June) to the 10-foot-tall lookout, which rises from the bedrock. (This is a popular spot: Go midweek for solitude.) Mark Wetherington

Permit None Contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Park Butte Lookout

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, WA

Stand face-to-face with the 10,781-foot Mt. Baker at the fire lookout on Park Butte. The 7.5 mile out-and-back trail starts in a meadow, then climbs through forest and glacial moraines, where the lookout’s wooden porch offers a front-row seat for watching Easton Glacier turn cotton-candy pink at sunset. Hustle up to sleep in the lookout (sleeps 4; first-come, first-serve; Northwest Forest Pass required), or snag a designated site in a meadow .9 mile back among the summertime show of purple lupines and orange and pink Indian paintbrush. This trail can be snow-covered until July, so check conditions before heading out. And spend some time thinking of what you’ll write in the lookout’s poetry register as you hike. Backpacker contributors

Permit Required Contact Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout

Custer Gallatin National Forest, MT

Set on the 8,245-foot apex of Garnet Mountain, this tower’s wraparound catwalk offers views of the 11,000-foot Spanish Peaks to the west and the 10,000-foot Gallatin Range to the south. It’s 3.5 miles deep into the wilderness, so while you’re there, don’t miss bagging 7,165-foot Storm Castle Peak, about 5 miles east of the tower. Sarah Lynne Nelson

Permit None Contact Custer Gallatin National Forest

Clear Lake Cabin Lookout

Mt. Hood National Forest, OR

Get up close and personal with Mt. Hood: This 40-foot-tall tower’s 14-by-14-foot cab sits on the mountain’s southern slope. The tower is only open November through May, so you’ll have to ski (or snowshoe) the 4 miles in if you want to spend the night. Make a weekend of it by adding a day tour 4.5 miles over to frozen Little Crater Lake. To get to the lookout, park at the Skyline Road Sno Park and ski, snowshoe, or hike .8 mile on FS 42 to 240 Spur Road; continue 3.2 miles to the lookout. Sarah Lynne Nelson

Permit Reservations required; $50 per night Contact Mt. Hood National Forest

Shorty Peak Lookout

Idaho Panhandle National Forest, ID

Perched atop a knob on 6,515-foot Shorty Peak, this 15-by-15-foot cabin comes complete with 360-degree vistas, including 6,265-foot Red Top Mountain to the south and 6,732-foot Lone Tree Peak to the west. For an even better vantage point, bag Lone Tree Peak via a 1.5-mile walk from the tower. To reach the lookout, start at the trailhead on Road 282; then hike 2.5 miles beyond the gate to reach the lookout. Spend a night (or a weekend) in the tower to watch sunrise and sunset over the surrounding ridgelines. Sarah Lynne Nelson

Permit Reservations required; $45 per night Contact Idaho Panhandle National Forest

Three Fingers Lookout

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, WA

Built atop a narrow cliff at 6,850 feet, this 14-by-14-foot tower is well worth the 7.5-mile haul in: Windows on all four walls give overnighters both the perfect sunset (over the Puget Sound) and sunrise (over Mt. Baker). From the Saddle Lake trailhead, take #641 about 7 miles to Tin Pan Gap; from here, traverse Three Fingers Glacier (mountaineering know-how required) for a half mile and climb the three wooden ladders to the lookout. Sarah Lynne Nelson

Permit None Contact Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Culver Fire Tower

Stokes State Forest, NJ

Panoramic views in New Jersey? Yes, and they're well worth a climb! Start from the Sunrise Mountain Overlook, following the Appalachian Trail 3.5 miles to the fire tower. To either side stretch hilltop meadows, dropping into forest; beyond are rolling hills and lakes, stretching all the way into Pennsylvania. Extend your hike a little farther for another panorama at Culver's Gap.

Permit None Contact Stokes State Forest