4 Mountaintop Lookout Towers You Need to Hike
Score bird’s-eye views over valleys and mountains on these four treks to summit lookouts.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
McCart Lookout, Bitterroot National Forest, MT
Be grateful for this hike’s short approach—it just means more time to savor the view from the restored fire lookout’s catwalk, where you can spy three different ranges. Hop on the gentle McCart-Johnson Peak Trail, climbing just 500 feet in 1.5 miles through lodgepole pines to an obvious junction. There, turn north and follow a short path—lined with Indian paintbrush—to the wooden tower. Upon arrival, climb on up and see the serrated spine of the Bitterroot Mountains to the west, the peaks and ridges of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness on the horizon to the south and east, and the rolling Sapphire Mountains to the north. Can’t tear yourself away from the view? Reserve McCart for the night (up to six months in advance; $30; recreation.gov), then spend the next day exploring the Continental Divide. Contact
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. Contact
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.) Contact
Oregon Butte Lookout, Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, WA
The journey is just as good as the destination on the 6-mile out-and-back to the Oregon Butte Lookout (actually in Washington). The approach packs in forested canyons, empty ridges, and an array of midsummer blooms. And then, of course, it deposits you at an aerie on 6,387-foot Oregon Butte, the highpoint of Washington’s Blue Mountains. Venture out from the Teepee trailhead, following the Oregon Butte Trail through a forest studded with flowers like purple lupine and yellow aster. Break above the trees near mile 2.5, then continue a half-mile to the lookout. In summer, it’s staffed by folks who scan for wildfire smoke, but they don’t mind sharing the view—a 360-degree stunner that stretches 75 miles south to Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. Contact