Parks

Want to vacation in a fire tower? This federal agency’s got a room to sell you

  • Aug. 12, 2014 photo of Girard Ridge Lookout, Calif.

    Aug. 12, 2014 photo of Girard Ridge Lookout, Calif.  (www.recreation.gov)

  • July 20, 2013 photo of Hirz Mountain Lookout, Calif.

    July 20, 2013 photo of Hirz Mountain Lookout, Calif.  (www.recreation.gov)

  • Sept. 23, 2013 photo of Hirz Mountain Lookout, Calif.

    Sept. 23, 2013 photo of Hirz Mountain Lookout, Calif.  (www.recreation.gov)

The federal government wears many hats. Defender of the nation. Chief regulator. Border enforcer.

But here’s one specialty you might not know about: Boutique hotel operator.

For decades, the U.S. Forest Service has been making a tidy sum renting rooms to adventurous vacationers in the most rustic of settings – in out-of-commission fire lookout towers and guard-stations.

While the idea might not sound too appealing on paper, it’s gained popularity over the years. Today, these vacation stations entertain hundreds of people per year; in 2013, the Forest Service made more than $163,000, or about $4,000 per site. According to the agency, though, all that money is then recycled back into the towers in the form of maintenance and operation costs.

But look, it’s not the Ritz. The Forest Service, as a part-time hotelier, is catering to a certain clientele.

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“You’re not going here for the accommodations. You’re not going here to be showered in luxury. You’re going to get away from it all,” said Jon Page, who stayed in Girard Ridge Lookout in California over the summer.  

The fire lookout towers are exactly what they sound like, though their interiors have been decked out with basic features like beds and chairs. Really, it’s all about the view.

The towers themselves began popping up all over the country’s national parks after the Great Fire of 1910 in the American West.

By 1930, more than 5,000 of these towers had been constructed. But technological advances eventually rendered these towers largely obsolete, and by 1964, a mere 250 were still in use.

In the 1970’s, after noticing these fire towers were sitting in near-abandon, and seeing an opportunity for profit, the Forest Service tapped into the idea that what the American public really wanted was to sleep in the same stations that once housed disgruntled, Roosevelt-era fire lookouts, and hence, the fire tower lookout rental program was born.

The lookouts’ popularity may be due in part to author Jack Kerouac’s affinity for them. The “Big Sur” author noted, “I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of 'thinking' and 'enjoying' what they call 'living,' I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds.”

The brooding beatnik was so into the idea of a nature escape that he spent the better part of two months as a fire lookout in the North Cascades Mountains of Washington in the summer of ’56.

Unlike Kerouac, today’s tower renters are not required to play lookout for any fires. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said that outside of cleaning any messes made while in the lookouts, there are no strings attached to staying in the posts.

Page said he and his wife were, however, encouraged to show visitors around the public property tower.

“There was some language about how technically this tower is public property and if other hikers came up we're obligated to show it to them, but nobody came."

All virtually bare by modern standards and often lacking basic amenities such as electricity or even running water, the towers have remained immune to the advances of technology, providing a uniquely Smokey the Human experience for anyone willing to shell out $25 a night and eschew the privilege of indoor plumbing.

“Accommodations” means different things from tower to tower, and some are more modernized than others. One of the Forest Fire Lookout Service’s most popular destinations, Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower in Wyoming, comes sparsely furnished with two twin-sized beds, a propane-powered stove and refrigerator and an outhouse with a “pit toilet” -- but can still be considered one of the more thoroughly equipped facilities that the Service offers.

Girard Ridge, where Page and his wife stayed, leaves the frills behind, providing two twin-sized beds and mattresses that are “about as thick as a really nice pillow,” chairs and tables and a pit toilet about 30 feet from the facility.

Entertainment is what one might expect – it could include hiking and mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing and even something called “horse camping.”

While some find the primitive setup of the cabins charming, it has its setbacks. Phil Diebel, who stayed in California’s Oak Flat Lookout, recounted how he and his wife had to cut their trip short because of an infestation problem.

“When I got up [to my cabin], the rangers were sweeping up a pile of bugs about two feet in diameter and four inches high.”

The bugs, Diebel claims, were earwigs. He and his wife left without staying the night after he woke up to being bitten by some that had survived the bug-bomb and climbed through the floorboards.

The advantage? Many are still cheap.

Some of the less expensive lookouts -- Shorty Peak Lookout in Idaho, for example -- go for just $25 per night before fees, while some of the pricier options -- like Hirz Mountain Lookout in California -- can run $75 a night.   

Stations for rent can be found throughout the western U.S., including in Montana, Idaho and Oregon.