Nine questions about lookout towers

Love the thrill and adventure of camping and backpacking but want something different; perhaps more structural? Well look no further.

Did you know that the Forest Service rents unmanned lookout towers during the summer? For on average $40 a night you can stay on a mountain top in a rustic and charming fire lookout tower. A truly unforgettable experience any way you slice it.

Read on to gain a few tips from the NFF’s resident lookout tower expert Emily who has visited more than several lookout towers.

What’s the point of a lookout tower?
Fire towers started gaining popularity in the early 1900s as the primary way for spotting wild fires. Perched high on the mountain top, these manned towers provided an excellent view point for smoke columns and flames. Today we still have manned towers with hard working men and women spending countless hours watching for fires.

Gem Peak Lookout
Gem Peak Lookout

What’s with the copper wires everywhere?
The Forest Service has many lookouts and other facilities that are subject to lightning strikes. Since these towers are perched high on mountain tops they become a natural lighting conductor. To help minimize injury to employees, structures and to prevent fires, these towers are grounded using copper wires. The wires fastened on the tower purposely attract lighting strikes. Then once hit, the wires shoot the electrical charge deep into the ground to disperse naturally and safely.

Were men the only ones “manning” towers?
In 1913, Hallie Daggett became the first female fire lookout in the Forest Service. She spent 15 years on the job, working at the Eddy Gulch fire tower on the Klamath National Forest. (Information and image provided by )

Hallie Daggett
Photo courtesy of

What happens when they see a fire?
Using mapping tools such as the Osborne Firefinder, or variations of it, the first objective is to pinpoint the exact geographic location of the fire. Once the location is identified they report to their local dispatch with the location, relative size and any other crucial details. Then it is decided how to combat and investigate the fire: by air, ground or both.

Ousier Ridge Tower
Ousier Ridge Tower

So you want to check one out, how do you begin?
Among the many resources to reserve a Forest Service lookout tower, I have found to be the best. The site will provide availability options and tower details and the ability to reserve a tower.

How do you get to the tower?
Depending on the tower you will drive or hike in. Make sure you read the ‘Know before you go’, and ‘Getting there’ sections on for important information regarding your stay, including if you can drive there or not. Also calling the local Ranger District for the most up to date information is advised.

Ousier Ridge Tower

Scared fo Heights?
Although routinely monitered to make sure they are safe, some people cannot find solice sleeping so high above the ground. Look in the description and at photos; there are a number of towers that aren’t as high if not on the ground. I have stayed at a couple and it is a nice alternative for those who may be scared of heights (or if you have childeren/pets with you).

Ousier Ridge Tower

Are dogs allowed?
Depending on the tower, you are allowed to bring pets. When filling in your search parameters on simply check “pets allowed” to find pet friendly tower options.

Personal Note:  My pups have not loved climbing the tower; it’s a little scary for them. The first time my husband had to carry them up and down every time (as shown below, that was definitely not ideal). Over the years our dogs and friend’s dogs have gotten used to it but now as they get older we try to find towers that aren’t as high up.

Gem Peak Lookout dogs

Do you have any words of advice?
Since this isnt your typical camping trip, here are a few words of wisdom on what to bring or do in preparation for your trip:

  • Water - This may seem obvious, but because you are on a mountain top, there are very limited water options. Chances are that if you need to refill water you will have to drive or hike to a lower elevation.Bringing more than you think you will need; you will often find it’s the right amount. 
  • Warm Clothes  - You don’t need to pull out your winter parkas, but up high on the montains will be cold even during the hottest summer days Make sure to bring a warm layer.
  • Call Ahead - Check with the local Ranger District office for updates on wildlife in the area, road conditions and more. They are the best resource, since they manage and check-in on the towers regularaly.
  • Combination Code - Another good reason to check in prior to your visit is to find out if the tower is locked and what the combination code is. Not all of them are locked but in my experience most of them have been, including the ones you hike to.
  • Forgot Something? - Although you cannot depend on backups of everything, many towers have a small reserve of supplies like fuel, matches, pans, etc.
  • The Bed - Although the description lists a bed, this isnt your matress at home. I have seen anything from a simple mat on top of elevated plywood, to what I can compare to as a summer camp matress. Bring a sleeping bag and if prefferred, a pad and pillow.
  • Pack it in/Pack it out - As requested with all backcountry hide-aways, whatever you bring in please bring it out. The future generations of backcountry lovers thank you.

Don’t forget your camera – with beautiful views like this you’ll never forget your lookout tower retreat!

Gem Peak Lookout View



Fifty Volunteers Help Restore Trout Habitat on Tahoe National Forest

Earlier this month, fifty volunteers joined Trout Unlimited, Siera Nevada Brewing Company and the National Forest Foundation for a Friends of the Forest Day on the Tahoe National Forest.

Volunteers placed gravel, generously donated by Teichert Aggregates, into Lower Prosser Creek. The hard work and contributions will greatly enhance trout spawning habitat in the Creek.

As part of the NFF's Treasured Landscapes conservation campaign, the NFF and partners are working throughout the Tahoe National Forest to support the health and sustainability of the Truckee River Watershed.

Huge thanks to Trout Unlimited for their generous time and support organizing the day and to Sierra Nevada Brewing for tasty brews after lifting 20 pickup truck loads of gravel.

Check out photos below and click here to support continued restoration efforts on the Tahoe National Forest.

SierraNevada Tent
Volunteers near river
Volunteers moving gravel
Volunteers with gravel
Group of Volunteers



Eight Facts About Mountain Goats You Should Know

Mountain goats are actually not goats.

Mountain goats are not in the same genus as goats. In the bovidae family, mountain goats are associated with antelopes, gazelles and cattle.

Bridger-Teton National Forest
photo by U.S. Forest Service



Head to the skies if you’d like to see one.

Mountain goats live in alpine and subalpine environments. In the high-altitude environments, sometimes above 13,000 ft, they are the largest mammal. The high elevation protects mountain goats from predators. In the summer, they’ll stay above the tree line and migrate to lower elevations in the winter. 

Lolo National Forest
photo by Wes Swaffar



Just North America for mountain goats.  

In the high reaches of the Rockies and Cascades, mountain goats bounce around the rocks. In Canada, you could see one throughout British Columbia, Alberta, and Yukon. Alaska is home to mountain goats in Southeast Alaska and the Chugach Mountains.




Interesting nomenclature all around.  

Most people know that baby mountain goats are “kids” and males are “billies” but did you know a female is a “nannie”? 

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
photo by Traute Parrie


Kids (have to) get the hang of it pretty quickly. 

After a day or so of being born, young goats are scrambling around rocks with their mother.

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
photo by Jeffrey Pang



The secret is in the horns.

Just shy of their two year birthday, you can tell the age of a mountain goat by counting the rings on their horns. Not unlike trees! 

photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



Mountain goats are with us for about a decade. 

The average lifespan of a mountain goat is 9 to 12 years. 

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
photo by Traute Parrie


Watch out – mountain goats can be aggressive.  

Nannies can be protective of their territory and food and will fight other nannies. In the mating season, males will fight with each other to mate with a female. Mountain goats may also become hostile towards humans.

Despite how accustomed mountain goats may be around people, they are still wild animals. Their horns are sharp and may be used to defend their personal space.

Check out this guide to ensure your wildlife viewing is safe.

For more information about mountain goats, visit:

National Geographic

Defenders of Wildlife

U.S. Forest Service

Not Too Many People Have Access to Wild Huckleberries on the Job

For a day, I got to be a Wilderness Ranger. Well, part of a day.

On a regular old Tuesday in August, my coworker Zia and I explored the Lolo National Forest with the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Wilderness Foundation ’s (SBFC) two Wilderness Interns and their Crew Leader. A long-time NFF grant recipient, the SBFC received funding from our Matching Awards Program for this year’s Wilderness Ranger Intern program .

The team at SBFC was kind enough to invite us along as Interns Erica and Julia started their last “hitch” of the season outside of Lolo, Montana. Most hitches, or backpacking trips, last seven days. This one would be a shorter five day hitch.

After our short caravan of cars made it to the trailhead, the girls, along with their crew leader Coby, needed a few moments to get ready for five days in the Wilderness. Beyond the basic necessities of hiking and camping, the team also took the various tools and supplies needed to do their job: a crosscut saw, shovel, handheld saw, hard hats, clippers, trash bags and more I’m sure I’m forgetting.

Interns Getting Ready
Erica and Julia prep for their last hitch of the season.

I stood there with my small day-pack with a sandwich and water, and I felt as if I should be carrying 20 more pounds just to fit in with the group. To provide some assistance as we headed up the trail, Zia carried the crosscut saw, affectionately named Tinkerbell, and I carried the shovel. We figured if they had to carry these tools for five days, we could at least carry them for half a day.

Not too long after we began hiking beneath towering pine trees along the cool air from Lolo Creek, we encountered our first barrier along the trail – a fallen log. Julia and Erica gratefully put down their packs and evaluated the situation. Eager to help, Zia and I began sawing off the small branches while the girls put the handles on the crosscut saw.

girls sawing
Erica and Julia using Tinkerbell to cut a log blocking the trail.

Once the log was ready, Julia and Erica began sawing the log first from the top, and then from the bottom in order to finish the cut. After the triumphant snap echoed through the woods, all four of us worked to pivot and roll it off the trail so that all users would have easy access.

Before after
The trail before and after we removed the log.

Further down the trail, Erica and I chatted as we hiked. I didn’t even realize that we had stepped over a small log until Julia called out to Erica to make sure she was stopping. As an everyday hiker, I was shamefully unaware of the trail condition and how it not only affects me, but other users. As Wilderness Rangers, Julia and Erica were constantly checking for obstruction on the trail or any barriers users might encounter.

With the second log removed, we continued up the trail and found an undeveloped campsite to inventory. As the Wilderness Interns trek through the forest, they take an inventory of each campsite noting its location, status, amount of use and then decide to either demolish the site or adapt for healthier use.

Campsite Inventory
The SBFC team taking inventory of the campsite.

While the group spent about 20 minutes inventorying and maintaining the campsite, I couldn’t help but think of the scale of the Wilderness System as well as the National Forest System. There must be thousands of undeveloped campsites across the country that may or may not ever be recorded. And while that may be daunting to some for some, it only instilled wonder at the amount of work and dedication that the Forest Service and hundreds of organizations devote to these special places.

After ascending on the trail a good ways later, we found a fine lunch spot. Before we ate, everyone used a small tool to help cut down small trees along the trail corridor that would otherwise grow to be a nuisance.

Zia trims trees
Zia cuts small trees away from the trail and admires the nearby huckleberries.

Huckleberries literally sweetened this task. Each time we crouched down to cut or snip a small tree, big, blue and purple berries greeted us. Soon we all were saying, “I’m too distracted by the huckleberries!” Zia and I quickly decided that we needed to eat all of our lunch so that we would have containers to fill with huckleberries on our hike down.

The huckleberries were plentiful and big all along the trail.

As mid-afternoon approached, Zia and I said our said goodbyes to the team and wished them well for the remainder of their last hitch.

The NFF supports work on National Forests through local organizations across the country. Unfortunately, we are unable to visit each grantee. More than time in the office ever could, our time with SBFC reinforced first-hand why we do what we do.

Hannah and Coby
Coby and I taking a lunch break.

If you like to help us support more on-the-ground restoration like this, click here.