Ready to do something unique? How about spending the night in a fire lookout tower?
Fire lookout towers are just what they sound like – a lookout built in a remote area, usually a mountain top, as a place for a person to lookout over the area for "smokes" or fires. Typically a lookout employee who spotted smoke would radio the information to another worker in the valley who would go in search of the possible fire.
While many lookout towers have been dismantled, one in Colorado is still in use. Devil’s Head Fire Lookout near Sedalia is still manned in the summer, It’s a popular destination for hikers, with 10,000-15,000 people a year making the two mile trek that ends with a climb up 137 stairs.
There are 19 other towers still in existence in Colorado, according to the Forest Fire Lookout Association. Two of them can rented out – Squaw Mountain near Evergreen and Jersey Jim near Durango. While the Jersey Jim lookout is only available late-May to mid-October, the Squaw Mountain lookout can be rented year-round.
Since the Jersey Jim lookout is a bit far, we decided to spend the night on Squaw Mountain.
The Squaw Mountain lookout is rented through recreation.gov. It’s $80 a night, plus a $9 fee to Recreation.gov. The road to the lookout is off Highway 103 between Evergreen and Idaho Springs.
To stay at the lookout, you have to be able to hike or snowshoe, depending on the time of year. That’s because the road to the lookout is blocked by a gate one mile from the lookout.
In summer, there’s a small parking lot near that gate, creating a hike of about one mile each way. However, in winter, many visitors have to park just off Highway 103, then snowshoe to the closure gate and then to the lookout for a trek of about two miles each way.
Either way, the wide dirt road is easy to follow as it winds through the forest to the top of the mountain. The road is a bit steep at times, so take it slow and take lots of breaks. At the top, you’ll see a couple of buildings that house communications equipment and the fire lookout tower.
The lookout sits on a very rocky peak at Squaw Mountain, at about 11,486 feet, that’s why you may find yourself short of breath up here.
After following the last section of the path, through the rocks, you’ll arrive at two-story tower. At the bottom of the stairs is a lock box. Use the code you got with your reservation to open the lockbox and get the keys.
The first floor is built of stone. Inside there is one 14x14 room with one set of bunk beds, a kitchen, a large storage cabinet and a table and chairs. The kitchen is more than we expected – there’s a refrigerator, a stove, an oven, a toaster, a coffee maker and a sink. There are dishes, pots & pans, extra batteries, large flashlights and much more.
The one thing missing here? Water. There’s no running water, so you have to bring water to drink, to use for cooking and to use for cleaning. That’s a lot of water.
And if you use the sink, don’t forget to dump the bucket under the sink that catches the waste water!
After exploring and opening all the cabinets, it’s time to head up the stairs to the second floor. To get between the floors, you have to go outside and take the stairs.
At the top of the stairs, take the catwalk around the upper floor to the door. One warning, if the wind is blowing, and often does up here, be careful going around the corners on the second floor because the wind can whip around and take your hat, grab your pack off your shoulder, etc…
Once inside the second floor, you’ll find a room completely lined with windows. There are two single beds up here, a desk and the old fire spotter. And the views – the views up here are incredible! There’s Mount Evans to the west, Longs Peak and the Indian Peaks to the north, Pikes Peak to the south and the Front Range to the east. We found two photos that showed the nearby peaks with their names marked on the photo.
One thing we didn’t find was the bathroom. Then we spotted it, out the windows and down below. From the second floor, we had to take the catwalk around to the stairs, go down the stairs to the first floor, then take another set of stairs to the bathroom/outhouse.
From the outside, the bathroom looks historic, with impressive stone work. But inside, the bathroom is high tech. Since there’s no water up here, the Forest Service has installed an incinerating toilet. There are extensive directions inside that explain how to use the bowl liner, how to “flush,” and the button you hit to the start the incinerator. Everything burns as you walk away.
Back inside, a book explains the history of the lookout and even has the original instruction materials given to the lookouts who lived here. There’s also a guest book where you can read the comments and stories left by the previous guests.
Make sure you know sunset and sunrise time, because you don’t want to miss either. It’s amazing to watch the sun come up over the horizon to the east and light up the mountains to the west. Watching the sunset over the mountains to the west and color the clouds around you is impressive. And of course, there’s the lights of the city sparkling below you at night as the stars move around the windows of the lookout tower.
Learn more about the lookout, its amenities and availability on Recreation.gov.