Who’s down for a sleepover in the clouds?
Sometimes you just gotta get away. You can retreat to a lakeside cottage, pitch a primitive tent in the woods, or hook up your fifth wheel in a fully-loaded campground. But if you’re looking for a more unique and rustic camping experience, head to Idaho where, scattered among the western white pine forests, an entire army of fire towers stands ready for your company. Originally built between the 1930s and the1960s to help spot forest fires, these towers have transitioned into historic hideaways for singles and families seeking rustic adventure. No bigger than 14ftX14ft and priced around $40 a night, many offer basic amenities — bed, kitchen, heat — but you’re gonna have to brave the 50 yard –walk to the pit potty, and any other amenities are up to you!
While fire tower rentals are available all across the West, here are some of our favorites in Idaho. (Try to sample a few!)
Arid Peak Lookout
Location: Avery, Idaho
Fun Fact: Built in 1935, Arid Peak was built by the Milwaukee Railroad Line to help spot fires. Abandoned and vacant for 25 years, it was restored for rental to the public by the Forest Fire Lookout Association, the U.S. Forest Service, and a team of citizen volunteers. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places!
What You’ll See: 360-degree views of the Bitterroot Mountains, the Loop Creek, and Idaho Panhandle National Forest
What to Do: Pack your bikes to take advantage of the seven trestles and ten tunnels on the Hiawatha Bike Trail that carves through the Bitterroot Mountains. Grab your poles and a cup of bait and head to the banks of the St. Joe River where the cutthroat trout swim in large numbers. If you feel like taking a hike over the miles of trails, keep an eye out for elk, eagles, and bears!
Hike It OR Drive It: Hike. Access to the cabin requires a moderately steep three-mile hike and availability depends on weather conditions.
Amenities: This place has a wood stove, beds, propane, and cooking supplies. It’s perfect for an adventurous family of four! Just bring bedding, food, and a pair of shoes to wear to the outhouse back down on the ground. No running water, so prepare accordingly!
Deer Ridge Lookout
Location: Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Fun Fact: You enter this lookout through a trap door
What You’ll See: Unforgettable view of the Purcell Mountain Ranges of Canada, Montana, and North Idaho
What You’ll Do: You’ll find hiking trails along Ruby Ridge and Deer Ridge and wild huckleberries in August and September, and you can cook what you catch in the Moyie River.
Hike it OR Drive it: Drive. Kick it into four-wheel drive and save your strength for hiking
Amenities: Sorry to say that the steep staircase, trap door, and rustic accommodations don’t give this lookout a kid-friendly rating. It sleeps two people in twin beds and has a pit toilet on the ground. And while you are down there, you can do your cooking and water purifying.
Location: Bonners Ferry, Idaho
Fun Fact: The closest convenience store is on the Canadian border– about 50 miles away!
What You’ll See: The Selkirk and Purcell Mountain Ranges give a beautiful performance, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
What You’ll Do: If photography is your game, this is the lookout for you, with native elk, mountain bluebirds and the mountains themselves making spectacular portraits. And don’t forget to stargaze . . . unforgettable!
Hike it OR Drive it: Hike. Limber up for your 2.5-mile hike to camp!
Amenities: Inside, you’ll find a pair of twin beds, two tables, and a historic fire finder and district map. Outside, a pit toilet – bring your own shoes for the 100-yard dash. No water. No electric.
Dead Wood Lookout
Location: Emmett, Idaho
Fun Fact: This fire tower was built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was on active duty until 1972. It has since become one of the most popular rental cabins in Idaho.
What You’ll See: A Dead Wood Mountain sky has colorful sunsets and the brightest stars. (No light pollution around this place!) Be aware of the rattlesnakes and bull elk in these parts, y’all.
What You’ll Do: Scott Mountain, Julie Creek and Nellie’s Basin are great for hikers and bikers, while the Deadwood Ridge Trail is better for horses and Jeeps there to play in the mountain mud.
Hike it OR Drive it: Drive. You’re going to need a high clearance vehicle to tackle the terrain on the way up. (Deadwood Mountain is at an elevation of 8,200 feet!)
Amenities: The bare basics are provided: wood stove, two chairs, two single beds. You’ll spend a lot of time watching sunsets and sunrises on the wraparound porch. Cooking and dining on the ground floor only, where a fire ring and picnic table await. This place is clean, with a vault toilet nearby.
Location: Potlatch, Idaho
Fun Fact: This lookout is located on the White Pine Scenic Byway (aka Highway 6) — an 80-mile drive through historic small towns and thick forests.
What You’ll See: You’re in for a real deal birds eye view from Bald Mountain. Not only is it one of the highest peaks in the Hoodoo Mountain Range, ( 5,334 feet above sea level), it’s thick with Douglas fir, hemlock and red cedar. Wildlife watchers may see eagles soaring through the sky. Bear, moose, elk and deer are frequently spotted in the area as well.
What You’ll Do: Advanced hikers and bikers can run around the 8.9-mile Beason Meadows Trail or the four miles of Strychnine Ridge Trail.
Hike it OR Drive it: Drive. Guests can drive to the lookout in vehicles with good ground clearance, but trailers are not recommended due to some rough spots on the road.
Amenities: This lookout sits 50 feet off the ground. A stairway leads to an exterior catwalk that surrounds the cabin, and can accommodate four people. A table and four chairs, a twin bed with foam pad and two cots are provided. Propane appliances include a cooking stove, heater and refrigerator. Cookware, dishes and utensils are provided. A pit toilet is located just below the lookout.
No water or electricity, so bring your own drinking water and lighting. And don’t forget garbage bags to pack out the trash. An added note: the propane fridge isn’t the most reliable, so for insurance, consider a well-iced cooler!Bedding and additional mattresses are not provided. The propane refrigerator may be unreliable, so guests may want to consider bringing a cooler with ice.
Location: Kooskia, Idaho
Fun Fact: There have been three different towers on this site over the past 80 years. The current one, now available for rent, was built in 1962.
What You’ll See: At an elevation of 5,869 feet, you’re breathing the fresh mountain air from three mountain ranges: the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, Coolwater Ridge, the Seven Devils Mountain Range. And there’s water everywhere, mainly flowing through the Selway River and Lochsa River Drainages.
What You’ll Do: Pick one of the many back roads that are perfect for off-roading or biking.
Hike it OR Drive it: Drive. Bring a car with gritty tires to combat the incline, (add comma) and ditch your trailer before the climb.
Amenities: With five steep flights of stairs up to the tower, this one isn’t recommended for families. (add period) Parties of four are welcome to use the two twin beds, propane stove, and kitchen table. Down on the ground is a fire ring, and down the hill, a pit toilet.
A few final reminders about staying in these lookouts:
- None of them have running water–pack plenty of H20 and appropriate tools to purify your supply
- Cell phone coverage is unreliable, but snap all the photos you want!
- To help prevent the spread of tree-killing pests only burn firewood near your destination
Happy Trails, out there!