I’m currently on a journey to visit and document all of Washington’s 93 remaining fire lookouts. As of 2017, I’ve visited 36 with 57 yet to go!
Why, you ask?
I’ve always had a fascination for history. And I’m a sucker for lists.
But really it was because of a visit to Goat Peak in the gorgeous Methow Valley back in 2011 when I got to meet the famous “Lightning Bill” Austin. Bill is the only seasonal full-time fire lookout for the Forest Service and staffed Goat Peak for 19 years before moving over to Leecher Mountain in 2014. Chatting with Lightning Bill about his stories made me realize that lookouts are a special glimpse into history. Visiting them makes me think “Who else has been here? Who built this? Who has staffed it? What have they seen? What must it have been like to have been here in 1930? 1950?”
It was then, chatting with Lighting Bill, that I made a goal to visit all the remaining Washington lookouts. With so many falling victim to mother nature or disrepair, I want to be able to visit them before they’re gone. I admit, my progress was a bit slow until fires in 2017 came dangerously close to a number of lookouts I had yet to visit. I’ve since stepped up my game, visiting 28 lookouts (4 repeats) just in 2017.
I’ve also joined the Forest Fire Lookout Association, signed up as a volunteer to help restore some of our more neglected lookouts, and have plans to “adopt” a lookout soon!
Since the early 1900s, fire lookouts have been a familiar icon in the western landscape. In 1933 during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), consisting of young, unmarried men and World War I vets. The corp worked to construct not only lookout towers, but trails, bridges, roads, and facilities in parks nationwide. At one time there were more than 8,000 lookouts across the US!
During World War II between mid-1941 and mid-1944, many lookouts were used to spot enemy aircraft, especially on the West Coast. Ten years later Beatnik poets like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder famously wrote novels while spending summers at Desolation Peak and Sourdough Mountain here in Washington State. After the 1950s, the use of lookouts declined as fire technology improved and many lookouts were abandoned. Out of the roughly 750 that were built here in Washington, only 93 remain as of 2017.
Many remaining lookouts have suffered from vandalism, been destroyed by fire or weather, or have simply been removed due to liability and deterioration. Some that remain have been adopted by volunteers and restored. Only a handful like Goat Peak and Leecher Mountain in the Methow Valley are still actively used for fire observation.
A big thanks to Eric Willhite for his wonderful website full of valuable lookout information. He’s been a huge resource! And kudos to Craig Willis, who became the first person on August 3, 2014 to visit all of Washington’s remaining lookouts. Both have been a huge inspiration to me!
Follow along on my journey as I add trip reports and photo galleries!