The challenge: visiting all of Washington’s fire lookouts.
While living in the Methow Valley back in 2014, I learned that Okanogan County has the highest number of fire lookouts still remaining in the state, and the Methow Valley Ranger District is home to eight of those.
That year I made a goal to visit all of the Methow Valley fire lookouts. It didn’t take long for my ambitions to grow. In 2017, I committed to seeing and photographing all of the remaining standing fire lookouts across Washington State.
The big question: how many are there? There is a popular Peakbagger list that contains 93 lookouts still standing in their original locations. Some say there are sites on the list that aren’t lookouts. Others think there are more and the number is really 97. What is considered an original fire lookout sometimes isn’t so black and white and you’ll often get a different answer depending who you talk to. I think there are roughly 90 structures on the list that are indeed a good representation of still-standing structures and well, the rest remain a fun bonus!
Though I visited a few fire lookouts in 2014 I didn’t start this project in earnest until July 2017. I spent the next two years visiting 81 lookouts across the state, a majority of which I did solo. On July 1, 2019, I climbed the ladder to the summit of Mount Pilchuck, completing the journey and becoming the 3rd person, and 1st woman, to complete the peakbagger list.
For me though, the lookout journey is never complete! I still spend a lot of time visiting former lookout sites, maintaining our lookouts here in the Methow Valley, and even spent the 2021 fire season staffing Goat Peak outside Mazama, my very first season as a lookout!
This incredible project has taken me all over Washington State and has been about so much more than simply checking off a list, it’s been about understanding and capturing an incredible piece of history and meeting some fantastic people along the way.
Fun stats from my multi-year adventure.
During the course of this project, my best adventure buddy Jake dog accompanied me to 51 lookouts before he passed away at the ripe old age of 13 in January 2019. 🐾
Wildlife seen along the way.
A brief history of fire lookouts.
Fire lookouts became a familiar icon across the American West in the early 1900s, many built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt amidst the Great Depression. In World War II, lookouts were used to spot enemy aircraft and 10 years later Beatnik poets 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. Many were abandoned and destroyed by vandalism, neglect, weather, and fire. Of the roughly 750 that were built here in Washington, only 93 remain standing in their original locations as of 2019.
Why the 93*? There is a lot of debate about what constitutes an actual standing fire lookout. This is the generally accepted peakbagger list that contains original fire lookouts still standing at their original locations. If you spend any time with members of the fire lookout community you’ll learn quickly how hotly contested this “list” is. I’m a peakbagger at heart and simply enjoy visiting these structures, photographing them, and learning about their history. I continue to visit former fire lookout sites and relocated sites and would encourage anyone with a love for lookouts to visit as many as you can, whether they’re “officially” on the list or not! Have fun!