Hikers coming down from Schafer Peak follow a trail on Green Monarch Ridge overlooking Lake Pend Oreille. (RICH LANDERS/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW/TNS)
Photo: RICH LANDERS/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIE/TNS
Photo: RICH LANDERS/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIE/TNS

Trails to fire lookout sites lead hikers to stunning panoramas

The world of forest fires and fire prevention offers a lifetime of high adventure from a hiker’s point of view. 

Some of the best viewpoints in the region are accessed by fire lookout trails.  

Fire lookouts had their heydays in the first half of the 20th century, especially during a building boom on national forests and other public lands during The Great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps was dispatched help erect cabins and towers for fire detection on accessible peaks with the best views of the landscape.  

More than 5,000 lookouts were erected over these years — and trails or roads had to be built to the sites.  

The Idaho Panhandle was the mecca of fire lookouts with nearly 300 structures topping mountains in roughly 150 miles from Priest Lake to the St. Joe River country. Only approximately two dozen of those lookouts are still in use, nearly half of them as recreational rentals.  

After more than 60 years of service, most of the wooden sentinels and those who staffed them for fire prevention and monitoring have been replaced by aircraft surveillance, satellite imagery and other technology.  

Lookouts have been demolished almost as quickly as they were built in a razing campaign that surged across the country in the 1960s and 1970s.  

In Washington, for example:  

Of the 678 fire lookout sites, roughly 85 still have standing structures.  

Approximately 25 lookouts are staffed at times by various agencies or tribes.  

Roughly 50 lookouts are maintained for emergency use.  

Three lookouts are available for rent.  

Whether the lookout structure still stands is moot to the hiker if the trail remains and the trees haven’t overgrown the view.  

Shedroof Divide, just west of the Washington-Idaho border in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, is perhaps the region’s best single trekking trip for reveling in fire lookout history and scenery.  

That portion of the wilderness northeast of Sullivan Lake is currently off-limits because of wildfire closures, but when the fires subside, a hiker can set out 19 miles and pass a string of former lookout sites at Round Top, Mankato, Thunder, Little Snowy Top and Shedroof mountains.  

Little Snowy Top had the last standing lookout cabin on the divide until it burned to the ground last year, apparently because of hikers using the wood stove carelessly.  

When fire closures are lifted, two additional sites on the Shedroof can be accessed by a separate day hike to Grassy Top Mountain near Pass Creek Pass and a short drive from the north end trailhead to the Salmo Lookout, which still stands. Volunteers have given it some restoration love in recent years.  

Most lookout sites continue to offer unobstructed views worth all the effort to achieve.  

Two of the best still-staffed lookout destinations for hikers in this region are Lookout Mountain at Priest Lake in North Idaho and Oregon Butte in southeastern Washington.  

Oregon Butte, elevation 6,387 feet, is staffed by volunteers at the northwest edge of Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.  

The highly recommended hike follows 2 miles of trail from Teepee Campground, gaining a modest 900 feet.  

Lookout Mountain offers an unmatched lofty view of Priest Lake and Upper Priest Lake.  

The 5.2-mile round-trip hike, with a cumulative elevation gain of 1,840 feet, should be on every lookout peak-bagger’s list.  

The hike: The trail climbs steeply at first before leveling out along Lookout Lake. At .7 mile, turn left on a spur to visit the deepest end of the lake before doubling back and continuing. At 1.2 mile, the trail meets the end of a rough logging road that extends from the trailhead parking area. Double back to the left here on the trail heading up to Lookout Mountain. A 2.3 miles into the hike, the single track merges with a steep, rocky road used by the lookout staff for ATV access. Continue up the road .3 mile to the summit, elevation 6,722, where there’s a lookout tower and an older ground cabin lookout. Marvel at the view.  

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Hikers looking for more solitude should zero in on trails to unstaffed lookouts or former lookout sites. Among my favorites are:  

—Snow Peak, Idaho, elevation 6,760 feet (currently in fire closure area). Home of mountain goats and classic view in Mallard-Larkins roadless area of St. Joe National Forest; 5-mile trail gains 1,240 feet.  

—Columbia Mountain, Wash., elevation 6,782 feet. Great views of Kettle Range and home of region’s oldest lookout cabin still standing; 8-mile loop from Sherman Pass gains 1,200 feet.  

—Star Peak, Montana, elevation 6,167 feet. Views of Clark Fork valley and into proposed Scotchman Peak Wilderness; 5-mile trail from US 200 gains 4,000 feet.  

—Schafer Peak, Idaho, elevation 5,210. Hiking on Green Monarch Ridge offers stunning views north across Lake Pend Oreille to Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, including Scotchman Peak (another great lookout site hike); 4.5-mile route on trails 69 and 68 gains “significant” cumulative elevation. Numerous blowdowns near summit were cleared midsummer.  

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That’s just a sampling of my favorite hikes to lookout sites, with many others coming to mind, including this one up the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River. It’s a gem that thousands of people pass each year without knowing it’s there.  

—Pond Peak, a former lookout site near Little Guard Lookout, which is still standing and available for rental. The 8.5-mile round trip hike runs along Shoshone Ridge and four peaks more than 6,000 feet in elevation, making it one of the most prominent ridges for hiking in the Coeur d’Alene River drainage.  

The hike: Trail 81, starting at elevation 5,510 feet, maintains a mostly gentle grade as it contours northward along and below the 6,209-foot summit of Bennett Peak. It climbs over the top of Little Sentinel Peak, elev. 6,134. It dips to a saddle before gaining back 375 feet of elevation to skirt the west side of Sentinel Peak and dipping again and climbing toward the old forest fire lookout site on the top of Pond Peak. When the single track reaches the old lookout access road, turn right and hike the road a short way to the summit at 6,136 feet after 3.6 miles of hiking. Views are extensive overlooking the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River drainage and north to the Selkirks and Cabinets, including Scotchman Peak.

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