August 30, 2017

Forget Normal Camping: Rent A Fire Tower Lookout!

Words + Photos : Alison Turner

I don’t remember exactly how I found out about renting old, inactive fire towers. But once I learned that anyone can rent these overnight accommodations, I knew I had to try it.  

The biggest challenge you’ll have in renting one is finding availability. The good news is... if you're persistent, you may score a spot that's been cancelled at the last minute. That's how I was able to secure all three of my reservations at Oak Flat, McCarthy Point and Black Mountain Lookout. As I wrote this article, I went online and found a last minute cancel at a lookout in Oregon that I booked for September. If this is something you’ve been wanting to do, keep looking. Your best chance to secure a spot is being super flexible about timing and location.

Mr Carthy 2

Unlike at top-notch resorts, these structures almost never have power, and many do not have running water. The gas that's available in some of the towers is only equipped to heat a pot on the stove, so bring extra layers if the weather turns cold. Also, the restrooms are a hike from the tower, so prepare for that as well.  Oh, and forget about a shower. If you are unable to go without a shower for a few days, this is not the trip for you. You might want to picture these accommodations as a wood box with windows, nestled high up in the trees, with views that stretch out miles.

Oak Flat 5

Oak Flat

Over the past year, I stayed in three fire towers. The first tower I stayed at was Oak Flat near Sequoia National Park. Let's just say that the first experience was one I’d like to call my “lesson learned” trip. I looked at the photos online, and everything seemed completely doable. However, I made the rookie mistake of forgetting to call the ranger beforehand for the key code to the gate that blocks the service road a 1/2 mile from the tower. Since the gate was locked and the ranger station was closed, I parked at the gate, grabbed a few essentials, and hiked uphill with Max (my dog) to the tower. 

Forgetting that I have a fear of heights, I didn’t take into consideration the steep, see-through steps that I was required to climb in order to get to the top. Also, I had to coordinate holding Max in my arms as I navigated the stairs... one by one, on shaky legs. Once inside the cabin, the views were absolutely breathtaking. Standing alone, inside of the tower, the silence was most surprising. The quiet was so intense that my ears rang. It magnified the sounds of subtle breezes on the deck, trees swaying, and my footsteps.  

Oak Flat 1

You can easily avoid my mistakes by calling the ranger and getting the code to drive your car right to the tower. If you are not afraid of heights, the stairs will be a piece of cake. Also, there is a pulley system to get your supplies up (instead of carrying them up with you on the stairs as I did). I didn’t notice until after I settled in. Most fire towers have varied heights of stairs leading to their entrances, but some are ground level. So if heights concern you, be sure to read the description before you book.

Oak Flat 6
Oak Flat 3
Oak Flat 4

McCarthy Point 

Staying at McCarthy Point lookout was quite the opposite experience. Unlike Oak Flat, this one was perched on the top of a mountain without any stairs. At night, I couldn’t see any lights in the distance, only stars in the sky.

Mc Carthy 4
Mc Carthy 1
Mc Carthy 3

Black Mountain

Our third tour of fire towers took us to the Black Mountain lookout. As with the other two, this lookout was far above the trees, remote, and extremely peaceful. You can access the cabin by a ramp, so it’s an easy-access lookout.  

Black Mountain 1
Black Mountain 2
Black Mountain 4


If you are looking for adventure and something unique to do, I would suggest renting a fire tower. There are several in the western states that you can reserve online. To see a list of towers, visit  FireLookout.org. From there, click the links for whichever towers you find interesting.  Be sure to do it soon, since many towers close for the winter. I would recommend a constant search for availability if you find a tower you like. It’s one of the most unique and memorable rentals you can get in the wilderness. Good Luck!





After college and working several years in Advertising Sales, Allison Turner gave up the perceived security of her career to live on the road with her dog. What began as an escape from the corporate world has turned into a new way of life. 2017 marks her ninth year living on and off the road, wandering the country, and photographing people and places.

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