Lookouts in the Bitterroot Valley

of Western Montana

Standing at the rail of the catwalk around Gird Point Lookout, I could see the lights of Hamilton twinkling far off to the west. The night air was settling in cold and felt icy. Above the stars looked close enough to reach out and pick like apples off a tree.

We had finished dinner and a round of marshmallows on the campfire down below and now everyone was turning in for the night. The bunks in the lookout were full, so I pitched my sleeping bag on the catwalk outside.

Late in the night I woke to a blinding light as the half moon stood high in the sky staring me in the face. I closed my eyes to listen to the night sounds of the high alpine forest. A slight breeze blew over the rocks around the lookout and somewhere far below were the smashing and crashing sounds of a bear ripping into a rotten log looking for food. I raised my head and strained to see him in the moonlight, but the noise came from the shadows of the trees at the base of the meadow below. But it didn’t matter; I felt safe high in the lookout.

Historically, lookouts were built to aid in fire suppression. The Forest Service began building them around the West after the huge fires of 1910, when nearly 3 million acres of forest was burned in western Montana, northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Lookouts were strategically built on high points that gave a commanding view of the surrounding country. Many are built on craggy mountain tops exposed to every kind of weather: lightning, high winds, and scorching sun. Many are simply small one room cabins high above the ground on stilts.

In the 1930s, the government sent men who were unemployed by the Great Depression out to build many more lookouts. The Civilian Conservation Corps was part of President Roosevelt plan put men back to work and the CCC built several lookouts in Montana. Many of the lookouts are built far from roads well into the wilderness. But a few are close enough to drive to.

On the Bitterroot National Forest, there are three lookouts available for rental: Gird Point, Medicine Point and McCart. These lookouts have beds, cook stoves, wood stoves and cooking utensils.

The Bitterroot also is home to 11 other lookouts, many of which are still manned each summer as part of the agency’s fire detection program. The employees manning the towers spend each day looking for fires, which they report back to the Forest Service. Many of the people who man the remote wilderness lookouts will go days or weeks without seeing another person.

For more information on renting lookouts in the Bitterroot, look on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/r1/bitterroot or call 363-7100.

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