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HOPING TO SPEND THE NIGHT IN A FIRE TOWER BUT DON'T KNOW WHERE TO START THE PLANNING PROCESS? THEN THIS ADVENTURE GUIDE IS FOR YOU - KEEP READING TO LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING AND STAYING AT A FIRE TOWER.
For some reason, visiting a fire tower quickly moved to the top of our summer bucket list. There is just something about the opportunity to hike through a beautiful landscape and then reach a historic place that really spoke to us (especially Madalyne).
Luckily, in the western United States in particular, you can find a wide array of fire towers. From outposts on the tops of granite peaks to hideaways on windswept ridges, there is a fire tower for every type of adventurer.
So if you are like us and are hoping to visit a fire tower yourself - or even better spend the night at one - then keep reading to learn everything you need to know about visiting and staying at a fire tower in the USA.
\\ A Short History of Fire Towers in the USA
Fire lookout towers or just "fire towers" were originally built to simply provide housing and protection for a "fire lookout" - someone whose duty was to search for wildfires out in the wilderness. Most fire towers simply consist of a small building or room (known as a cab) that has lots of windows and is usually situated on the summit of a mountain or other high vantage point (some are even built on large stilts to help maximize viewing distance).
Historically, the tops of tall trees were used to mount permanent platforms in order to monitor fire activities. In fact, purpose-built towers only gained popularity in the early 1900s. Likewise, the method of reporting wildfires has also changed pretty drastically over the years: telephones, carrier pigeons and heliographs (a device using two mirrors to reflect sunlight) and Morse code have all been used previously. Today, radios and phones are almost solely used to relay important information.
So why were so many fire towers built across the USA?
Actually, there weren't always so many towers: early on many towns, lumber companies, and state forestry organizations simply had to operate their own private fire towers. In fact, it wasn't until the Great Fire of 1910 - also known as the Big Blowup - that the idea of building an organization of fire towers across the country came to be.
The Great Fire of 1910 tore through the states of Montana, Idaho and Washington and eventually burned 3 million acres (12,000 square kilometers). The smoke from this fire drifted across the entire country and all of the way to Washington D.C. Thanks to the heavy smoke, the fire led the newly created US Forest Service to address new policies regarding fire suppression and planning. In fact, one of the main rules that came out of this destruction was that "all fires must be extinguished by 10AM the following morning" (man we wish that was still true).
As a result of the above rule, early fire detection and suppression became a huge priority. Enter: fire towers. Soon enough towers were being built around the country, and especially in the Western states like Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington. By the late 1930s, over 5,000 fire towers had been constructed.
Today, many of the original fire towers are either not in use anymore or have been completely demolished. Therefore it can be an extra special experience to visit one - especially some of the older ones that have a long history and some absolutely stunning views.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: while the heyday of fire towers was definitely between the 1930s and the 1950s, during World War II (thanks to the Aircraft Warning Service) many fire towers were assigned additional duties as Enemy Aircraft Spotters (especially on the West Coast of the United States).
➳ You can learn more about the history of fire towers here.
\\ Locations of Fire Towers in the USA
While many fire towers have been torn down, there are still plenty of options available if you are hoping to visit or stay at one - especially if you are looking to do so in the Western half of the USA.
Below we outline some interesting stats on where you can still find some of these unique beacons of environmental progress and protection, as well as helpful information on what to know once you are actually adventuring to a fire tower yourself.
STATS ON USA FIRE TOWERS
There were once fire towers in practically every state of the USA (all except Kansas). Unfortunately, today many of those fire towers are either closed to the public, in total disrepair (aka unsafe to visit), or have been torn down completely.
Below are the 6 states with the highest number of fire towers that you can still visit:
STATE | TOTAL SITES (Historically) | STILL STANDING
IDAHO | 989 | 196
OREGON | 849 | 207
WASHINGTON | 656 | 107
CALIFORNIA | 625 | 198
MONTANA | 639 | 130
PENNSYLVANIA | 449 | 64
Interestingly enough, the mountainous (and fire-prone) states of Colorado and Alaska have historically had very few fire towers. Colorado only ever had 30 (today 14 are left), while Alaska only ever had 2 (today only one still stands).
➳ You can find the list of the number of fire towers in the USA and internationally here as well as a FULL list of all of the fire towers you can rent for the night in the USA here.