Weaving around a gravel Forest Service Road, I began to wonder if I would ever reach my destination. I was high above sea level, working my way up one of the thousands of peaks that make up the Rocky Mountains of Montana, excited to see the swanky digs that I would be enjoying for the night. Normally, I make the drive from Yellowstone to the Puget Sound region in a day, but on this trip, I needed something special to end my incredible vacation. I needed a memorable way to officially end summer, something that I could look back on fondly and fully enjoy the start of the cooler weather. Thanks to recreation.gov, I found a fire lookout in the Lolo National Forest that I could stay at, in the middle of grizzly country, for just $30 a night.
Thompson Peak Lookout Tower is high above the Clark Fork Valley and Interstate 90 near the tiny town of Superior, Montana. Located close to the Idaho border, the sweeping views of the local tree-covered mountains help highlight the wilderness beauty of the two million-acre Lolo National Forest. Like the rest of Western Montana, the superior region is wild and remote enough to have healthy populations of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, deer and grizzly and black bears. Just east of the St. Regis, considered to be the “Gateway to Glacier National Park,” the location of the lookout tower makes it extremely popular. Thompson Peak Lookout, which is open between May 27 and Oct. 13, is also one of the more developed towers in the state, complete with electricity and cell phone service, an electric stove, a heater, a microwave and even a small refrigerator. Sleeping up to four people, having this tower all to myself was pretty awesome. I did have to bring my own water, but there is a grocery store in Superior that has everything you need. The swankiness of the Thompson Peak lookout might sound like it is a bit too much for people looking for something a bit less maintained, but with the view and the solitude, I was extremely happy. It was a great “hotel room” for $30, with out anyone else around.
“…visitors come to the tower to relax and enjoy the scenery. The one-room rental cabin is equipped with 1 twin bed/mattress pads. Sleeps up to four people. Some basic eating and cooking utensils are supplied, as well as pots and pans, but drinking water is not available. An outhouse with a vault toilet is provided. Guests will need to bring water for drinking, cooking and cleaning purposes, as well as bedding, towels, soap, garbage bags and toilet paper. Guests will need to clean the cabin before leaving. Some basic cleaning equipment and supplies are provided.”
My search for lodging began on the internet, where the majority of my trip planning occurs. I had been researching another article and was looking for amazing places to stay in the middle of the wilderness, when I found myself on recreation.gov. Full of fire lookouts, cabins, campsites and other incredible places on our public lands, I quickly fell in love with this website. How I found the Thompson Peak Lookout Tower, I am still not sure, but I consider myself lucky. Recreation.Gov is seriously one of the hidden gems online and needs to be visited. They have but an amazing site to help you hike, picnic, camp or stay the night in a historic structure. This isn’t me trying to be all nice to them either. The site is straight up awesome, and I am excited to know that a few of you will have incredible experiences in a fire lookout or rustic cabin too. The website’s content is amazing, but the page could be a bit better. The page is intuitive enough, but the map could be a bit easier to browse. You also need to know your dates ahead of time, as the site doesn’t give a good glimpse of the entire mont’s availability. Don’t let this stop you, though. Play around with it, work out the quirks and you’ll be good to go.
Important Note: Recreation.gov isn’t just for Montana! It is a nation wide website!
Staying in fire lookouts and cabins around the western states has become a new travel goal. Taking as many road trips I do, I typically only camp close to the highway or stay in a dingy and cheap hotel. Now, after one night above the ground in a historic building offering panoramic views, I want to experience more. I want to see the night sky in the middle nowhere, illuminating the faint outline of my rustic fire lookout. I want to sleep in an old hunting cabin, deep in grizzly and wolf country, drinking tea and listening to animals howl and yip beyond my wooden walls. Recreation.gov lets us that, and lets us find a place to experience the old west and embrace a hermit lifestyle, if only for a night.
Reservations for most destinations aren’t able to be booked too far out. From my limited research, it appears that most fire lookouts and cabins are available just six months ahead of time. Many of the fire lookouts are also not available over the winter and typically are only available from May/June until September/October. These places are hot commodities, so diligent planning and good timing are skills you need. I was very lucky to get mine, as I only requested one night, and it was for the Wednesday after Labor Day. Your best bet is to see when the reservations are able to be accepted, stay up late and reserve your destinations the second you can.