Explore Fire Lookouts in the Inland NW

Wherever fire lookouts still stand on exposed mountain tops, they’re a reminder of an era that has nearly faded into history. Throughout much of the last century, lone watchmen spent days and weeks alone scanning the skyline from glass-windowed towers for signs of smoke from the tops of many of the region’s highest peaks.

Fire spotters in airplanes began replacing staffed lookouts decades ago, and today only a fraction of the many fire lookouts that were built over the last 100 years are still standing.

Some of these recommended fire lookouts in the Selkirk Mountains have been restored and are available for rent for a unique camping experience. Others are closed to the public but make for fun, photogenic day hike destinations.

A few of the lookouts that made our list are some of the last active fire lookouts in the Northwest that still deploy paid staff and volunteers to keep an eye out for wildfires. Visiting a lookout and getting the chance to chat with a lookout attendant, if they are there and have the time, is an opportunity to experience a piece of living history that won’t be around forever.

Whether you drive to the top, day hike in, or pack in to spend the night, exploring our region’s remaining fire lookouts is a wonderful way to experience history and high adventure all in one unforgettable trip.

Fall in Idaho’s Salmo Priest Wilderness. // Photo: Holly Weiler.

Salmo Mountain Lookout: Drive to the top for world-class views

The views from the foot of the Salmo Mountain lookout might be the most impressive of any you can drive to in the Inland Northwest. Mountains spread out in every direction, with the dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies to the north stealing the show.

The lookout building is currently closed to the public and battened down tight to keep vandals and would be squatters at bay, so you’ll have to settle for the 6,828 foot ground level view at the base of the tower, which is darn impressive and well worth the drive.

The towering structure, which was built in 1964 and is on the National Historic Lookout Register, is an impressive, photo-worthy sight against a backdrop of mountains and sky.

Overnight camping options are available at several National Forest campgrounds nearby on Sullivan Lake, and there are two hiking trails that head off into the Salmo Priest Wilderness at the end of the main forest road #2220 you use to access the spur road to Salmo Mtn Lookout.

Trail #506 heads down about 3 miles through old-growth cedar and hemlock along to the South Salmo River and is highly recommended. Trail #535 starts at the same trailhead and works its way up towards the Shedroof Divide in the heart of the surrounding wilderness.

The two trails connect into a 21-mile loop and also provide access to where the remote Little Snowy Top Lookout was located before it burned down in September 2016.

Getting There

From Metaline Falls, drive north on Hwy 31 about 2 miles past the Pend Oreille River Road bridge and turn right toward Sullivan Lake. Near the lake, drive east on forest road #22 about 6 miles to the junction with Pass Creek Pass Road. Continue left on road #2220 toward Salmo Mountain. Drive 13 miles to spur road #270 and follow it to the lookout.

Family posing for camera at the summit of Lookout Mountain Tower, with old firelookout in the background.
Family Hike to Lookout Mountain Tower in North Idaho, near Priest Lake.

Lookout Mountain: Two lookouts, epic Priest Lake views

Lookout Mountain on the northeast side of Priest Lake sports two fire lookouts that can be reached after a moderate hike to the top at 6,727 feet. The mountain’s first lookout was built in 1929—that original schoolhouse looking “cupola” lookout structure is still there, with a relatively new white coat of paint, and is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. It was restored between 1983-1992.

The newer, taller lookout tower next to the original structure is the third of its kind on Lookout Mountain and was assembled there in 1977.

The two lookouts are an impressive sight perched on top of the nearly tree-less granite summit and can be seen from miles away. Neither of the lookouts are currently open to the public, unless you happen to arrive when lookout Pam Aunan is at work and can talk her into showing you around.

Summer 2013 was Pam’s 23rd season on Lookout Mountain. “This is a really special place to me, and I love being her,” Aunan says. “A lot of people from the local area come up with their relatives every few years or so just to climb the mountain and see the lookouts. It’s like a family tradition.”

The hike up to Lookout Mountain is 2.5 miles long and climbs approximately 1,500 feet from trailhead to summit. The trail pops out at Lookout Lake after about ¾ of a mile. You get a nice view of the lookouts from the lake, which is a fine place for a shady break before pushing on to the summit.

There are also a few lakeside campsites if want to make it an overnighter. Past the lake the trail mellows for a bit before meeting up with a lightly maintained section of the Pacific Northwest Trail (stay left!).

Continue climbing towards the top (the final quarter-mile push is on an old, closed road). At the foot of the lookouts, the views of the Selkirks, Chimney Rock, and Priest Lake are incredible.

Getting There

Lookout Mountain is on the northeast side of Priest Lake in North Idaho. A high-clearance vehicle is highly recommended. The Lookout Mountain hike is # 37 in Rich Landers 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest book (2nd Edition), where you’ll also find more info on other nearby hiking trails.

  • Head north from Coolin, Idaho, on the East Lakeshore Road about 27 miles (4 miles past the Lion Head State Park Campground) to Idaho State Forest Road #44.
  • Head up road #44 for 2.5 miles then turn right on road #43 and go for about a ¼ mile then turn left onto road #432.
  • Drive about 3 miles and look for ribbon and a hiker sign that mark the trailhead on your left just before the road ends at a gate.
Rock outcropping that looks like a chimney overlooking Priest Lake in north Idaho.
Chimney Rock in the mountains of North Idaho. // Photo: Jon Jonckers

Shorty Peak Lookout: Live like a fire lookout for a night

For much of the 20th Century, people were hired to live for the summer in mountain top lookouts like the one on Shorty Peak. They were paid to spend their days scanning the surrounding forests for the first puffs of wildfire smoke.

Shorty Peak Lookout is perched high up in the Selkirk Mountains of north Idaho near the Canadian border northwest of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The Lookout is one of several Forest Service lookouts available as overnight rentals in the region. (For a complete list of lookout rentals throughout the Inland Northwest and beyond, visit the Forest Fire Lookout Association.)

Once you’ve made the necessary reservations, it’s a 2.5 mile, moderate hike into the lookout with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. The lookout is a recently refurbished 15X15’ cabin-like building that sits on top of an elevated foundation on 6,515 foot Shorty Peak.

Wrap-around decks and windows make for some excellent scenery watching in just about any direction you choose to look, with dramatic peaks of the Selkirk, Purcell, and Cabinet Mountains in three states and BC dominating the horizon.

Reservations are required for overnight use, but day hikers can also visit and explore the sights around the restored lookout if no overnight guests have it reserved (check reservation calendar online). Overnight accommodations for up to four people include two twin beds and tables and chairs, but not much else.

You’ll need to bring your own water and camping supplies. There’s no electricity, but there is a pit toilet 100 yards away. The price for a night’s stay is a reasonable $25.

For reservation availability (July-September) visit www.recreation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777.

Getting There

The Idaho Panhandle National Forest offers these rather complex driving directions online:

  • Take Hwy 95 north from the Bonners Ferry Ranger Station for 17 miles.
  • Turn Left onto Hwy 1, head north for 2 miles.
  • Turn left onto county road #45, head west for 4 miles.
  • Stay right at the “T” heading North on road #45 for 9 miles.
  • Stay to the left around the switchback, which puts you on road #281, and head west for 8 miles.
  • Turn up to the right on road #655 and head west 1.5 miles.
  • Stay right again at the switchback, head east 1 mile on road #282.
  • Go straight at the next junction and continue northeast on road #282 for 4 miles.
  • Park at the trailhead on top of the saddle before the locked gate. Hike 2.5 miles up the trail to the west to reach the lookout.

More Lookouts in the Selkirk Mountains

Use the resources section below or search online for more info about these lookouts, driving directions, and nearby hiking and camping options. If you ever witness or hear of any vandalism of lookouts or other historic places, please contact the local Sheriff’s office immediately.

Quartz Mountain Lookout, Mount Spokane State Park

The coolest thing about the relocated and beautifully restored Quartz Mountain Lookout is how close it is to Spokane and an incredible network of hiking and biking trails. The only bummer is how quickly reservations to spend the night there fill up.

Quartz Mountain Fire Lookout. Photo: Holly Weiler
Quartz Mountain Fire Lookout at Mount Spokane State Park. // Photo: Holly Weiler

Hughes Ridge Lookout, Northwest side of Priest Lake

Hike ½ mile to the 45-foot lookout tower, which was built in 1953, and is still staffed most of the summer by volunteers.

Fire Lookout & Hiking Resources

  • Fire Lookouts of the Northwest and Fire Lookouts of Oregon and Washington, by Ray Kresek (both are out of print but available used online)
  • Firetowers, Lookouts & Rustic Cabins for Rent, by Carolyne Ilona Gatesy (Bear Mountain Press, 1997)
  • Fire Lookouts of the Northwest: Website created by historian and author Ray Kresek. firelookouts.com
  • Fire Lookout Museum: Ray Kresek’s museum in Spokane. Learn more in this story from OTO’s August 2019 issue.
  • Forest Fire Lookout Association: This great organization researches existing and former lookouts and raises funds and organizes volunteers to restore historic lookouts. firelookout.org
  • Priestlake.org: Great site maintained by the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce with info on area lookouts, hikes, and events. priestlake.org
  • U.S. Forest Service, Cabin and Lookout Rentals in the Northern Region: fs.usda.gov
  • Fire Lookouts of the Pacific Northwest: Old website created by Rex Kamstra, featuring photos, history, geocaching links. firelookout.com

Originally published as “Explore Fire Lookouts” in the August 2013 print issue.

Touring the Fire Lookout at the museum in north Spokane. // Photo by Holly Weiler

(Updated: Nov. 2021.)

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