Shelter: Garnet Mountain Fire Tower

Fresh Off the Grid heads to the mountains of Montana for a chilly night in a high-altitude cabin with a view
December 19, 2015Words by Michael van VlietPhotos by Megan McDuffie

Even though the early winter air was decidedly brisk, we were shedding layers left and right. We were making our way up to the fire lookout tower at the top of Garnet Mountain and the trail was growing increasingly steep. Our insulating layers were the first to go, then the gloves, then the hats, until we were finally down to just our base layers. The trail ascends 2,800 feet over just three and a half miles, which — combined with our overnight packs — really got our bodies working. But each step forwards, brought us closer to our home for the night. 

Located 18 miles south of Bozeman, Montana, the fire lookout on Garnet Mountain is one of the last remaining towers in the region. During the 1930s, fire lookouts were constructed all over the country by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of a broader public works initiative. Their primary function was to rapidly identify and report wildfires to the US Forest Service, but during World War II they also took on the additional role of enemy aircraft spotters.

Many fire lookouts are still active throughout the US, although new technology and aircraft surveillance has lead to their overall decline. Of the towers slated for decommission, a few have found a second life as remote cabin rentals, which is the case with the lookout at Garnet Mountain. 

When we arrived at the tower, we jettisoned our packs on the wraparound front porch, took a look at the snow capped peaks around us, and reached for our summit victory beer. (Despite the poor weight-to-alcohol ratio, we have a longstanding tradition of splitting a Pabst tallboy at the top of every mountain. It’s the little things that can brighten a backpacker’s day.) After we finished our recovery beer, we opened the combo lock on the door and “checked in” to our room for the night. 

The most important amenity inside the tower, by far, was the wood stove. 

The living area inside the tower is approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, with knee-to-ceiling windows on all four sides. There’s a small table with chairs, a cabinet with a few pieces of basic cookware, two bunk beds with foam mattresses, and a central podium with a guest book. The tower has no electricity and no water. This meant we had to haul all of our drinking water up with us, which added to our pack weight considerably. But the most important amenity inside the tower, by far, was the wood stove. 

Beneath the living quarters, in the concrete base of the tower, there’s a room filled with unsplit logs that get brought up at the beginning of the season. A well-worn splitting maul is also provided. With the night rapidly approaching and the temperatures starting to drop, we immediately got to work preparing some fuel. The old proverb came to mind: “Chop your own wood, and it will warm you twice.” 

That evening, the forecast was for one to two inches of snow, probably more at our elevation. If we had been tent camping, this is when things would have turned grim: a hurried meal followed by a quick dash into the sleeping bag. However, with the wood stove crackling away and our dinner simmering in the pot, we had time to relax, reflect, and appreciate our surroundings. [H]

The accommodations might be considered rustic to most people, but out in the wild, it was pure luxury. Garnet Mountain fire lookout is managed by the US Forest Service, however, its general upkeep and overall cleanliness is maintained by its guests. It is available for rent year-round through Recreation.gov

Michael van Vliet is one half of the team at Fresh Off the Grid, a camp cooking blog. They feature recipes specifically designed for cooking in the outdoors, written on the road as he and his girlfriend travel the United States.

 

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