When Visiting the National Parks, Look for Historic Lookouts
Many national parks have historic lookouts that are (or should be) listed on the National Historic Lookouts Register. Visitors who know where to look can see lots of splendid examples.
By the early 1900s, the early detection and prompt suppression of forest fires had become an important responsibility of state and federal natural resource management agencies. With huge tracts of forested land to look after, the National Park Service became heavily invested in this effort soon after the agency was created in 1916.
As more and more national parks were established , many of them carved out of forested lands with long-established fire suppression programs, the Park Service gained a healthy share of the roughly 9,000 lookouts and observation stations ensconced on federal lands throughout the country by 1930. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed hundreds of new ones and replacements during the 1930s.
The passage of the decades brought improved fire detection technologies employing aircraft and satellite imagery, as well as a new appreciation for the ecosystem benefits of natural fire. Many of the lookouts were declared obsolete, deactivated, and torn down or left to the ravages of time and neglect. A surprisingly large number are still standing, although fewer than 1,000 are still in active service in the national forests and parks. Whether active or not, all are recognized as proud symbols of America’s forest conservation ethic.
As befits their prized relic status, historic lookouts throughout America are being inventoried and evaluated as part of a broadly-based campaign to restore and preserve as many as practicable. A Washington, DC-based NGO, the American Resources Group, maintains the National Historic Lookout Register (NHLR) in cooperation with the Forest Fire Lookout Association, the National Forestry Association, the National Woodland Owners Association, the U.S. Forest Service, state foresters, and Interior Department agencies, including the National Park Service. This is an important project. For eligible historic structures (50+ years from date of construction), being NHLR-listed is often the vital first step toward National Historic Landmark designation and nomination to the National Register of Historic Sites.
Unfortunately, the NHLR remains far from complete. This means that, among other things, there is still no comprehensive list of historic lookouts in the National Park System. Pending the arrival of that happy day, we can cite examples.
Here are just a few of the noteworthy old lookouts in national parks. Traveler readers can doubtlessly name many other historic lookouts worthy of mention.
• Grand Canyon National Park has four NHLR-listed lookouts. The North Rim Lookout, built in 1928 and moved by the CCC to its present site in 1933, was famously manned by author Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) for four years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Also on the North Rim is the CCC-constructed (1940) Kanabownitz Tower. The two other historic lookouts are both on the South Rim. The Hopi Tower was built near Hopi Point in 1927, replacing a wooden “crow’s nest” that was probably the first fire tower built in Arizona (see photo). The Signal Hill Tower near Pasture Wash was constructed in 1929.
• Crater Lake National Park only has one NHLR-listed lookout, but this structure atop Watchman Peak on the caldera rim is a real beauty.
Watchman Observation Station, also referred to as Watchman Fire Lookout, was designed by Francis Lange and constructed between1931-1933. Watchman Observation Station was conceived, designed, and developed as a NPS Rustic-styled fire lookout and museum. The Rustic-styled observation station incorporated Crater Lake’s available indigenous materials including rock and wood to harmoniously blend in with the building’s context. Specific aspects of the style included use of native materials, simplicity in design, avoidance of overly perfect construction lines, use of exterior colors such as brown and gray to blend with the setting, and a general look as if the structure was built by pioneer craftsmen. …. As an interpretive site for park visitors, the building housed a museum on the first story and a viewing platform on the second. The museum’s focus was on forestry education while the platform served as a wayside for visitors to come into contact with an assigned Ranger-Naturalist who would educate park visitors about Crater Lake. [National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Inventory: The Watchman Observation Station and Watchman Trail, Crater Lake NP, 2001]
• Mesa Verde National Park has three fire lookouts -- Park Point and Cedar Tree Towers on Chapin Mesa, and Whites Mesa Tower. The recently-restored Park Point Tower, which was CCC-built in 1939, is particularly interesting because it is located at the highest point in the park (elevation 8,572 feet) and has played a very important role in fire detection in Mesa Verde, over 80% of which has been burned over since the park was established in 1906. Amazingly, this lookout has been continuously staffed, 24/7, each fire season (June through September) for the past 70 years.
• Glacier National Park continues to staff lookouts each fire season, including Huckleberry and Numa (North Fork), Scalplock (Middle Fork), and Swiftcurrent (on the Continental Divide between Granite Park Chalet and Many Glacier). Loneman Lookout in the Middle Fork was recently activated for the first time in over 30 years. Glacier’s staffed lookouts, all of which were all built in the 1930s, look pretty much alike. They’re two-story wooden structures consisting of a windowless storage area topped by a 14 x 14 foot room (called a "cab") that the fire lookout occupies. Renowned naturalist and grizzly bear expert Doug Peacock was a fire lookout in Glacier (at Huckleberry and Scalplock from 1976 to 1984), and so was author/essayists Ed Abbey (at Numa Ridge in 1975).
• Many of the lookouts that were built in North Cascades National Park have long since disappeared, but the historic Sourdough, Desolation, and Copper Ridge lookouts still stand, and still serve their original function. BTW, an impressive list of famous or near-famous solitude-seeking writers and poets did stints as fire lookouts in North Cascades, including author Jack Kerouac (On the Road), San Francisco Renaissance/beat poet Philip Whalen, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder. You can read more about the North Cascades fire lookouts in the Fall 2009 issue of National Parks.