My buddy Brian, chef extraordinaire at Paradise Ranch, is obsessed with fire lookout towers. So it was his goal to check out the three remaining towers in the Big Horn Mountains, which we’ve been doing over the course of several weeks.
Most of the fire towers in this state have been decommissioned, though there are still a bunch that are used in the west of the state near Yellowstone. The ones here in the north are either sporadically manned, or are no longer in use at all. But for visitors to the area these historically important sites are fascinating places to visit, allowing access to unbeatable mountain views and pristine environments, all within relatively accessible reach.
The easiest one to access from the ranch is High Park Tower, located off Highway 16 about 14 miles down the road just before the Meadowlark ski slope. You can actually see the tower from the highway, perched on a rocky outcrop. It’s an easy drive in a standard two-wheel drive car, then just a 15-minute steep hike to the top.
(High Park Lookout Tower)
From the tower - built, as many of the carbon-copy two-storey towers were, during wartime by the Civilian Conservation Corps - there are killer views across Meadowlark Lake and over the Cloud Peak Wilderness. At an elevation of 9477ft, the air is clean and cool up here, with a carpet of wildflowers even in mid-July.
(the view over Meadowlark Lake)
(high altitude meadow at the foot of High Park)
Unfortunately, all the windows are boarded up in the tower, but we managed to sneak a peek to check out the fire navigational equipment and the living quarters with a bed and little kitchen area. Power is still connected to this tower, which leads me to believe it is occasionally used by the forest service.
The Sheep Mountain tower is also accessible from Highway 16, though it’s a longer drive inland on a rough road which may not be suitable for a standard vehicle. The road, however, goes right to the base of the tower, so no hiking is involved. From this rarely-used tower (check out the outhouse, a loo with a view that has unfortunately collapsed into the hillside), there are amazing 360 degree views of the Big Horns - you can see as far as Buffalo to the east, and out to the wilderness towards the north. A truly spectacular location where you feel like God looking down on creation...
(Sheep Mountain lookout)
(loo with a killer view)
(view from Sheep Mountain, earlier in the season)
Our excursion yesterday took us towards the final tower in the area, Black Mountain Lookout. To get here we headed north to Sheridan, then out to Dayton where we climbed the ridiculously steep highway into the northern Big Horn Mountains. However as we turned off Highway 14, bad weather set in, and by the time we viewed the tower, looming spookily on a rocky outcrop shrouded by rain clouds, we knew this was an impossible undertaking.
My pathetic little Nissan Versa rental car was never going to make the rocky crawl up the mountain to the elevation of 9492 ft (despite Brian’s most valiant efforts to push it over boulders and through bonnet-high creeks!); and after scraping the undercarriage several times, we abandoned the venture.
This tower, however, dominating the peak and looking somewhat like a spooky Scottish castle, is the most intriguing of them all ... so we’ve vowed to return, this time in Brian's pimped out Toyota truck which can take on any terrain in these ol’ mountains...
(Black Mountain Lookout)
(need to save this one for a sunny day!)