Camp Reads: Lookout Edition

Some of my very favorite trails in the Cascades switchback through meadows to the top of a bare ridge with a little wooden shack plunked on top like a delicious cherry. Thousands of fire lookouts popped up on the mountain tops in the early 1900’s in an era of western expansion and dominance, and the men and women that staffed the lookouts became heros. Some tiny solitary huts were graced with the presence of conservationist Edward Abbey and the zen buddhist poets of the beat generation: Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Jack Kerouac.

Park Butte Lookout, North Cascades

These days only a small number of lookouts still stand in the Cascades and an even smaller number of them are still staffed. The once rough and solitary lifestyle of a fire lookout has been romanticized in later generations and hopefully the love of these historic buildings will continue to aid in the restoration and preservation of them. I like to think that someday I will quit my job and work as a lookout for a summer. I will finally master proper posture by doing yoga everyday perched upon a rock. I will make tea and do as Gary Snyder did: “wrap up in a blanket in cold weather and read” and patiently wait for the first silent snow flakes of the fall. But more realistically I will forget the yoga, have terrible posture and will slowly go crazy making a list of ways to die in or around a lookout. But hey, a girl can dream…

This edition of camp reads kicks off a special series of posts dedicated to some of my favorite lookout hikes in the Cascades. Look for these additional posts throughout the summer and fall!


Fire Season by Philip Connors
In 2001 Connors was a copy-editor at the Wall Street Journal in New York City. After 9/11 he quit his job and visited a friend in New Mexico. She was a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest and was looking for someone to take over her spot. Connors has been working there every summer since. The book is a memoir of his time in the lookout and a love story to the Gila National Forest, one of the largest National Forests and includes more wilderness area than any other National Forest. The most famous of these is the Aldo Leopold Wilderness named for the conservationist. This is a great account of the modern fire lookout. You can see his photos from the lookout and check out his new book on his website.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
The paperback is perfect for packing and reading while traipsing the top of peaks and scanning the landscape for signs of smoke.

poetsonpeaksPoets on the Peaks by John Suiter
It all started when Gary Snyder walked into the Marblemount forest service office in 1952 and requested to be sent to the “highest, most remote, and most difficult-of-access lookout” in the North Cascades. They all laughed and sent him up a miserable trail to Crater Mountain. The now famous poet influenced many famous writers of the era with the likes of Phillip Whalen and Jack Kerouac. They all spent time alone in the lookouts of the North Cascades and studied zen buddhism, practiced yoga and wrote poems and books. Written from unpublished letters, journals and interviews with Snyder and Whalen, this book tells of the lives of these men centered on their time as lookouts.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Car Camp
This heavy large format book jam-packed with historical photos is best read while car camping unless, like the lookouts of the time, you have a strong and steady pack mule.

mtns0fmemoryMountains of Memory by Don Scheese
Like Fire Season, Scheese portrays the ways of the modern fire lookout in his memoir. He was a lookout for over a decade in the rugged wilderness of Idaho. When he’s not on the lookout he’s backpacking, climbing mountains and rafting the Salmon River and always contemplating the role of humans in the forest. As a nature writer he studies Thoreau, Snyder and Abbey and notes the wildflowers blooming about the lookout. He now spends his days as an English and Environmental Studies professor.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
This short memoir will fit in your pack to read while in your favorite mountain wilderness.

big-burn-cover-imageThe Big Burn by Timothy Egan
In 1910 a massive forest fire ripped through Montana, Idaho and Washington. It was the biggest fire ever seen in the west and over ten thousand men fought it. Egan tells the story of the “Big Burn” and the events leading up to it through the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. The story has been documented on the PBS show American Experience and can be watched on the PBS website. Egan, who grew up in Seattle, has written extensively about the history of the west. His latest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is about the fascinating life of the legendary photographer Edward Curtis.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
This historical gem is best enjoyed from a tent perched on a mountaintop.


Lookouts by Ira Spring and Byron Fish
This is the ultimate handbook for the Cascades & Olympics lookout lover. It chronicles all of the lookouts built in the cascades and gives a little history and photos for many of them. Reading through the book you’ll get a good sense of the importance of the lookouts to our mountains and the crazy places they perched these little houses on. The complete list of lookouts in the back of the book lists when they were built and if they are still standing (as of 1996 for the 2nd edition). It’s the perfect starting point to build a list of lookouts to visit.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Backpack
This book begs to be read with feet dangling from the catwalk of a Cascades lookout.

Additional info on lookouts:

National Historic Lookout Register (with interactive maps of lookouts in every state)
Washington Fire Lookout Sites (with historic photos)
List of Fire Lookouts Currently Standing in Washington

See Also: Tatoosh by Martha Hardy

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