I'm not sure how I found out about renting old fire towers that are no longer active, but once I learned about it, I knew I had to do it. I believe the biggest challenge in renting one is finding availability. The good news is... if you're persistent, you may score a spot that's been cancelled at that last minute. That's how I was able to secure these reservations. Since I am not much of an advance planner for such things, I rely on the last minute cancelers to open it up for me to reserve.
Unlike many top notch resorts you can find in the middle of nowhere to rent, these come without power and many do not have running water. The gas that's available in some of the towers is just to heat a pot on the stove, so bring your layers if the weather turns cold. Also, the restrooms are a hike from the tower so prepare for that as well. Just think of it as a hard tent shell high up in the trees with views that go on for miles.
The past year, I stayed in two fire towers with one more experience in October at a different tower. The first tower I stayed at was Oak Flat near Sequoia National Park. Let's just say that the first experience was one not to forget.
I was browsing the fire tower site and found an open reservation on the website the day after I was to have a tooth pulled. I wondered a bit if it was a good idea to book, but my excitement got the best of me and I reserved it without hesitation. Little did I know that my road to recovery was longer than people made me believe it to be. Since this was my first tooth pulled, I wasn't sure what to expect. Everyone chimed in with their experience, so combining them in my head made it seem as if it was going to be a piece of cake. It wasn't.
After the extraction, my cheeks decided to double in size. With that swelling came extreme pain and a comedy of errors trying to eat with my head tilted. I suppose a smart person would have cancelled a camping trip to a fire tower in the middle of nowhere after oral surgery, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity, even if I was in pain and the sight of my face was slightly concerning.
I packed up campy the day of my reservation and headed to the tower, following the detailed directions on the forest service website. As I made my way to the tower on "four wheel drive vehicles strongly recommended" roads, I came across a locked gate. In my last minute planning, I forgot to call the forest service for the combination to the lock on the gate. I arrived after hours so I was unable to find the code. Slightly discouraged, this locked gate was not going to spoil my trip with Max and my swollen cheeks! I loaded up everything I thought we would need on my back and hiked about a mile up the road to the tower. Horray! It's in my sight!
As I let my backpack slide off my back and fall to the ground, I took a long glance at the tower and at the steep, see-through stairs. I stared at the stairs and started to quietly panic from my fear of heights. I told myself that it wasn't a big deal as I started to make my way up. As I climbed the stairs, I didn't realize how high and steep they would be until my hands started to get slippery (from fear) and I made the mistake of looking through the stairs and back down to the ground at what looked like a teeny toy size Max looking back up at me. Panic started to take over from the height so I slowly made my way back down the stairs. Once on the ground, I glanced at my huge pack on the ground and wondered how I was going to bring that up into the tower. On top of that, there was a closed hatch at the top of the stairs. At this point, I had no idea if it was locked as well.
As I often do in similar situations, I tell myself what a great story it will be. If I chose to hike back to campy, I would never forgive myself for not trying. After my internal pep talk, I headed back up the vertical see-through stairs with my mouth throbbing in pain while my cheeks continued to swell. Even the gentle breeze hurt my face. I looked up at the hatch, focused on that, made my way up and didn't look down. Once I got to the top, I wrapped my arm around one stair and used the other to push up the wood hatch. It didn't budge. I saw that there was a place to put a lock but to my delight (a word I use cautiously), it appeared unlocked. I gripped tighter with my stair arm and stepped one more step up and instead of using my arm, I pushed the hatch with my shoulder, back, and the back of my head. I felt it give a little so I knew it was possible to open. At this point, my legs were shaking and I was doing everything in my power to keep my hands dry so they wouldn't slip, being that I was three stories in the air, after all. I pushed as hard as I could to wedge my body between the hatch and pulled myself through the opening. Just as my feet cleared the opening, the hatch slammed shut. I made it. I was on the outside of the fire tower top. At this point, I am completely exhausted and exhilarated that I made it. I took a moment to look at my surroundings to notice that I could see through the wood slat gaps to the bottom through the bending floor boards surrounding the walkways of the tower. It was like walking the plank on rickety boards while seeing three stories down to the ground between your feet. More excitement!
I latched the hatch open and secured it to the side, while heading down to get Max and our supplies. Oddly enough, going down is much easier, although at this point, my legs were shaking from the medication I was taking for my tooth, the stress of opening the hatch and from the sheer terror my brain decided to communicate to my body. I scooped max in one arm as we made our way up and once he saw the gaps in the slats at the top, he ran in the tower, found the cot, curled up and laid down.
I went back and forth to get my supplies and as the sun started to set, I was finally settled. Max and I watched the sunset and marveled at the sheer beauty of the mountains and trees while adjusting to the silence. As the sun went down, the wind started to pick up while the stars came out. The amount of stars, deafening silence, and darkness was unreal. Although I was in pain from my tooth, It was a moment I will never forget and so worth it.
Now, you can avoid my mistakes by calling the ranger and getting the code to drive your car right to the tower. If you are not afraid of heights, the stairs are a piece of cake. Also, there is a pulley system to get your supplies up (instead of carrying them up with you on the stairs as I did) that I noticed once I was settled.
Staying at McCarthy Point lookout was quite the opposite experience. I was not suffering from the pain of a tooth extraction, and there weren't any stairs to climb. Unlike Oak Flat, this one was perched on the top of a mountain. Views for miles, it was the first time I didn't see any lights surrounding me at night. There was no sign of civilization for miles and the stars were brighter then I've ever seen before. To top that off, the sound of rattlesnakes rattled me to sleep.
I look forward to my next fire tower experience in October. Like before, I was able to reserve it from a cancellation. I would recommend to keep searching if you find one you like. I am so glad I did.