As of May 2020 there are 18 Oregon lookouts available through the rental program. (Several former lookout rentals are closed. In 2016 the Forest Service took Flag Point off the rental program. In 2015 the Fairview Peak lookout was found to have structural deficiencies in the tower legs and was closed, never to be reopened. The Onion Mountain lookout was vandalized and is closed. The Quail Prairie lookout was damaged in a storm around 2011 and the access road is washed out, so the lookout is closed.)
Click any map marker for a link to more information. (Red markers are lookouts. Green markers are Forest Service cabins and guard stations.) Although it is now 10 years out-of-date, I recommend perusing How to Rent a Fire Lookout in the Pacific Northwest, by Tom Foley. For lookout rentals in other states, see the list available on the Forest Fire Lookout Association website.
How to Rent a Lookout
People often ask me for advice about renting a lookout, so here are some tips:
- The reservation window on Recreation.gov opens six months in advance. For example, if you want to make a reservation that starts on September 8 the earliest you can do it is March 8. However, if you wait until March 9 to make a reservation starting September 8 you won’t get it.
- Many lookouts in Oregon are extremely popular and snagging a reservation can be difficult. It used to be that if you were willing to go on a weekday instead of a weekend you had a better chance, but that is no longer the case.
- If you have a flexible schedule you can check for cancellations. These can show up at any time without warning so you need to constantly check Recreation.gov if you want to grab a night that opened due to a cancellation.
- You may have better luck looking outside of Oregon. There are lookouts available for rent all over the west. There is a list on the FFLA website.
- Every lookout has a limit to how many nights you can reserve, although this information is usually found on the Forest Service website and not Recreation.gov.
- All bets are off with COVID-19. In 2020 some national forests did not cancel lookout reservations and some did. 2021 will probably be a similar situation.
- Plan ahead: Make sure you call the ranger station about a week ahead of time. Most lookouts have a combination lock and you’ll need to get the combo. Keep in mind that ranger stations are not open on weekends.
- Access: Some lookouts have road access and some require a hike. Lookouts that are available for rent in the winter months usually require a trek by snowshoes or skis. The condition of roads varies from one location to another, so make sure to check with the ranger district for road conditions. In my experience, lookout access roads are usually quite rough. Some require a high-clearance 4WD vehicle.
- Amenities: Staying in a lookout is a rustic experience! If you’re used to camping you’ll probably do fine, but if you’re used to staying in hotels you’ll need to adjust your expectations. Some lookouts are ground cabins and some are towers with steep stairs. If you have a fear of heights I do not recommend staying in a tower. Amenities vary from one lookout to another. Some have a single bed, some have a double bed. A small table and at least one chair will be available. Some have a small refrigerator. Some have a gas stove for cooking. Many of them have a wood stove although sometimes you have to bring your own firewood. Those that do not have a wood stove sometimes have an electric or propane heater, but some have no heat source at all. Lookouts do not have plumbing. You will need to bring as much water as you need for cooking, cleaning, and drinking, or plan to melt and filter snow in the winter. An outhouse or vault toilet will be nearby. It’s a good idea to bring some TP with you, as the supply may be out. You will also need to bring a sleeping bag (or bedding for the mattress). You will find a variety of pots, pans, and dishes in various states of cleanliness. Just in case, plan to bring everything you need to prepare and eat your meals.
- Firewood: DO NOT chop firewood inside the lookout. It damages the floor and makes a mess. If firewood is provided on site, it’s a nice gesture to bring some in from the wood shed before you leave so that it’s all ready for the next renter. If an outside fire ring is provided, make sure your fire is completely out before you leave the area. If there is a fire ban in effect (often the case in late summer), don’t build an outside fire at all.
- Pests: Rodents, bees, flies, and other pests can occasionally be a problem, especially if past renters have not properly cleaned up after themselves. Most lookouts do not have screened windows or a screen door, so if it’s hot and you need ventilation you might have some insect visitors. It’s very important to clean up after yourself so that you don’t attract pests.
- Wildlife: Don’t feed birds or other wildlife that comes calling while you’re at the lookout. They are wild animals, not pets, and their reliance on humans for food may turn them into annoying pests for future renters. Read more about the reasons why you shouldn’t feed wildlife.
- Dogs: Not all lookouts allow dogs, so check before you make your reservation. If you do bring your dog, please make sure to clean up after it, both inside the lookout (clean up that dog hair) and out (get rid of the poop). Ground cabins are no problem for dog access, but if you stay in a tower, the stairs may be too steep for your dog to handle.
- Cell phones: Cell phone signals can be spotty. Sometimes you’ll have a full signal and 10 minutes later the signal will be gone. Do not count on having service while staying at a lookout. It’s nicer if you turn your phone off anyway and just enjoy your surroundings.
- Trash: Pack out ALL of your trash. Do not burn your trash in the woodstove or in the outside fire pit. And definitely don’t throw it in the toilet!
- Pay it forward: Always leave the lookout in better shape than you found it. Clean up after yourself, haul out your garbage, and sweep the floor. Close all the windows before you leave and shut the door firmly behind you. It is okay to leave non-perishable canned food for future visitors, but don’t leave anything that can be easily raided by rodents. Don’t leave flowers, pine cones, balloons, streamers, etc. Just because you enjoyed having these things around during your stay doesn’t mean the next person will, and you are just adding to the amount of trash the next renter has to haul out.
- Get involved: Many lookouts are available to rent thanks to the volunteer efforts of the Forest Fire Lookout Association and the Sand Mountain Society. These non-profits could use your help. You can donate your time by volunteering but if you’re busy you can donate money instead.