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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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JANUARY 31, 2006

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes."
- Marcel Proust

55-foot fire lookout on the summit of Stratton Mountain in Vermont (seemed higher up than that!).

As if there isn't already enough climbing to do on the Appalachian Trail, in this essay and the next I'll show you how you can add even more elevation gain and loss to your hike!

I'm not talking about the optional side trails to see more views, although there are plenty of those, too. No, I'm talking about various types of towers along the AT, most of which you can climb if you're so inclined. The usual reward is seeing over the surrounding trees to panoramic mountain and valley vistas.

If you have the energy and the weather is nice, some of these towers are well worth the time it takes to climb them. I was going to include both fire towers and observation towers in this essay, but (as usual), it got too long so I'll talk about fire outlooks here and observation towers in Photos 14.


There is something about picturesque lighthouses and fire lookouts that fascinates me, even if I don't get to climb to the top of them. They just look so cool in their surroundings. There are no lighthouses on the AT (only a light from one) because the Trail doesn't touch the coast line, but there are several interesting fire towers right on, or very near, the Trail.

Fire lookouts are a proud symbol of forest conservation in the United States and are very popular with the general public.

Many lookouts are official historical sites because most fire surveillance is done from aircraft now instead of wardens cooped up in little "cabs" on top of fire towers. Other lookouts continue to perform an invaluable role in the early detection of wildfires.

Forest fires have been in the news a lot the last few years, particularly in the drought-stricken western states. Even though the mountains in the East normally get adequate rain, dry spells occur there, too, creating tinder-box conditions. The Forest Service has to maintain vigilance against fires started by lightning or careless people all along the Appalachian Mountain chain.

In researching this essay I found two very comprehensive web sites about fire towers. Both kept me busy for a while. I used some information from each to help supplement what is in my official ATC guide books.

One interesting site is maintained by the Forest Fire Lookout Association: The other URL is very similar: (American Resources Group). It was fun to see photos of some of the towers Jim and I climbed on our AT adventure run. I learned all kinds of interesting facts and history.

Did you know you can even rent some fire towers for a day or more?? What a unique vacation! Sounds like a win-win for a great get-away and some much-needed revenue for the Forest Service. There is a list of rental lookouts and cabins on both websites.


The first fire lookout we found was on Albert Mountain in North Carolina on Day 8. This is a very popular way station right on the AT a few miles north of the Georgia state line in the Nantahala National Forest.

The tower is just barely visible to the upper right in the photo below, where Jim is enjoying the scenery:

This is a closer view of it from the photo above:

The Albert Mountain Lookout has a 14x14-foot live-in cab with catwalk on a 40-foot steel tower built by the USFS in 1951 to replace a wooden tower located nearby on Standing Indian Mountain.

It overlooks the Coweta Watershed research area, a 4,015-acre basin that has been used as a forest and water laboratory since 1933. The fire lookout is maintained but there are no live-in rangers now; it is used on an emergency basis to supplement air patrols.

We both climbed to the top of the tower. Jim took the photo below of Tater, Cody, and me on the way back down:

I think I took the photo below from the fenced terrace level. If you don't want to climb up the tower, the views are nice from there, too.

I love the layers and layers of blue ridges fading into the horizon from this vantage point:

With views like that, is it any wonder this is a popular destination for day-hikers?


I thought the views were even better two days later (Day 10) from the historic stone fire outlook on top of 5,342-foot Wayah Bald ("wayah" is Cherokee for "wolf").

Not only could we see north and west to the Great Smokies, but I also took this "been there, done that" picture of mountains to the south and east that I had already climbed on the AT:

I was glad that Jim got to see this impressive tower, too.

According to the detailed information boards at ground level and at the top of tower, Wayah Bald has been attracting crowds since the 1800s because of its cool summer climate, panoramic views, and beautiful azaleas. A cabin was moved to the summit in the 1920s to take advantage of the superior view the site provided in detecting wildfires. In 1929 the first wooden fire tower was built.

In 1934 the CCC improved the road to the summit and three years later, built the first version of the stone fire lookout shown below. The original structure was much taller than the current one. Two floors were removed in the late 1940s after water damaged them. A roof of hemlock beams and cedar shades was added in 1983, when the tower was renovated as a memorial to John Bryne, former supervisor of the Nantahala National Forest. He first proposed the route of the AT in this area.

This is what the Wayah Bald tower looks like now:

Did you notice the white AT blaze on the rock in the foreground? The Trail is routed right around the base of this tower. Although the blazes don't go up the stairs, we both had fun climbing to the top and reading the information boards placed on all four sides of the lookout.

Jim took this "perspective" shot of me down on the terrace when he was still up in the tower (notice how the perspectives change with different heights of towers):

Most fire lookouts along the AT are less elaborate than the one on Wayah Bald, and many are at lower elevations. They serve the same purpose, however.

Here are examples from three other states.


Jim was also with me when I climbed the tall, rickety fire tower on Stratton Mountain (elev. 3,940 feet) in Vermont on Day 107. This tower is on the national historical list and the AT goes right next to it. I found the following information from the Vermont/New Hampshire ATC guide one of the web sites above,

The first lookout on Stratton Mountain was a 60-foot steel tower built in 1914 by the Stratton Mountain Club and the Vermont State Forestry Service. In 1928 a watchman's cabin was added and in 1934 the CCC built the present 55' Aermotor tower with 7'x7' metal cab. The state replaced the ground house in 1970; in 1990 the land and tower were purchased by the USFS for addition to the Green Mountain National Forest and the Appalachian Trail corridor.

There is a photo of the current Stratton Mountain lookout at the very top of this page. 

This tower has a marvelous 360-degree view of the mountains and valleys above the varying shades of green spruce and balsam firs. Unfortunately, fog prevented us from seeing even the valley below us, let alone as far as the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They are supposed to be visible on a clear day.

I took this photo of Jim part way down the stairs. As you can see, I was still a ways up there. This tower felt a lot higher than 55 feet to me, probably because it was exposed to the wind and didn't feel real sturdy. I'm not much afraid of heights, or I'd never have gone up there (or have finished the AT!).

We were pleased to meet the caretakers who live in the small cabin on top of Stratton Mountain from April to October. Their job is to protect the fragile sub-alpine environment on the mountain by educating and assisting hikers in the use of "Leave No Trace" camping principles.

I took the photo below of the caretakers' hut from the top of the tower. You can see how foggy it is in the background. That's one more view I'd like to see on a clear day!

This wouldn't be a good fire lookout to climb if you dislike heights, windy, open places, or numerous little steps. My knees hadn't started hurting yet by Vermont (it was the Whites in New Hampshire that killed 'em) so I was able to climb this one OK .And it was always more fun to climb towers when Jim was there, too!

Shared experiences. Priceless.


There is an even higher lookout in New Jersey, although it doesn't look like it in the picture below because I took the photo farther back.

 Located right on the Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in New Jersey, the Catfish Fire Tower was constructed in 1922, replacing an earlier wooden tower:

This 60-foot-high Aermotor lookout with a 7x7-foot cab offers 360-degree views of the Kittatinny Range from an elevation of 1,565 feet. It is located near Millbrook-Blairstown Road, about twelve miles past the Pennsylvania-Jersey line.

This is about the only tower I did not climb. Although I had a short hike on Day 89, it was sunny and very hot (95 degrees in the valley) and I was recovering from an injury. I had many other nice views from the ridge that day because there were fewer trees than on many of the other ridges in Pennsylvania.


One of the more dilapidated fire towers I saw was this one in the Barren-Chairback Range in Maine on Day 143:

No, I didn't climb up that one! Despite the guide wires, it didn't look safe and the cab is gone.

It was built in 1950 to provide a lookout for wildfires following the heavy logging in this area. The original AT in Maine passed by seven lookout towers, including the one above. None of these towers are now manned, and only two of them still stand. Most of the state's fire detection is done with aircraft now (this is true all over the country).

That is just part of the interesting information in the Maine ATC guidebook about the history of fire towers in that state.

I also learned that they were originally built in response to devastating forest fires that swept the northeastern U.S. during the early 1900s. The very first fire tower built in the U.S. (1905) still stands on Big Moose Mountain. Although it is visible from the AT from Pleasant Pond Mountain, I didn't get a photograph of it because it was too foggy the day I was there.

There are a few other fire lookouts that are still standing along or near the AT, such as the one on Wesser Bald in North Carolina. Have fun finding the rest of them!

Check out Photos 14 for the continuation of this section: observation towers to climb.

Climb on,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil