Image credit: Sterling Forest SP
Those who are called to walk to summits know that hikers often share a summit with towers. Radio towers have been built on high points for decades; sometimes joined later by television towers. Air traffic control might be there too. Microwave repeaters joined the array with changes in telecommunications. Before any of that there were stuctures called lookouts (LTs) or fire towers (FTs). They are part of our history.
These structures stand above the trees that prevent long views from forested summits. For a little more climbing above natural high ground, one earns a 360-degree view. As a slightly acrophobic mountain hiker, I sometimes pause on my way up those open stairs, but I climb if the tower is open and the stairs are safe. Otherwise, my visit stops at the base of the tower, but the hike is always worth it. The route is usually the access and supply path that was used by observers, and remains of the observer's cabin might be nearby. These features give the hike a bit of history, and there is sometimes a porcupine hiding in the cabin to add to the entertainment. If a spring was near the summit, a side trail will lead you to it, because the observer used the water too. I enjoy this blend of human history in natural wild lands, and take encouragment from evidence of Nature's reassertion over human alterations after we stop maintaining our additions to the landscape.
I first experienced fire lookout towers when many were still in service during my youth in Virginia and Colorado. A cousin served as an observer 50 years ago in the Flathead district of Montana. Current family outings often include finding a fire lookout tower or concrete footings that are the only remaining evidence that a tower was removed. We keep records and lists, but the effort is not a race for us. We go to enjoy a walk in Nature and history. Four of the five Hamilton Co, NY towers were hikes with small children. I removed my lists and maps when it was no longer possible to edit pages at this location. I had visited 226+ towers/sites in 24 states and 3 countries as of 14 December 2015 including towers standing on ground at 12,000+ ft above sea level in the Rocky Mountains and towers at sea level in Madagascar and Trinidad. I may post updated records at another location in the future. This page reamains to share information and perspective.
Fire lookout towers were installed on summits in many forested areas of this country in the early years of the 20th century. Dedicated observers spent the fire season in relative isolation watching for forest fires. Robert Spear, a retired ranger who continues volunteer service, wrote in 2001 that it is an unfortunate myth that aerial observation from small aircraft replaced the need for tower observers. Though no longer actively used to watch for fires, some towers remain to offer hikers views from forested summits that would otherwise offer no vista. Lower stairs may be removed, or the entire tower may be taken out when unmaintained towers become a hazard. The state of NY had 124 Fire Tower sites, including some that were privately built, but only 57 fire towers remained in place in December 2003 (Forest Fire Lookout Association).
The ADK book, Views from on High, is a guide to selected FTs in the Adirondacks and Catskills (Freeman, 2001). Peak Experiences, by Gary Fallesen (2000), gives directions to others that are on county high ground. In western NY, the Sugar Hill fire tower on the Schuyler County HP in the Sugar Hill Recreation Area is maintained with public access and is an easy visit. Summit Tower in the Allegany State Park near the PA border is not on highest ground in Cattaraugus County, but it is open to the public on selected weekends. The tower on Alma Hill, the Allegany Co HP, has been private property since 1972, and the owner, who lives on the land, requires permission. Please honor the requirements of landowners if you hope to visit privately owned fire towers. Near NYC, there is a pleasant, short hike to the firetower on Jackie Jones Mountain, in Harriman Park. This tower stands on the Rockland County HP and offers a view of distant Manhattan on a clear day. It is in the National Historic Lookout Register, but some wood stairs needed restoration in 2007.
Some New Yorkers work to preserve NY fire towers, others consider them "non-conforming structures" in wilderness preserves, so the future of many fire towers is unclear. A state-wide movement among Adirondack Mountain Club chapters strives to preserve and renovate fire towers in New York State, and ten fire towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills have been restored. "Of the approximately sixty-nine towers that were once on the peaks of the Catskill and Adirondack Parks, only twenty-three remain in the Adirondacks and five in the Catskills." (Freeman, 2001) Friends of Stillwater FT in western Adirondacks reported that it has been restored to reopen in 2016 (Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge group page on Facebook, 2016 0613). The Allegany State Park Fire Tower Restoration Committee works to preserve the two remaining towers in that part of the state, but a third tower was dismantled and moved from the park to the Ellicottville BOCES (a school) in the early 1970s (ASPFTRC webpage, 2005).
Fire lookout towers in other states share similar fates. Near the highest ground of Tolland Co, CT what appears to be the remains of a fire tower with the cab and stairs removed stands on private land. The 4-sided frame now sports an array of antennae. Burley Hill is not listed as an official site for CT, but the list for MA notes that the Ashburnham FT on Mt. Watatic was sold to a landowner in CT, so I am wondering if these are the same frame.
Some lookout towers are not on lofty summits. Fire lookout towers can be found along North Carolina country roads in flatland, pine barrens piedmont. The NC towers we've visited were all 9-10 stair-tiers (about 80 ft) high. Some have been protected with historic landmark status, and some are now the site of a county's State Forestry HQ. Lookout towers were placed on several sand hills that stood some 200 feet above flatlands of the Florida peninsula when pine and palmetto woods were more extensive. Some still remain, but the site marked on the topo map near Dunedin is now medical offices, and the tower is gone. There is no posting for Florida towers on the web sites listed here. If someone has access to the history and the interest to post, sharing the information would be a great service.
The Forest Fire Lookout Association provides information about many other fire tower and lookout sites, and links to groups who are interested in location and preservation of fire towers.
Catskill Fire Tower Project
A colorful reward
- ADK-NYC gives SE NY information and also links to the FFLA pages
- Allegany State Park Fire Tower Restoration Committee website
- Catskill Fire Tower Project website
- Fallesen,G. 2000 Peak Experiences, Hiking the highest summits in New York, County by county, Foot Print Press, NY
- Forest Fire Lookout Association [FFLA] tower page is an excellent list of international fire tower locations with additional links at some of the state pages.
- Freeman, J. P. 2001 Views from on High, Fire Tower trails in the Adirondacks and Catskills, Adirondack Mountain Club, Inc.
- Laskey, P. 2003 The Fire Observation Towers of New York State. Survivors that still stand. MKL Publishing, Ballston Spa, NY, is a good source of history along with access and hiking information for more towers than those on the Challenge list.
- Spear, R. 2001 A summarized history of Sterling Fire Tower, NY
- The Fire Towers of New York
- Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge group page on Facebook accessed 2016 0517