Author chronicles history of Glacier Park's fire lookouts

2014-07-09T20:25:00Z 2014-10-03T14:23:51Z Author chronicles history of Glacier Park's fire lookoutsBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

Despite their prime locations, Glacier National Park’s fire lookouts rarely show up on the list of great postcard images.

Hungry Horse News publisher Mel Ruder took photos of Mount Brown’s lookout many times over his 32-year career. After one trip up the trail, author David Butler wondered how Ruder survived to do it repeatedly.

“You almost have to get on your hands and knees in spots on those first five switchbacks,” said Butler, whose “Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park” was published in June. “He had all these pictures of the lookout with his wife on the catwalk, or the fire watcher posed behind the Osborne firefinder. But I found out after looking through the archives, Mel never actually did the hike. He rode a mule up every time.”

The year Glacier Park became a national landmark was also the year the Pacific Northwest caught fire: 1910. The Swiftcurrent Valley was scorched along with millions of other acres in what’s now known as the Great Burn. For new park superintendent William Logan, that meant a top priority was managing fire. He did so first by placing lookouts in tents at strategic points throughout the park.

“Frank Liebig is recognized as the first fire lookout/watcher in the area that became Glacier National Park,” Butler wrote. “Liebig routinely climbed Stanton Mountain, which was adjacent to his cabin on the shores of Lake McDonald, to search for smoke that indicated a forest fire. (He) was assigned to guard the entirety of the northern two-thirds of what is now Glacier National Park … from Belton (now West Glacier) to Canada and across the Rockies to the prairies between Waterton Lake and the foot of Saint Mary Lake.”

Old maps of the park showed some of the fire trails cut in those early decades. They run in virtually straight lines, regardless of slope or contour, through the heavily forested foothills on Glacier’s western side. They were the emergency response routes in the days before smokejumpers and retardant bombers.

“They’re terrible trails,” Butler said. “They’re not pleasant to hike, especially if you’re hauling a lot of gear like your Pulaski, food and water with the expectation you’d have to spend days in the field I can’t imagine how you’d make it up there. But then those guys were in incredible shape. It was what they did.”


Butler became interested in Glacier as a “gear-jammer” driving the red tourist buses over Logan Pass in the 1970s while studying geography in college. For his master’s thesis on avalanche chute topography, he needed high vistas for observation. The park’s lookouts proved an ideal resource.

He returned to the topic several years later when working with U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre on alpine treeline changes. Fagre had dusted off a collection of panoramic photos shot by U.S. Forest Service forester Lester Moe around 1935.

“He went to every lookout in the park, plus all the ones that existed on Blackfeet Indian Reservation on east side, and the ones in the Flathead National Forest that looked into Glacier from the west,” Butler said. “We realized that would give us a 60-plus-year record of photographic change. And that’s when I got re-interested in fire lookouts.”

Butler and Fagre climbed to many of the lookouts or their former locations. For others, they flew with longtime Glacier helicopter pilot Jim Kruger. Slowly the idea of a book started to grow.

“I started noticing architectural differences,” Butler said. “Brown Lookout has a steep roof that doesn’t overhand the catwalk. Huckleberry and Scalplock have overhangs that cover much better. Divide has an unusual octagonal shape. So I started doing work in the park headquarters archives.”

Only nine lookouts remain standing in Glacier Park today. Just four or five of those are occupied each season. The National Park Service doesn’t publish which sites are active, in consideration of the fire watcher’s privacy and safety.

Swiftcurrent and Apgar lookouts get a fair amount of visitation, thanks to their relatively accessible and visible locations. Loneman and Scalplock lurk in the park’s remote southern quarter, while Huckleberry and Numa Ridge cover the northwest. Brown’s trailhead starts just across the road from Lake McDonald Lodge, but its brutally steep climb makes it a traditional hazing joke experienced hotel employees play on rookies looking for an easy first-day hike.

One of the park’s most prominent lookouts technically isn’t actually accessible. The Heaven’s Peak Lookout pokes up like a pimple on the mountain’s long north ridge, easily visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road’s Loop turnout. A team of Mennonite conscientious objectors to World War II built the stone structure by hand in 1945. It was abandoned in 1953, along with many other lookouts, when the National Park Service shifted to more aircraft-based fire detection. While it’s been rehabilitated as a research base in the past two years, the park has no plans to re-establish a trail to it.

Other sites like Reynolds Ridge suffered the ignoble fate of being burned down by park rangers after being decommissioned. The unusual, octagonal-shaped Divide Lookout still stands, but East Glacier winds still try to literally blow it away.


Glacier spokeswoman Denise Germann said the lookouts have been a low-profile but essential resource for the park.

“They have that old, traditional flair, which draws interest,” Germann said. “But while most of their early intention was related to fire, what we’ve found over the years was much broader than fire. They’re used for studying avalanches, disease and insect impacts and recreation history.”

Authors Norman Maclean, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Doug Peacock all spent formative time in fire lookouts. The combination of scenery, isolation and a small but steady paycheck made lookout duty a popular summer job for a certain type of character.

“I think a lot of people romanticize a feeling about being a fire lookout,” Germann said. “Wouldn’t that be fun, having a job that comes with all that?”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. Smilely
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    Smilely - July 10, 2014 9:30 am
    The article says: “Butler climbed to many of the lookouts or their former locations. For others, he flew with longtime Glacier HELICOPTER pilot Jim Kruger". This Butler guy is flying around in a helicopter so he can write a book about the fire towers (that should be removed) at the expense of the peace and quiet of thousands of people on the ground. I talk to people and receive letters and emails from people all the time that say over and over that the helicopters over Glacier ruined their backcountry trips so bad they consider never backpacking there again. For years people have protested against this Jim Kruger and his helicopter company, trying everything to get him to stop flying over Glacier. The two companies that need to be shut down are Glacier Heli Tours and Kruger Helicop-Tours both out of West Glacier, Montana and at the same time legislation enacted prohibiting any future companies from committing such atrocities.
  2. Smilely
    Report Abuse
    Smilely - July 09, 2014 10:18 pm
    Now you really touch a nerve - lookout towers on the peaks in Glacier National Park and loud, obnoxious helicopters flying over Glacier's pristine otherwise silent backcountry. I absolutely cringe when I read articles like this one. By far lookout towers and helicopters are the most disturbing aspects of Glacier National Park; in fact the helicopters are more than disturbing they are a menace. Just what everyone wants to see while in a wilderness area - a man-made structure – as high as a tower. These towers are completely unnecessary, a gross waste of money, and most of all an ugly scar on the backcountry. Glacier is WILD, Glacier is REMOTE, Glacier is PRISTINE, and then we have this primitive, barbaric, loud, disturbing, monstrosity of a helicopter that is allowed to fly back and forth numerous times a day at low altitudes. What a shame on this company and anyone who hires their (dis)services. The shame is even greater because it is extremely rare, days, if not a week between the times that a private fixed-wing aircraft will disturb the air space above Glacier. But here all along the park has this loud, obnoxious helicopter flying back and forth disturbing hundreds, if not thousands of people on the ground, JUST so a few people can have their jollies. It has been coming for years but now I can say it - Glacier National Park is a DUMP because of the helicopter tours that are allowed to fly back and forth numerous times a day, many times only a few hundred feet off the ridges tops, disturbing and completely ruining the experience for the people on the ground just so a few people can get their jollies, their cheap thrills by flying over the park. I hope I live long enough to see the day when these helicopter tour companies are banned from flying over Glacier National Park as has been the case in Rock Mountain National Park since 1996; and the day when the last fire tower in Glacier is burned to ground and buried once and for all. Last September I solo walked twelve days cross-country without the use of a single trail and without human contact the entire length of the Livingston Range from the in-flow of McDonald Lake to the out-flow of Kintla Lake; and after three days of not seeing a trace of human beings while traveling north along the ridge north of Heaven’s Peak unbeknown to me I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so heart broken when I saw a house sitting atop a remote, desolate peak just ahead of me on the ridge I was traveling. I look in disillusionment as I peered at what I now learn from this article is this Heaven’s Peak Lookout. For days, when I could look back and see it, it was such a disappointment. In the modern word there is no need for these structures to be in such pristine remote areas. The only purpose they serve is to disappoint those of us who come across them on an otherwise a journey of a life time.

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