Sofia Jaramillo worked in partnership with Visit Idaho to create this Travel Tip.
There it is once again, that feeling of surrender. Surrender to the unknown. It’s my first time traveling in a while, and it feels surprisingly refreshing. Once again, the unexpected turns of travel await us. I am at the mercy of the road gods. My good friend and talented photographer Elisabeth Brentano and I are on a road trip we’ve been planning for months. We are headed somewhere neither of us has been: fire lookouts in Northern Idaho.
Our first stop is Surveyors Lookout in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. We meet in Salmon, Idaho, and drive northwest for about six hours. This lookout is very accessible from the road, and as we drive higher up into the mountains, we are excited to check out this historic spot.
As we negotiate the bumpy forest road, the lookout slowly appears. It’s a 15′ by 15′ flat top structure, originally built in 1931. After we settle in, I sit for a moment on the catwalk that wraps around the lookout. It is so quiet it is almost unsettling. The only thing I hear is a wisp of wind through the surrounding trees and the scurrying of chipmunks rummaging through the brush below.
It’s a wild experience to be at eye level with the treetops. We are miles away from the nearest town, elevated 30 feet from the top of Surveyor’s Peak with breathtaking views of endless lush Idaho forests.
A logbook sits on a round table in the center of the lookout. The first page of the book opens with a quote by U.S. Forest Service official, writer, and conservationist Arthur Carhart:
“Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America?”
Inside, visitors have written about where to hike and other tips. A black bear named “Patches” is mentioned many times. It’s a bit unsettling to read as the sky darkens, but the bear’s stories are comical and I find the logbook hard to set down. One entry recounts the day Patches got into the outhouse. Later we laugh when we find his faded paw prints etched in excrement on the walls of the outhouse. While the stories were amusing, I admit we were a little concerned that Patches might climb up the stairs to make a cameo appearance in our tale.
The thought of Patches visiting us was enough to make us feel fully alive and awake at night, but it wasn’t a waste of time. The 360-degree view of stars around us and dark blue velvet night left me in awe.
Our next stop is Arid Peak Lookout near Avery. From the 1930s to the 1970s, summer occupants watched for fires in the valley below sparked by the “Milwaukee Railroad” Line.
We follow a gradual three-mile trail to the lookout. Soon enough, we come to a clearing. In the middle stands an adorable 20-foot tall fire lookout. It’s smaller than Surveyor’s, but it’s recently been renovated. With a painted white exterior and green window trim, it’s a welcoming sight.
When we climb up the stairs, Elisabeth and I are awestruck by the views. It feels as if a green ocean of trees surrounds us. We are pleased to find out that the lookout has a trap door at the top of the stairs, preventing anything from entering from below. We quickly realize this lookout will provide a much different experience than previous nights.
We unpack, make dinner, and sip some celebratory hot chocolate on the deck as daylight fades. We’ve made it! Small red and yellow finches descend to roost upon the treetops around us. Later I snuggle into my sleeping bag and look out the window. I watch the full moon disappear and reappear behind the dark moving clouds, in an almost hypnotic spell. The night sky is eerie, but the spirit of the forest is warm and comforting. Gusts of wind subtly sway the lookout, and the movement rocks me to sleep.
We end our trip with a few nights’ stay at Hill’s Resort which sits on the shore of Priest Lake. We check-in and head to our private cabin on the water. Elisabeth and I walk toward the sandy beach and throw some logs into a lakeside fire pit. The mountains across the lake turn purple as we start to toast marshmallows, and the moon rises on this peaceful night.
As the fire crackles and waves wash against the shore, I reflect on our adventure. While it’s refreshing to have hot showers and cozy beds in our cabin, I find myself missing our mountain top stays. With each lookout visit, our connection to the land and ourselves grew stronger. As Carhart stated, we felt an awakened sense of body and spirit, one that is easily found in the fire lookouts and forests of northern Idaho.
Ready to plan your own Idaho fire lookout adventures? Check out Elisabeth’s tips on booking these amazing locations.
Feature image credited to Sofia Jaramillo.
Sofia Jaramillo is an outdoor adventure and documentary photographer based in Victor, Idaho. A few of her clients include National Geographic, The North Face, and Outside Magazine. To see more of her work go to www.sofiajaramillophoto.com or follow her on Instagram.
Published on May 11, 2021