Wednesday, January 16, 2013

5 Years of Bikepacking Lookouts

Stahl Peak. September 2012. Photo: Aaron Teasdale
I'm looking over the gear we intend to take to the top. 2 panniers cling to each side of my bike with who-knows-what stuffed into them. One thing I'm sure of, is that whatever's in there, pales in comparison with the load Shaun's hauling with that ridiculous trailer we borrowed. "You ready?" I say optimistically.

It was June 9th, 2009, and we were heading for a shit-show.

I figured the riding would be easy. Ya, neither of us were in shape, but the West Fork Butte fire lookout tower was only 35 miles west of our homes in Missoula. I mean, how bad could it be?

The 29 mile approach was all-good, even pleasant, but we started to fall apart on the climb. I defaulted into my 'survival climbing' mode - which is kinda like 'survival skiing', only different. Shaun was off-the-back immediately, likewise scrapping just to stay on his bike. This was the crux, and it was 6 goddamned miles long.

I don't remember it, but we reached the top. I know we felt like hell, but the worst was over, and for next 20 hours, we had nothing to do but soak in the most jaw-dropping view of the area. It was everything a mountain summit should be, and despite the suffering, or maybe partly because of it, I started to believe that these fire lookout towers, scattered across Northern Idaho and Western Montana, could be the best destinations for backcountry bike trips, and I wanted more.

Shaun Santa Cruz and me at West Fork Butte
In January of 2010, I asked Shaun if he wanted to go on a lookout tour in mid summer. I was thinking maybe a 3-5 day trip with a couple lookouts, but as I started to research potential ones, a distinct line of 9 towers appeared in an area between the Selkirk Mountains and Glacier National Park.

Just like the overnight trip the previous summer, Shaun was interested, but a bit daunted. Honestly, I wasn't sold on the trip ether. But, with a 6 month window to get prepared, the prospect of getting lighter-weight gear, and the question - can we actually pull this off? - nagging us, the doubt subsided enough. We were heading for a trip that would include 8 lookouts in 10 days of riding.

Top: Shorty, Deer Ridge, Baldy, Garver. Middle: Webb, McGuire, Wam, Hornet
Bottom: Shaun hanging out high in the Yaak, Me riding toward Hornet with Glacier in the background.
For the most part, everything went as planned. The lookouts were spectacular. We encountered bears, moose, 100 degree days, and falling snow. The early-July timing was perfect as well, and left us with no wildfires or snow packed roads to navigate. This is the one trip I've done that I would hands-down do again. Next time, I'll plan a rest day, which considering everything, was my one mistake. For it forced us to skip a tower we had planned on staying at.

If there is anything I'm proud about this trip, it's the style - completely self-supported with no gear or food drops, no emergency gps tracker, no advance scouting or route inquiring from locals, and carrying as little as we could get away with.

After we finished in Polebridge, Shaun had to get back home, but I still had a few free days, and decided to ride back to Missoula mostly via the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Which was a breeze compared to the trip we had just rapped up.

Medicine Point
Later that summer we headed for Medicine Point, which at 8400' hosts the highest lookout rental in the Northern Rockies. In contrast with the big trip earlier in the summer, there were no self-imposed style constraints on this one. This time we tossed back beers and baguettes while taking in the late summer scenery. Nestled high in the Southern Bitterroots with endless ranges around us, it felt natural to get lost in observation, and drain the battery on my new Canon s95.

Top: Medicine Point, McCart, Gird Point. Bottom: Benchmark at McCart, Double Rainbow at Medicine Point.
Sometime after Medicine Point, my perspective changed. While I still longed to perch myself on mountains, riding to the top was no longer the same challenge it had been. I knew the difficulties, and I knew how to overcome them. I missed the shit-show. New trip concepts appeared in my head that promised to fill this void, and bikepacking lookouts started to take a backseat.

Not entirely though. 

For the summer of 2011, I had booked 3 towers to stay at the end of a 2 week solo multi-sport trip. It was to be even more ambitious then our big 2010 trip. Problem was, I wasn't up for it mentally or physically, and bailed. The only thing salvaged were those lookouts.

My friend Sarah came up the first night, but had obligations to get back home to the next day. So, I was solo for the next 4. With fierce lightning storms every afternoon, the weather was more akin to Colorado then Montana. The riding and views were as good as ever, and it started to dawn on me that not every trip had to be a mental struggle to be worthwhile.

It was just as nice experiencing new country in a familiar way.

Stahl Peak, Me hiking to Wam, Ron myself and Harold sharing a laugh at Stahl.
I brought this thinking into 2012, and spilt up my year accordingly. I'd get my hard goals out of the way early in the spring, then relax for the summer, and in the fall, maybe go on some longer trips to new destinations. Lookouts did not figure into any of this. Until they did.

As I sit here typing this, it's January 9th, 2013. The recreation rental window is starting to open for the summer. I just pieced together a loop which will start out of Trout Creek and hit Cougar, Sex, Little Guard, and Gem Peak lookouts. I'm so stoked, and not because it'll be a suffer-fest challenge for me, but because my girlfriend Erin is going, and she's just as nervous as Shaun and me were heading up to West Fork Butte 4 years ago.

That, and there's just something about hanging around on top of mountains in the Northern Rockies that's hard to beat. I'm looking forward to sharing it with her.

Tips for Bikepacking Lookouts in the Northern Rockies

Renting a lookout:
Each lookout in the recreational rental program has a seasonal window in which you can rent it. Most open up the last days of June and run through late September. Head over to to find out more details on individual lookouts, and reserve them. You can reserve a tower up to 6 months in advance. Book them as early as you can.

Route Selection:
Start with the map above. It has all the rental lookouts in the area on it. Then, pick up the Benchmark Atlases for Idaho and Montana, which have adequate dirt road information. With those 2, plus Google Maps and some common sense, you'll be able to piece together a dirt road tour. It also wouldn't hurt to get a forest service map.

If your after singletrack, there's lots of info on trail riding conditions near the more outdoorsy towns, such as Whitefish, Missoula, and Sandpoint. But, not in remote places, such as The Yaak. For that your on your own. Plan accordingly, and call the local ranger districts to see what trails have been cleared in the past few years.

Best time of year:
Shoot for that sweet spot before the summer fire season, and after the snow has melted up high. In the Northern Rockies this calls for planning a trip between late June and mid-late July. The other benefit for planning a trip this time of year is, the closer to June you are, the greater the chance that small intermittent streams will be flowing high in the mountains. Which brings us to...

This is the biggest logistical challenge, as most lookouts do not have accessible water sources. So, your going to have to haul up enough for the night, and water is not light. Because of this I don't bring a stove, and opt for cold food instead. This saves the weight of a stove, fuel, and the water needed to cook.

Edit 02-21-2013: We ended up riding fat bikes up to West Fork Butte Lookout a few weekends ago. Here's a trip report with more photos: Fatbiking West Fork Butte Lookout

First photo and the group of photos labeled  'Sept 2012', by Aaron Teasdale
All other photos and top map by Casey Greene
Maps labeled 'June 2013' by Benchmark Maps


  1. Which map are you referencing when you say: "Route Selection:
    Start with the map above. It has all the rental lookouts in the area on it." ?

  2. The one at the top. It gives the best overview.

    The lookout icons that have a colored fill correspond to one of my trips. Icons with gray fill are ones I haven't stayed at. All lookouts shown are available to rent, or will be in the near future.

  3. Hey Casey, on your trip to Medicine Point, where did you start your ride? Also do you have an estimation of how long of a tour you did?

    1. Both times I was up there, we took the path of least resistance. So, up Laird Creek Rd (the Rocky Knob Restaurant is on the corner of it and 93) to the new trailhead. Then, 4ish miles up the ridge on a trail. It gets steep. I know we hike-a-biked a few sections.

      I've always wanted to get up on the main ridge and come at it from the north via Shook Mtn and Rocky Knob, and then head south towards Lost Trail Pass, but haven't had the chance yet.

      Forgive me, but I'm not understanding your last question. Do you mean how long did it take us to get up there?

  4. Here are some lookouts in Northern California:

    1. That's great. There are some unique structures in that bunch. Are you able to stay in any of them?

  5. Two of them are available for rent: Little Mt Hoffman and Girard Ridge

  6. How did you book the Stahl Lookout house? What site did you use?

    1. Stahl is a first-come first-serve lookout. You cannot reserve it.