You reach for the door handle to find one of three things. It’s either an extremely rusted metal handle that has seen more winters than you are of age. A creative piece of nature uniquely shaped into a beautiful curve and bolted to the door, or simply put, the door doesn’t have one. You unlock the dead bolt and push open the door. Instantly you get blasted by a setting that looks as though it belongs to an early western film by John Wayne. Waves of smell engulf your nostrils of old wood and campfire as the floor beneath your feet creeks with every step. Candles sit on the windowsill and your source of heat comes from an Aga that looks as though it was made when your great grandparents were children. The cots beckon with a used mattress from either boy or girl scouts of twenties years past. And the wooden table and chairs laden with scratches and stains from visitors previously. Where are you? A U.S. Forest Service cabin, and it’s not the only one.
In fact, there are many throughout the state. Over a hundred to be exact. Pretty much anywhere there is National Forest Land in Montana, there is a cabin somewhere. Whether it’s roadside, miles back deep within a forest or atop a mountain, the Forest Service had constructed cabins for their uses.
Most of them were constructed in the early 1920’s and into the 1930’s. USFS built them for the intention of land management, trail recreation, maintenance, and fire lookouts. With the lookouts being the most popular for recreation users for obvious reasons as the few of them throughout the state perched at the peaks of mountains or along ridges for the purpose of spotting fires from lightening strikes. Their magnificent views draws most and therefore booking these lookouts takes both planning and patience.
The secret has certainly been out as the cat left the bag a couple years ago. You can book all the cabins through Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. However be advised that the maximum time one can book out in advance is six months. And the fire lookouts are almost always booked to the hour of that six-month period. For my stay at Garnet Mountain Lookout for example, in June, I stayed awake until passed midnight in January to do so. Not all are as popular or are needed with such planning, but their popularity is evident, and certainly showing no signs of slowing.
Some do have electricity with most having chopped wood and a body of water adjacent or nearby. None however have plumbing with that being the only lapse in luxury in the cabins, though a pit toilet is within walking distance.
Whether it’s the lookout or a drive up cabin, recreationalists rejoice! Summer is most popular, however most are open year round. So the car campers, trail lovers, or the snow mobile, ATV, and cross country skiers, there seems to be a cabin for all!