McCart Lookout Tower in the Bitterroot National Forest – Sula, Montana
Location: Bitterroot National Forest – Sula, Montana
Hike Distance: 1.5 mi
Hike Difficulty: Easy Peasy
Panoramic Views: Pintler Mountains to the east, Bitterroot mountains to the west
Sleeps: 4 humans + as many dogs as fit in a 14 x 14 foot room w/ 4 humans
Pros: Short & flat, so you can bring a bunch of extra stuff, kids, or your grandmother
Cons: Views are not as epic as higher, more remote lookouts
Season: May – September
Booking URL: Recreation.gov
Booking Phone #: Toll Free 1-877-444-6777
Ranger Station: Sula (406) 821-3201
GPS Info (Latitude, Longitude): 45.88472, -113.7175 45°53’5″N, 113°43’3″W
A few weeks ago, my buddy from the old hood (i.e. the west side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio), Ryan (pictured below in our lookout selfie), took an early leave from his post at Glacier National Park to start graduate school in Arizona. For our final Montana hoorah together, we decided to travel back in time (or at least our modern, beat box and battery powered christmas camp light infused version of it). Leaving Missoula in the late afternoon, we headed south on 93 to the historic McCart Lookout. Located atop McCart Peak, east of Sula, Montana on the border of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the historic McCart lookout sits at 7,115 feet in elevation. Due to its location in the rolling hills to the east of the vast and jagged peaks which line the Bitterroot valley, McCart is perhaps not a first choice for fire lookout tower connoisseurs. However, it happened to be just about the only tower available for that over nighter on Ryan’s southerly route.
Montana cried over Ryan’s untimely departure, and the evening turned out to be an ominously dark and stormy cliché with beautiful eerie skies and thick gray clouds. Being that we’re both from Cleveland, we were thrilled to witness such a fancy storm and luckily for us, the hike from the car was a rather short, flat, one and a half mile. Further to our fortune (or perhaps just the result of my incessant inability to be ready on time) we arrived at the trailhead smack dab in the middle of two torrential downpours. Just as we climbed the lookout stairs and dropped our packs on the ground, the rains returned, providing a perfect accent to our blue-green party lights, the sweet, sharp taste of honey whiskey on our palates and Bon Iver’s silvery wailing on the beat box. We live in a time where our friends are more mobile than ever before, moving around the world for days, months, or years at a time in what usually seems like the blink of an eye. Last minute, same-day surprise visits from out of town guests are a weekly (sometimes daily) occurrence and goodbyes come just as often as hellos, so as we sat at McCart listening to rain blast the structure which enclosed us and pondering the existential changes in our young lives, we embraced the beginning of yet another chapter. It seemed like just yesterday that Ryan was visiting Hannah and I in Breckenridge on his way back from Glacier a year ago, or Lisa and I in Boulder on his way back from Mount Rainier two years ago. After having had only a couple of days to play together in Glacier earlier this summer and never knowing when or where the next time we will meet again will be, here we were again squeezing in a quick night of jovialities before heading off to the next adventure. At one point we woke in the middle of the night to what we perceived was the tower being struck by lightening. Luckily, thanks to the lightning rod pictured below we remained safely nestled in our sleeping bags. Ryan had also recently purchased a new camera lens and thus awoke around sunrise to capture the following three shots. Our fire tower selfies occurred several hours later when Kelvin and I were finally woken by sunshine (or maybe it was Ryan, either way it was beautiful). Complete with little tin cups, wood burning stove, old school furniture, and other fun touches, the rustic lookout has been restored to look like a fire tower from the 1940’s. With the Pintler mountains to the east and the Bitterroot mountains to the west, McCart’s scenic windows offer gorgeous panoramic views of the vast western Montana wilderness that surrounds it. McCart’s trail can be tackled either by foot or on horseback and the base of the tower has a small corral and hitching racks provided for livestock. The sky tower cabin also includes a wooden platform that serves as a bed for two and is layered with some gross foam padding that incidentally seemed just fine following several shots of whiskey. If two people opt for sleeping pads, the cabin can comfortably accommodate about four human sleepers. It also comes furnished with a small wooden table and chairs as well as a wood stove for heating, some cooking utensils, a propane camp stove, and propane lanterns. A bow and band saw are provided incase you need to cut firewood for heat. There will typically already be wood near the stove, so just replace what you use before your departure. Don’t forget your own water and propane. This 14 foot by 14 foot room dubbed McCart Lookout is named after a Mister William McCart who had allegedly once settled this area, but subsequently failed to complete his homestead entry to patent. Directions to McCart Lookout: GPS Info. (Latitude, Longitude): 45.88472, -113.7175 45°53’5″N, 113°43’3″W Coming from Missoula, Montana, drive south on Highway 93 for approximately 90 miles. About 0.2 miles northwest of Sula, Montana, turn left to go northeast on East Fork Road (county road #472) and drive for about 15 miles. Then, head south (i.e. turn right) onto Forest Service Road #435 for about 5.5 until you reach the Johnson Peak Trailhead. From there, the lookout is but a 1.5 mile hike. Reservations: $30 per night The lookout is open from May until mid-September and reservations can be made on Recreation.gov or by calling Toll Free 1-877-444-6777. To get the combination for the lock on the door, call the Sula Ranger Station at (406) 821-3201 about a week prior to your scheduled arrival. Check in is at 2:00 p.m. and check out is at 12:00 p.m.