Tired of the leaf-peeping crowds? We’ve got an alternative.
EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD fall foliage drive through Rocky Mountain National Park. But let’s be honest: If the elk are out and the tourists are congregating, you might spend more time sitting in the car wedged between bumpers than actually leaf peeping. The park’s visitation numbers have increased more than 40 percent over the past five years, and nearly half of the 10 busiest days in 2016 were in September.
That’s why we roughed out a Plan B: an outdoor escape with killer access to fall colors—sans the line of cars as far as the eye can see. Welcome to your weekend getaway at the Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout.
Make no mistake: the Squaw Mountain area, right off Highway 103 in Clear Creek County (about two hours from Fort Collins) is a popular little corner of the outdoors for hiking, snowshoeing, camping and exploring in all seasons; you’ll rarely find complete solitude. But sleeping in the lookout tower offers a different kind of respite, despite the fact that it shares a mountain with an active communication site that houses radio equipment and antennae for various government agencies. Thousands of fire towers were erected in the first half of the 1900s so fire spotters could climb up for an unobstructed panoramic view of the surrounding mountain forests and spot the first signs of a blaze. Today, most of those towers have been retired from active duty thanks to aerial technology. Squaw Mountain is one of two in Colorado that have been converted to rustic overnight lodging.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940s, the granite tower sits at the summit of Squaw Mountain at about 11,500 feet in elevation. Guests beware: This is not a drive-up cabin. From June until about October, you’ll park on the dirt Forest Road 192.1 near the locked gate, which is the starting point for a one-mile trek up to the tower. (During late fall and winter, the dirt road is inaccessible, and you’ll have to park on Highway 103 and traverse a mile to the gate on foot before the next mile to the tower.) You don’t need to be Ironman-ready, but you do need to pack in food, water and sleeping gear.
The cozy enclosure at the top of the tower, just 14-by-14 feet, can sleep four people and has electricity, including heat and a full kitchen with mini fridge, stove, microwave, pots, pans and utensils—but no water. Downside: separate outhouse—but let’s not get too greedy. The room is entirely encased in glass windows, giving its overnight guests a stunning view of the horizon in all directions, including Longs Peak, Pikes Peak, Mount Evans, the Continental Divide, Denver, the eastern plains and even I-70 snaking its way over Floyd Hill. Step out onto the (windy) catwalk and, if you’ve managed to time your adventure right, soak up the fall colors of the hillsides and crisp autumn air every way you turn.
If you stay a couple nights, you’ll want to get out and explore. Squaw Pass Road (aka Highway 103) is a treasure trove for leaf peeping; 20 minutes down the road, Chief Mountain Trail is popular with hikers; and another 10 minutes on Highway 103 puts you at Echo Lake Park with access to a whole separate trail system. You’ll definitely share the trails with other explorers no matter the season but, at the end of the day, the lookout tower is your own little slice of heaven so you can get your fill of fall—or any season, really—and sleep under the stars. “It’s so unique,” says Nicole Malandri, the recreation fee manager for the Clear Creek Ranger District. “It’s rustic and we have unusual items up there. There’s an old fire finder, and a guest book for recorded history. There’s nothing like it in the Front Range.”
If You Go
The reservation window is six months, and the tower books up extremely quickly; reserve as far in advance as possible—especially for weekends—at recreation.gov. (Pssst: a lottery system for reservations is under consideration, so hop to it before that becomes reality.)
• There is no potable water; make sure you bring enough for drinking and cooking.
• Bedding/sleeping bags are not provided.
• Pack it in and pack it out. Please do not leave any trash behind.
• Sorry, Grover’s gotta stay home. Pets are not allowed.
• Bonus: You’ll have the luxury of electricity. Bring the headlamps anyway.
• Yep, you gotta clean the incinerating toilet (instructions on site). This ain’t the Ritz.
From I-70, take exit 240 for Colorado Highway 103. Continue for 19 miles, then turn right onto Forest Road 192.1. Follow the dirt road for a mile to the parking area by the locked gate. Continue another mile on foot to the tower.
Three more off-beat ways to stay and play in the great outdoors this fall.
1. Cowboy up on the range: Visit the Colorado Cattle Company Guest Ranch
Grab your Stetson, saddle up and help round up the cattle on a drive across 10,000 acres of Wild West ranch land on the southern edge of the Pawnee National Grassland during your stay. coloradocattlecompany.com
2. Get cozy, frontier-style: Reserve a shepherd’s swagon at Avalanche Ranch
For glamping with a little western flair in Redstone, book a rustic wagon, complete with full-size bed, propane heater, barbecue, and picnic table, right by the ranch’s three heavenly natural hot springs. avalancheranch.com
3. Sleep in the trees: Book the Rocky Mountain Treehouse
This AirBnB rental in Carbondale sits 25 feet off the ground above a cattle creek, anchored by four 100-foot spruce trees. You’ll cross two footbridges to access your cabin in the sky. airbnb.com