You begin the trek to Sheep Mountain Fire Lookout with your car climbing through the trees of Bighorn National Forest in north central Wyoming. The drive is beautiful but slow as you gain in elevation. It is a good thing to go slow because there are deer everywhere! You do not want to hit one, especially out here.
It is a rough road, but completely passable in our mini-van. If there was a hard rain or flood I might worry about getting stuck, but not today. There are no harrowing turns or dropping cliffs. It is just a nice drive! When you reach a clearing near the top, the lookout comes into view.
There is evidence of a semi-recent fire near the tree line. I’m not a forester, but maybe ten years ago? There are a lot of downed trees, but no scorch of the earth is evident.
You can drive your car almost all the way to the lookout stairs. Despite the short distance and few stairs, every time I carried something into the lookout I had to stop and catch my breath. You are at almost 10,000 feet. The oxygen is thin, and you can’t exert yourself in the same way you could closer to sea level.
In between gasping breaths, I looked out at the view. There aren’t many words that could adequately describe it. There are windows on every wall and a porch that wraps completely around. This is definitely a 360 degree view.
You can see for miles and miles in every direction. You can see the Powder River Basin and mountains in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. On a clear day you are supposed to be able to see Devil’s Tower. Unfortunately the two days we were here were cloudy. There were a lot of wildfires in the west during our visit, so there was likely a haze as well.
“Perched atop a forested mountain, the historic Sheep Mountain Fire Lookout offers a unique recreation experience — one of few fire lookouts in the region available for overnight rental. Constructed in 1950 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) atop Sheep Mountain at an elevation of 9,600 feet, the lookout was historically occupied as a fire lookout until the early 1970s.” – US Forest Service
Remember that lack of oxygen thing I talked about a minute ago? That also caused a few firestarting problems. James and Luke spent quite a while getting it started with traditional methods. It was getting dark, so they gave up and helped it along a bit with camp fuel we brought for the lantern.
I also started dinner with our camp stove instead of waiting for the fire. It turned out to be the right call. There is no electricity at the lookout, nor is their running water. Everything you need, you need to bring with you.
Tip : Stop in town and pick up firewood. When we were there, the bundles were $5 a piece. We picked up two before we headed out. They ask that you not leave your firewood stacked at that altitude, so once you get the fire started spread it out a bit.
Tip : Bring several ways to start a fire, even if you are very experienced at it in lower altitudes. The flint striker wasn’t working well, and neither did our lighter alone. It is better to be overprepared than to be without a fire.
We spent the evening making s’mores. It was beyond amazing. There were a few coyote calls in the distance as darkness fell, and from the lookout we could see many campfires below. If we could have seen stars and the moon it would have been perfect, but there were no complaints.
We fell asleep – my husband and I on the twin bunkbeds in the lookout and the kids on a blowup mattress we brought. Then, the winds came. That’s not an adequate description. How about this… There came up a mighty gale and it blew violently against the lookout.
In my half asleep mind I knew the lookout had stood since the 1950’s, and the day I stayed in it was probably not the day it would blow off the mountain. However, it was a little unnerving. I put in earplugs, but could still hear the wind and eventually the rain.
Tip : Bring earplugs just in case! Also head to sleep early because you will probably wake up with the sun the next morning.
The morning brought calm and a tremendous sunrise over the forests and mountains. It also brought quite a few deer and several elk very close to the lookout. The deer weren’t easily spooked, but the elk were. They didn’t like any movement they could see, or they would take off.
Besides the mighty winds, the other large con was visitors to the lookout. We were there in the off-season during the week, so we probably saw a lot less than we would have during the height of the summer. But it was a little unnerving to have people drive up to the lookout and climb the stairs. They were unaware anyone was in it, and we didn’t like strangers popping in on us. There was a small “reserved” sign we could put out, but I think a sign explaining the possibility of rental and showing it was reserved on the road prior to reaching the lookout would have helped both the visitors and us the renters feel more comfortable. But seeing 2 groups of people in 36 hours is far from our experience camping in National Park campgrounds, and far more our speed than staying with a crowd.
It was a very unique place to stay I would gladly repeat. The children were happy during the entire experience, and for two city kids they fell in love with nature and the remoteness of this forest.
Rent it! Except for unseasonable snows, it is open in the summer from June 15 to October 31, and can be rented through the US Forest Service. During the 2015 season, the price is $50 a night.