If you’ve been following my blog, you probably know how much I love obscure Arkansas locations with rich history! Tall Peak Fire Tower (or Lookout) in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas definitely fits the bill. After wanting to shoot the Milky Way there all summer, the timing just hadn’t worked out yet– until now! I saw clear skies in the forecast over Labor Day weekend, and knew this was my chance.
Getting to Tall Peak Fire Tower
Tall Peak Fire Tower is located on Tall Peak (where else?), a ridge north of Shady Lake Campground outside Athens, AR. You have two options to reach the fire tower, but both require some hiking. The first option is to hike the Tall Peak Trail, beginning in Loop C of Shady Lake Campground. The trail crosses the Saline River 4 times and climbs over 1,200 feet of elevation in about 3 miles– whew! While this is a very scenic hike, it is strenuous and particularly overgrown at the end of the summer.
On this trip, I opted for route #2: driving up county road 64 to the gate at the entrance to the fire tower. This option requires a high-clearance vehicle for the bumpy dirt road, and the lookout is still a 2-mile walk from the gate. It’s still a fairly steep hike along a disused road, but I considered it highly superior to the idea of hiking 3 miles straight up a mountain in the summer. It takes about 45 minutes to walk up the road from the gate to the lookout. Bring plenty of water if you hike here in the summer.
Fire Towers in Arkansas
In 1910, a massive forest fire known as “The Big Blow-Up” burned over three million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho and Washington and killed 7 people. The Forest Service subsequently developed a rule that all fires should be extinguished by 10 a.m. the morning after they begin, so early detection became crucial. Fire tower construction exploded across the country. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built over 3,000 fire towers all over the United States.
Tower watchmen often lived in the lookouts, and would report fires by telephone up until the mid-1960’s, when aerial detection became more prevalent. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, by the end of fire tower era in the 1970s, almost half of these “watchmen” were women. (So cool!) At the height of their use, there were more than 100 fire towers in Arkansas. By 1994, only 48 still stood, and today there are even fewer remaining.
Built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tall Peak Fire Tower is a significant example of fire towers and CCC architecture in Arkansas. It is one of only two CCC-built fire towers remaining in the state. The lookout has two stories, made of field stone and wood, and used to have glass in the windows on top. When the fire tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, it was heavily vandalized. Over the years, some renovations were done, but the fire tower continued to fall into a general state of disrepair. However, in 2013, the fire tower was completely restored by the Forest Service.
Although it is still in fairly good shape today, the tower is not as pristine as it was after the 2013 restoration. Apparently every couple that comes to the tower feels the need to scratch their initials into every surface! ARGH! Y’all, this place is on the National Historic Register, and is worthy of our protection. If you decide to visit Tall Peak Fire Tower, PLEASE obey all signage and leave no trace.
Under the Starry Skies
Camping overnight in the fire tower was an incredible experience. You get the best of both worlds (tent + cowboy camping) with cover overhead but open sides, allowing spectacular views and a breeze. Throughout the night I watched a small herd of deer move through the area, and heard several owl calls. And it got downright chilly up there! Although I never sleep well on camping trips, I didn’t mind this time. I was just so glad to be there, experiencing the best of mother nature. And as much as I loved the remoteness, I actually had great cell service in the tower, which added some peace of mind.
(NOTE: I camped in the tower, but adhered to Leave No Trace principles at all times. I didn’t build a fire, and I dug cat holes for waste well away from the tower. Camping in the tower is not expressly forbidden, but use your best judgment, and LEAVE NO TRACE!)
Once I had my gear all set up after the hike, all that was left to do was enjoy the sunset, eat a snack, and wait for the Milky Way to appear. There were some lingering clouds in the sky, but as dusk crept in, they disappeared. The darkness and clarity of the night sky astounded me! I even managed to see a few shooting stars, from the minor meteor shower known as the Aurigids. All summer I’d had a specific image in mind, and here I was, finally capturing it. As a photographer, I can say that’s one of the best feelings ever!
Sunrise At Tall Peak Tower
After a long night of photographing (and barely any sleep), I finally watched the sun rise over the Ouachitas to the east. Miles and miles of undulating mountains were visible through the trees. It was a beautiful, peaceful morning; quiet and still. I realized at this point I had gotten into a mess of seed ticks during the night. Oh well… worth it.
After I enjoyed the view as long as I could, I started back down the road before it got too warm. Once I was headed downhill, I appreciated the scenery on the road a lot more! There were plenty of late summer wildflowers and butterflies along the way. I also enjoyed the other CCC architecture at Shady Lake Campground at the end of the trip, like the double arched bridge over East Saline Creek.
What an amazing trip! Weather-wise, this was probably the last good Milky Way weekend of the year. The next new moon is a month away, when the Milky Way core will be below the horizon by 11 p.m. Aside from my photography goals, it was also a memorable camping trip. As much as I hike, I don’t camp that often. I’m so glad I did this time. There’s nothing like watching the sun come up from a hammock, in a historic fire tower no less. I highly recommend visiting Tall Peak Fire Tower if you find yourself in the southwest Ouachita Mountains. But please remember to take only photos and leave only footprints. Tall Peak Fire Tower is a fragile and beautiful relic of Arkansas’ history, and deserves our care and respect.
To see a few more images from my trip, check out the slideshow below or head over to my Arkansas portfolio page!
Arklahoma Hiker’s trip report for the Tall Peak Trail
Encyclopedia of Arkansas’ entry on fire towers in AR
A look at how Tall Peak Fire Tower has changed throughout the years
Great article by Donna Ashworth about her experience as a female fire tower watchman