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This weekend we adventured to Arid Peak Lookout in the St. Joe National Forest. We snagged a Friday / Saturday reservation on recreation.gov six months ago.

To be completely honest, I was not as enthusiastic about this lookout as others. In fact, it is not my favorite lookout that I have ever been to, BUT it is now my favorite lookout experience I have ever had. But I guess I am getting ahead of myself.

Myself, Cat, and a friend Jim headed out from Wallace, Idaho, over Moon Pass towards the Forest Service road that would take us to the trailhead. The hike is relatively short, only three miles-ish, but I am embarrassed that it did wind me. We have not hiked as much this year as usual, and here we were creeping up on the hottest time of the day, gaining 600 ft of elevation in a relative shortly stretch. I was sweating buckets and having to take breaks! Once we hit the trail junction and headed out towards the actual lookout, we put the steepest sections behind us, and it went pretty smoothly.

Most lookouts sit on the most prominent peak in the area; their job is to see as far as possible. Arid Peak is different; it was built with a particular task. The Milwaukee Railroad used to run up the valley along the North Fork of the St Joe River before turning and heading East towards Taft, Montana. Arid Peak was built where it could best see the railroad and watch for fires caused by sparks from passing trains. The best view for this is actually out on a ridge, 100 feet lower than the nearest hilltop.

Because of this, you don’t see the lookout until you are right on it. Usually, I can see the purpose of the hike long before we get there; it’s like a carrot dangling at the end of the stick, pushing me towards the hike’s finish line. With Arid, you don’t get that….you just hike on, up and down the hills, through the forest, knowing that eventually, you will stumble on it.

When we finally did break through the trees to find the lookout looming 20 feet over our heads and only a hundred feet in front of us, I took a minute to take it all in. One benefit to being on more of a ridge than a peak is there is more room at the top than you find at many lookouts. There is a nice outhouse, rock-lined paths, and a beautiful fire pit with benches around it.

As they usually are, the stairs to the lookout are steep and need a minor repair, it was a tight squeeze through the trap door, and the catwalk felt a little more narrow than most. The inside felt well worn and didn’t have as much gear left behind from previous travelers as most lookouts do. There was a wood-burning stove, a small table, a food storage box, a small desk, and two shelves, one of which doubled as a cook food prep area, with two propane-burning stoves. What was most different is that usually, the beds and the alidade stand in the middle of the room are made of wood; in this case, they were made of metal.

Everyone started dumping their bags, pulling out gear, and making themselves feel home. Cat claimed one bed for her and the dogs, Jim the other bed, and as usual, I was going to be taking the catwalk….my absolute favorite place to sleep at a lookout.

Luckily for Jim and me, Cat has taken a liking to prepping homemade backpacking meals. Before long, she was cooking up an excellent dinner, some drinks were opened, and it was time to relax. The real excitement came about an hour later. As amateur photographers, one of Cat and my favorite things to do at a lookout is photographing it. Double down on that if there is something special like Milkyway arching over the tower. We had also read that there was a possibility that there would be an aurora borealis sighting that night. Given how far south we were and how low we were compared to the mountains to the North, this definitely seemed like a long shot. But one can hope!

When the stars started twinkling, Cat and I grabbed our cameras and tripods and hoofed them down the stairs. Fingers crossed, we would have some payoff for lugging the heavy gear up the mountain. And WE DID. As we started to see the milky way expose itself to the south, we took some test shots to the North, and before long, we started picking up colors. The show was on! I would like to say that I was good at keeping my composure, but I would be lying. I was brimming with excitement, and based on the few choice words that Cat let fly, I think she was too.

We were lucky enough to catch some of the Milkyway galaxy over the tower with the green and pink lights peaking over the trees. I think I may even print one of those shots. Next, we decided we needed a higher vantage point and climbed back up the tower. We watched the most AMAZING light show unfold for the next two hours before our eyes. The show exploded, with pillars of green and pink light stretching from the mountains that made up our horizon to the heavens. The show would take a small break, and just when we would be about to give up, it was as if someone had turned the knob back to 11, and the show took off again. The aurora wasn’t nearly as visible to the naked eye, so I don’t think it was as impressive an experience for Jim, who attempted to sleep through our yelling.

The following day I woke up stiff and sore; my air mattress had lost its air during the night. And though we all tried to ignore it, the morning sun crept up pretty darn early, so it wasn’t long before we were all stirring.

We took in breakfast, hiked out, drove into the town of Avery, did some more exploring, hiked some more, and finally hiked back up to the tower.

When we arrived back at Arid, everyone was exhausted and took a nap. I hoped my mattress would hold up to the rest, but it did not; I woke up sleeping on the catwalk with no cushion between me and the well-aged timbers.

Jim, Cat, and the dogs on Hobo Creek during our Saturday Exploration

We hung around the tower the rest of the night, ate dinner, shared stories, and enjoyed each other’s company. There was talk of staying up to photograph more Milkyway. We were all exhausted, and the skies weren’t clear, so everyone decided to call it a night before long.

We did edit sleeping arrangements due to my air mattress springing a leak. Cat and the dogs moved to the floor so I could come inside and set up on one of the beds. Luckily the Arid beds have mattresses on them, and as lumpy and hard as they are, I still found them softer than sleeping on the ground.

As I was drifting off, facing the window, I could see a lightning storm starting to explode to the south. It made for a good show, and luckily, it was many miles away. However, a few strikes must have lit the tower up since Cat asked how far away they were before I dozed off. A few hours later, well before sunup, I woke up to find out that the storm had moved much closer. The lightning felt like it was now surrounding us with storms to the South and the West.

I was not the only one stirring. Cat asked, “Should we get on the chairs?”. You see, most lookouts have glass insulators on the feet of the chairs, and the standard lightning procedure is to sit in a chair and ride out the storm. But the chairs in Arid do not have that. Furthermore, you may remember me saying that the beds are made of metal frames. There were a few moments when we thought, “hmm, this may not be so good.” Luckily, we realized that the beds were sitting on brass feet tied into the cab’s ground system. We decided the best option was for all of us, including the dogs, to sit on the mattresses without touching the bed frames themselves.

Tired and smooshed on the beds, we watched this impressive storm surround us. It mainly was sheet lighting across the sky, but then we started seeing air-to-ground strikes. And eventually, we even caught three fires burning against the night sky! For the first time in my visits, I felt a little like an actual Lookout!

Once the storms died, everyone grabbed a few more z’s before waking up a few hours later. Scanning the horizon, as a good lookout would do, we only saw smoke from one of the three fires. We couldn’t call it in from the mountain as we didn’t have a radio or cell signal. After eating and cleaning, we made a final note of where we saw the smoke before locking up the lookout and hiking out.

On the road home, we flagged down a fire crew and shared with them what we saw and where the smoke was. As tired as I was, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much excitement we wrapped into this one experience, the aurora, a lighting storm, calling in our first smoke! This will be one of my favorite memories for a long time.

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