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Reach new heights atop these 5 West Virginia fire towers

Lots of trees means lots of fire towers. West Virginia has a fine selection amid its timberlands, including the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Jefferson National Forest. Photo courtesy West Virginia Tourism

As the country’s third most forested state, West Virginia has lots of trees—12 million acres of them cover its hills and deep river valleys in a green blanket that bursts into color every fall. The ground-level views are great: Who doesn’t like shady trails leading to rocky overlooks or secluded waterfalls?

But sometimes you really can’t see the forest for the trees. There’s a fix for that: repurposed fire towers with impressive bird’s-eye views. The Who’s 1967 hit “I Can See for Miles” should be the theme song for fire towers. Access is mostly free and only requires climbing a few steps. Okay, a lot of steps. But the view is worth the climb.

In West Virginia, fire towers played a major preventive role during the first half of the 20th century, with a construction boom in the Monongahela National Forest from 1933 to 1945. The Forest Service began sending spotters up in airplanes during the 1960s, leading to an eventual phaseout of tower staffing in the ’70s. Today, satellite systems spot and track wildfires.

West Virginia once had nearly 100 fire towers. The National Historic Lookout Register now lists 28. These 5 towers in the Potomac Highlands along the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountains are mostly accessible by car and safe to climb.

1. Thorny Mountain Fire Tower

Sun shining through the clouds at Thorny Mountain Fire Tower.

Thorny Mountain Fire Tower sleeps 4, but guests must plan way ahead. Photo courtesy West Virginia Tourism

Thorny Mountain, West Virginia’s most famous tower, is large enough for 4 people to stay the night. Demand is so great that it books a year ahead. Located in Seneca State Forest, the tower is surrounded by wilderness laced with hiking and biking trails. Boating on Seneca Lake is nearby, as is Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.

Built in 1935, the 53-foot-tall tower stands atop a 3,445-foot ridge with 360-degree views of the Greenbrier Valley. It’s 69 steps up to the 12-by-12-foot “cab” (cabin) and surrounding catwalk.

The cab will protect you from the rain, but it has just 2 basic cots and no electricity or water. A pit toilet, firewood, and fire ring are at the tower base. Fresh water and showers are available at the ranger station 15 minutes down the mountain.

But the little inconveniences yield great rewards: spectacular sunrises and sunsets, a front-row seat to lightning storms, and the sensation of floating among the clouds. Open May–October. Rates start at $150; starting rate will increase to $175 in 2025.

2. Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory

Mountain views through windows at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory.

Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory greets avian guests; raptors abound from August through November. Photo courtesy West Virginia Tourism

This 1934 tower was built on a rock outcrop 3,812 feet above sea level along the Eastern Continental Divide, an avian migratory route that separates the Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico watersheds.

After Jefferson National Forest acquired the tower in 1983, Forest Service workers and volunteer raptor watchers restored the structure, only to have it burned by vandals. The cab and surrounding walkway have since been rebuilt.

With expansive mountain and valley views, the lookout is a prime place for spotting hawks, eagles, falcons, and osprey. Volunteers are often on hand to discuss birds with visitors. Raptors are especially plentiful during their fall migration, August through November.

Though it’s only 20 steps up to the platform, it’s a mile walk from the parking area to the tower.

3. Bickle Knob Observation Tower

Looking up at Bickle Knob Observation Tower.

Deactivation as a fire tower led to the cab’s removal at what is now Bickle Knob Observation Tower in Monongahela National Forest. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps built this 35-foot structure that occupies a rocky ridge 4,003 feet above sea level. The cab has been replaced with a wooden viewing deck that overlooks the Shavers Fork River and Otter Creek Wilderness, part of the Monongahela National Forest.

The area is known for plenty of wildlife. You may spot whitetail deer or (rarely) black bears or bobcats at sunrise or sunset. Forest Road 91, a narrow gravel lane, leads to a parking area a short walk from the tower.

You may also like: Scenic byways to drive close to home

4. Olson Observation Tower

View of Monongahela National Forest from Olson Observation Tower.

On a clear day … this is the view from the Olson Observation Tower in Monongahela National Forest. Photo by Jon Bilous/Alamy Stock Photo

Atop Monongahela National Forest’s 3,736-foot Backbone Mountain, this 1963 tower named for a beloved fire-control worker replaced a shorter structure when trees obscured the view.

The 100-foot Olson Tower, the state’s tallest, overlooks Blackwater Canyon, Canaan Mountain, Backbone Mountain, the Cheat River Valley, and the Otter Creek Wilderness, as well as the town of Parsons. Even though the cab is closed, the views are worth the 133-step ascent.

You may also like: Best places to go hiking in West Virginia

5. Bald Knob Fire Tower

Sun shining through windows of Bald Knob Fire Tower.

It takes a 4-hour horse ride to reach Bald Knob Fire Tower, where guests may overnight in a rustic cabin or in the tower itself. Photo by Skip Heater/Autumn Breeze Stables

At one time, visitors to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park could reach the 47-foot tower atop 4,831-foot Bald Knob via the steam-powered train. Today, an even older form of transportation is the only way to get there: Autumn Breeze Stables in Snowshoe offers overnight horseback-riding trips to the original fire ranger cabin and the tower, which overlooks the Snowshoe and Silver Creek ski areas.

Climb the tower and then stay in the cabin—which has neither indoor plumbing nor electricity—or take a bedroll up to the tower to enjoy the sunrise. Getting there means 4 hours in the saddle each way; your guide stays with you to cook meals and care for the horses. $425 per person (2-person minimum) plus a 2% daily resort fee. AAA discount available. Available spring through fall.

You may also like: How to experience West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

More Fire Towers

Snowshoe Fire Tower

Climbers taking in the view from Snowshoe Mountain Resort fire tower.

Snowshoe Mountain Resort moved this tower from Rich Mountain. It’s part of the resort’s e-bike and ATV tours. Photo courtesy Snowshoe Mountain

Snowshoe Mountain Resort purchased the former 1925 Rich Mountain Tower in 1999. Relocated and restored, the 60-foot tower now stands at 4,730 feet above sea level, with good views of the resort and adjacent Monongahela National Forest.

It’s a regular stop on the resort’s e-bike and off-road tours in ATVs, and can be reached via hiking trails, including a 3-mile loop. Rates start at $99 plus a resort fee from $25 to $60, depending on the unit.

Red Oak Knob Fire Tower

Looking up at Red Oak Knob Fire Tower

Red Oak Knob Fire Tower is expected to be available for overnight rentals in 2025. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service Photo

Not currently open to the public, work is underway to renovate the 80-foot tower for overnight rentals in 2025. Monongahela National Forest’s newest (and second tallest) tower was built in 1964 to overlook the watersheds of the Cranberry and Williams rivers. Located on a 3,704-foot mountain ridge, the steel tower is topped by a 14-by-14-foot cab and catwalk.

West Virginia resident Dale Leatherman is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.

You may also like: Romantic West Virginia couples’ getaways

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