Put a Hike to This North Carolina Lookout Tower on Your List

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Fire lookout towers like the one at Rich Mountain were once the primary source of fire detection in North Carolina. Now, the Forest Fire Lookout Association, in collaboration with local nonprofits, has begun restoring them.

One of Pisgah National Forest’s historic fire lookout towers has been restored to its former glory. Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, near Hot Springs, North Carolina, was built in 1932 and was used to detect fires in North Carolina and Tennessee for more than 60 years. But the tower fell into disrepair after regular use was suspended in the ’90s, and it closed to visitors in 2017. Then, in 2018, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Forest Fire Lookout Association provided more than $110,000 for the reconstruction of the tower, rewarding hikers with a new destination with a 360-degree view.

Lookout towers like Rich Mountain used to punctuate the landscape across the Southern Appalachians, staffed for decades and used as the primary source for fire detection in the region. But the majority of towers were decommissioned beginning in the ’60s, when aerial detection by planes became more efficient and cost-effective. Several North Carolina towers still stand on public land, though, and in the last 10 years, the Forest Fire Lookout Association has led the restoration of these historic structures.

“These days, 95 percent of fires are reported by people with cell phones,” Peter Barr, coordinator of the North Carolina Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, said. “These structures don’t have any practical purpose anymore, but they make cool destinations for hikers.”

The Rich Mountain tower straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, rising 31 feet from the 3,670-foot Rich Mountain, above the town of Hot Springs. The Appalachian Trail passes by the tower on its way north, with a short spur trail running directly to the base of the structure. Each fire lookout tower in the region is unique—some are just short platforms without a roof, others are tall towers with small cabs. Rich Mountain was a live-in tower with a full cab that allowed a fire lookout to reside there for weeks at a time. The 2018 restoration included a full structural overhaul, with new roofing, new wooden walls and deck railings, flooring and stairs. Rich Mountain is one of only a handful of fire lookout towers still standing along the Appalachian Trail’s corridor through North Carolina.

Views of Rich Mountain Lookout Tower with blue skies all around

The Rich Mountain tower straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, rising 31 feet from the 3,670-foot Rich Mountain, above the town of Hot Springs. (Photo Credit: Shannon Millsaps/NC-FFLA)

“We’re enthusiastic about keeping the towers that still stand along the AT,” said Morgan Sommerville, who is the southern regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which dedicated $8,500 to Rich Mountain’s restoration. “The AT is often in the woods and these towers offer a view above the canopy that’s hard to find on the trail.”

The 360-degree view from the restored Rich Mountain tower extends well into Tennessee, over to Mount Mitchell and all the way down to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in November 2018, and the tower has already become a popular destination for hikers.

How to Hike to Rich Mountain Tower

The quickest hike to the tower is a 2.2-mile out and back on the AT from Hurricane Gap. For a longer hike that takes in more of the region, form an 11.6-mile loop by using Roundtop Ridge Trail and the AT. Beginning and ending on the edge of downtown Hot Springs, Roundtop Ridge follows the original route of the AT up and over the Bald Mountains. On the way back to town, the AT crosses Lovers Leap Ridge, which has outstanding views of the town and the French Broad River.

Most of North Carolina’s lookout towers were removed decades ago, but several structures still stand and the Forest Fire Lookout Association has been working with land managers to restore the remaining structures. Here are a few towers that make ideal hiking destinations:

Mount Cammerer Tower, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Standing at the top of 4,928-foot Mount Cammerer, deep inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Mount Cammerer Tower is a Western-inspired live-in cabin that’s perched on the edge of a rocky outcropping. It looks more like a stone cottage than a fire lookout tower and offers 360-degree views of Mount Sterling, Snowbird Mountain and Pigeon River Gorge. Be forewarned: The tower is remote and hikers have to knock out an 11-mile roundtrip trek on the Mount Cammerer Trail to reach the building.

Wayah Bald Lookout Tower, Nantahala National Forest

This tower looks like a turret from a medieval castle. It’s made of stone, standing 53 feet tall at the top of Wayah Bald. Like many of the towers in the Southeast, it was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The easiest approach is a 1.5-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail from the Wine Spring Bald access on Forest Service road 69B.

Green Knob Lookout Tower, Pisgah National Forest

You can see some of the tallest mountains on the Eastern Seaboard from the Green Knob Lookout Tower, which sits just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Black Mountain Range. The tower consists of a 21-foot live-in lookout cabin that was restored in the ’90s, but is slated for more repairs. The tower has views of the Craggy Mountains, Table Rock, Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell. The easiest approach is via the half-mile long Green Knob Trail from the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 295.9.

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