We stood staring at each other, piles of blankets and bags of food at our feet. A sharp cold wind was picking up and the sun was starting to sink.
Try again, I pleaded with my friend.
We’d driven to the Sheep Mountain Lookout, situated at 9,600-feet in the Bighorn Mountains. The tension I’d carried from a long week had started to evaporate almost immediately as we took the highway out of Buffalo into the mountains.
After winding our way up a dirt road and past patches of snow, we’d suddenly emerged above treeline to an exposed summit with a small (by fire tower standards) squat, building, which was to act as our shelter for the night. The cold stung as we exited the car, laden with gear and eager to warm up inside.
But the door was stuck. The exhaustion and stress that had melted away on our drive into the mountains came back each time we punched in the code and the door stayed firmly closed. The handle clicked loose, but the door still wouldn’t open. We took turns jamming our shoulders against it. It wouldn’t budge.
My friend ordered me to call and leave a message at the Forest Service office. (We had surprisingly good cell service.) We knew no one would answer, but she hoped we’d at least be able to get a refund. As I left the message, the door suddenly clicked open.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the fire tower in 1950 atop Sheep Mountain. It was used as a fire lookout until the early 1970s. Now it’s one of two fire towers in Wyoming you can rent. This one in the Bighorns, and the Spruce Mountain Lookout Tower in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
The Spruce Mountain lookout stands 55-feet tall with multiple flights of steep stairs, while the Sheep Mountain tower has only a single short flight. The treeless terrain on Sheep Mountain, though, gives incredible views into the Cloud Peak Wilderness and out to the Powder River Basin. The building itself might not look as impressive, but we were glad for the short hike up the stairs as we hauled the multiple loads of blankets and other items we’d brought to keep warm.
Cold weather camping
The Sheep Mountain Fire Lookout is open to renters June 15 through October, weather permitting. The summer days book up months in advance, but I’d been able to secure the night of Oct. 7 only a week before.
With no electricity or wood-burning stove in the lookout, my friend had been skeptical and not quite a willing participant in what was almost a winter camping expedition. I’d convinced her we’d be fine—since we could drive directly to the base of the tower, we could bring as many blankets and warm clothes as we wanted. Plus, Wyoming’s fire towers are popular destinations, not just for renters staying overnight, but also for visitors during the day. Going this late in the season meant we had the area and the stunning sunset to ourselves.
The sunset surrounded us, glowing colors filtering in from every angle through the windows in every wall. We snapped pictures as each moment it changed. Then we sat and watched.
We made the mistake of bringing only a small lantern and headlamp and darkness came early. So did the cold. Sitting in winter jackets and hats I watched my breath come out in puffs. The tower creaked with the constant battering of wind. At about 10 p.m. it was suddenly quiet.
“I think it finally stopped,” my friend said.
About 15 minutes later the windows rattled again as the wind picked up.
By 6 a.m. the sun started lighting the sky, flooding in through the windows of the tower. I had stayed warm enough all night in my down sleeping bag perched on the top of the bunk bed in the tower, but I still hadn’t slept very well. I watched light spread across the mountains and I felt refreshed in a way that only the mountains can provide, but without the stiffness of sleeping on the ground, or the ache of leaving a warm sleeping bag for frosty air. We were surprisingly warm inside the small building, and as we started to pack up, we began planning when we’d return next year.
If you want to go: You’ll need to make a reservation. It cost $50 a night and a $9 transaction fee. If you want to go during the summer, you’ll need to make a reservation well in advance.
There is no electricity or water. Pack accordingly, as though you were camping, but make sure to bring water.
Be prepared for quickly changing weather. The lookout is located at 9,600-feet, so expect high-elevation weather including snow and wind. While the tower is open through October, it can close early due to snow.
There are two twin beds in the form of bunk beds. You need to bring all bedding. If more than two people are in your party, bring sleeping gear for the floor.