The Garnet Mountain fire lookout is a Forest Service cabin previously used, as the name implies, for watching for signs of wildfires. Now the FS rents it out for overnight camping (or does this count as glamping?) It stands on top of Garnet Mountain at 8,300′, and is only accessible by trails. We hiked up and stayed at the lookout the first weekend of June. Here’s what you need to know for a backpacking trip – or a day hike – up Garnet Mountain.
Reserving the fire lookout
Plan ahead if you want to stay here! The Garnet lookout (along with pretty much every other rentable fire lookout in Montana) is in high demand, especially during summer. I made our reservation a month out, but I likely got lucky by catching a date someone else had just cancelled. Currently, the lookout is booked out all the way through the end of October. Reservations open 6 months in advance, and your best bet is reserving as close to that date as possible.
What to pack
There’s some standard backpacking equipment you won’t need: a tent, obviously, and sleeping pads, since the bunks have mattresses. You don’t necessarily need any dishes – the cabin has accumulated a large assortment, including skillets, pots, plates, mugs, spatulas, knives, utensils, and even a can opener. There’s a propane stove, but I was glad I packed a small backpacking stove for backup, as the propane stove had an unsafe leak when we were there.
Plan to carry up enough water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning; there’s no water source near the cabin or along the trail. Depending on how much water you need for cooking, you’ll probably want at least a gallon per person. We had about 0.75 gallon per person, which was just barely enough only because there was still a bit of snow near the cabin that we melted for washing dishes.
You’ll need to bring propane – there’s a propane lantern as well as the stove. Apart from that and the stuff you don’t need to bring, pack as you would for any other backpacking trip.
Garnet Mountain trail
Two trails lead to the lookout, Garnet Mountain trail and Rat Lake trail. They join together a bit over half a mile from the fire lookout. We took the Garnet Mountain trail, which I’d recommend for hiking; the Rat Lake trail is open to motorized traffic (dirt bikes & ATVs), and the last bit where the trails become one is rutted from the vehicle traffic and tough to walk on.
Many online descriptions of Garnet Mountain put the trail at 3.5 miles one way. Based on my GPS tracking, I think this is the distance to where it meets up with the Rat Lake trail. The full distance from the trailhead to the lookout is about 4.2 miles, with about 2,800 feet of elevation gain. It took us a bit over 2 hours to hike up with full packs.
While the first part of the trail is wooded, you quickly come out onto the west side of the mountain, where you get the full force of the sun if you’re hiking in the afternoon. We didn’t start hiking until 5pm thanks to a feline misadventure, so we ended up hiking in full sun during the hottest part of the day. (That probably sounds strange if you live at a more southerly latitude, but up here late afternoon/early evening is the hottest part of the day.) Start earlier if you can, although keep in mind that check-in time for the lookout is 2 pm.
The trail climbs steadily; it’s about a 12-15% grade the whole way up. Around 2 miles in, there’s a small trail branching off towards a meadow, and a large cairn marking the correct trail that keeps going up the mountain. The meadow trail disappears after a short distance, but takes you to a nice view of Storm Castle peak.
Shortly after, the trail winds around to where you can see the top of Garnet Mountain (though not the lookout). At this point, you may start wondering if you’re really going to climb that much higher in 2ish miles. Yep, you are.
About 3.5 miles in, the trail joins the Rat Lake trail. As I mentioned before….this trail is rutted, rocky, and generally not very nice to walk on. On the plus side, you’ll be at the lookout in 15 minutes or so. About a quarter mile past the trail junction, there’s a sign saying to keep at least 100 yards away from the lookout if you’re not the one renting it. It’s still almost half a mile to the lookout though – so if you’re day hiking this trail, know that you can keep hiking past this sign without disturbing the lookout inhabitants.
Garnet Mountain fire lookout
The lookout is two stories; the first story just has a room for storing firewood, while the top story is the living area. It contains bunk beds, a table and chairs, a wood stove, a hutch, and an island-type thing. In addition to the supplies listed on the reservation website, there’s a bunch of random stuff left behind by previous campers. Things like dish soap, aluminum foil, playing cards, a lantern that charges by USB. (If you’re wondering “who brings a USB charger camping?” Turns out my husband does.)
There’s a fire ring and sitting area outside, as well as an outhouse.
And let’s not forget the mountain views in all directions.
Usually I’m a food minimalist when backpacking – give me something I can just add boiling water to and eat. But since staying at the lookout meant we had more cooking equipment and more space in our packs, I went a bit more gourmet with the food. Here’s a quick run down:
Clif bars and trail mix made with peanuts, dried cranberries, and sunflower seeds. Did you know peanuts + dried cranberries tastes like PBJ?
Tortellini with onion, garlic, spinach, and chorizo. I found a small pack of shelf-stable chorizo at World Market, so it didn’t need to be kept cold. To make: slice up the onion and garlic at home. At the cabin, sautee them in a bit of oil. Meanwhile, boil the tortellini. Add sliced chorizo and spinach to the onions a few minutes before the pasta is done to warm and wilt. Mix everything together in bowls and top with shredded parmesan.
I modified this recipe to make a brownie mix. For 2 people, I halved the recipe. To make: at home, pulse the dry ingredients (including the flax part of the flax egg) and butter or coconut oil in a food processor until everything is well combined and there are no large chunks of butter/oil. Put in a quart freezer bag. At camp, add about 1/4 cup of water to the bag and knead the bag until everything is well combined. Cut off a corner of the bag and squeeze the batter into a foil-lined pot or pan that has a lid.
I baked the brownies in the wood stove. To do this, wait until you have a bed of coals, place the pan on the coals, and place a few coals on the lid so you get even heat from top and bottom. It took about 20 minutes for our brownies to bake.
I used this pancake recipe. Since the propane stove was broken and my backpacking stove isn’t very stable, I had to cook the pancakes in the wood stove. I cleared an area by the stove door and set the skillet there. While you don’t want a roaring fire for this, you don’t have to wait for the flames to die down completely since you’re not using direct heat. Our pancakes cooked in about 2 minutes per side. I brought some single-serve packets of flavored almond butter to top the pancakes.
I also made coffee using a portable pour over filter. It’s only $10 and totally worth it.
Naturally, the hike back down is much easier than the hike up. Temperatures are also cooler in the morning, so it’s a good opportunity to take your time and enjoy the views.
Have you ever stayed at a Forest Service cabin?
What’s your favorite backpacking treat?