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Hands-on history: Lookout restoration a towering achievement

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By Stephen Knapp

Location, location location.

That’s Realtor-speak meaning that where a property is matters more than what it is. And in the case of a charming refurbished property just coming onto the Clear Creek County rental market, location really is everything.

This particular listing features two open-plan floors of about 150 square feet each, with detached bathroom. Utilities are included, which is to say electricity, since tenants are expected to supply their own water. Amenities include a tidy kitchenette, one set of bunk beds and a pair of government-issue metal-frame cots, abundant natural light, and an 80-year-old Osborne sighting compass. Outside, a wrap-around deck overlooks a nature-laid granite patio with freshly painted picnic table.

The rustic bungalow sits in a quiet neighborhood on 725,000 naturally xeriscaped acres convenient to deer, elk and outdoor recreation, and offers ample public parking a mere 45-minute walk and a thousand vertical feet away. From the nearest paved road — Colorado Highway 103 — just 2 miles distant, it’s only 20 minutes to the nearest elementary school, 25 minutes to the nearest church, and just 30 minutes to restaurants and shopping. And while this particular rental can’t boast cable access, laundry facilities or central air conditioning, the agency managing the antique structure anticipates no trouble attracting interested tenants.

“Every time we open one of these historic structures to the public, they get used,” said Paul Cruz, the U.S. Forest Service recreation manager for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Cruz was one of more than two dozen rangers, fire lookout enthusiasts and prospective renters who braved the harrowing utility road up Squaw Mountain’s steep western flank on the morning of June 28 to welcome the venerable Squaw Mountain Lookout back into public service.

“This is a pinnacle structure. People love those,” Cruz said.

Small wonder. Constructed in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout still stands tall at almost 11,500 feet, and for more than a quarter-century formed a strong link in a chain of USFS fire observation posts stretching along Colorado’s mighty divide from Wyoming to New Mexico. In other words, it was built for the views, and if the lookout tower — both the highest one in Colorado and the only one made of stone — was forced out of business in 1968 by advancing fire-detection technologies, its command of the central Rockies has never diminished.

To the west, the Mount Evans group dominates the horizon. To the north, Indian Peaks and snow-capped Longs Peak flash in the sunlight. On a clear day, Pikes Peak is visible far to the south, and on any day the view east marches away over a tangle of green mountaintops to the blue plains beyond.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful location,” said Nicole Malandri, recreation fee manager for the Clear Creek Ranger District and instrumental to the tower’s salvation. “Staying here will let people experience what being a fire lookout was like, to imagine what it was like to live up here. And there are a lot of recreational opportunities in the area year-round, from hiking or driving up to Mount Evans in the summertime to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.”

“As soon as it’s available on our national system, it will become popular quickly,” predicted Cruz. “Before you know it, it’ll be all booked up.”

But if last Saturday’s high-altitude affair formally added a bright new star to Colorado’s constellation of backcountry accommodations, it was also a necessary opportunity to recognize and thank the small army of tireless volunteers who rescued the Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout from 73 years of broiling sun, battering storm and relentless decay. The sturdy veteran’s rehabilitation began in earnest back in 1993, when Bill Gherardi of the Colorado Forestry Association rallied his troops to conduct some emergency repairs on the aging structure. The Forest Fire Lookout Association took the reins in 2006, spurred on by FFLA’s Colorado/Utah chapter president, former Evergreen educator and one-time fire lookout Sondra Jackson Kellogg. With the USFS’s full countenance and support, hundreds of hands have spent countless hours shoring up and tricking out the proud relic, and the result is a snug alpine haven with a heart as big as all outdoors.

“It’s a small miracle it worked out like it did,” said Kent Argow, son of FFLA’s founder, Keith Argow, and Kellogg’s immediate successor. “There are so many people who deserve thanks for making this happen.”

They should all consider themselves well and truly thanked. As appreciative spectators jostled for space on the tower’s modest rugged stone stoop, Cruz and Malandri stretched a bright red ribbon across the granite keep’s door while Argow grasped a pair of over-sized novelty scissors with both hands. With one snip, an important piece of the Centennial State’s historic puzzle fell back into place.

“Wildland fires have always played a big part in Colorado’s history, and this lookout played a big part in fighting them,” said Argow. “Now people who love that history will have a chance to experience an important part of it.”

Folks craving a higher holiday can book their stay at Clear Creek’s newest and most exclusive getaway by calling 877-444-6777, or make a reservation online at www.recreation.gov. The fees are $9 for a reservation plus $80 per night for up to four adventuresome souls, money that will ensure the lookout’s survival for generations to come.

Lookout facts

During 28 years of service, Squaw Mountain lookouts spotted up to 16 wildfires per year. Some of the major fires first spotted from the Squaw Mountain Fire Lookout include:

• Owl’s Head Fire, 1952

• Devil’s Canyon Fire, 1956

• Lost Creek Fire, 1960

• Rest House Fire, 1962

• Lincoln Lake Fire, 1968