I had the opportunity to visit the newly refurbished and re-opened Clay Butte Lookout Tower while on a visit to the Beartooth Highway this week. What a treat to have the Tower open for visitors this year.
The Clay Butte Lookout was built in 1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was used as a fire lookout. It was staffed until the 1960s, when aircraft proved a better tool for fire detection. Today, because of its popular scenic vantage point and proximity to the Beartooth Highway, Clay Butte is used as a visitor information site. It was remodeled in 1962 and has been staffed since 1975 by volunteers. The focus of Clay Butte today is to give visitors a glimpse of how fire lookouts functioned 60 years ago. Sightseers driving the scenic byway stop to obtain information or take in the view, which includes wildlife, botanical areas, the effects of the Clover-Mist wildfire of 1988, and the geology of ancient seas that once covered the Beartooth Plateau.
The road to the Lookout Tower is dirt and gravel and is a bit washboardy in several places. The road also leads hikers to the Upper Granite Loop trail. Signs at the turnoff from the Beartooth Highway advise against driving trailers, RV’s, and buses to the Tower.
The newly renovated Lookout now includes a wonderful museum that includes firefighting, geography, and historical displays. The second floor observation deck features three comprehensive interpretive panels and provides visitors some of the most breathtaking views of the entire Beartooth-Absaroka wilderness found along the Beartooth Highway. A climb to the third floor lookout deck takes you to the spot where for many years observers diligently watched for wildfires in the surrounding mountains. Still on site is the original Osborne Firefinder used to target fire locations for many years. When I noticed the legs of all of the furniture on the third floor sit inside of insulators I asked about it. Come to find out it provides protection for anyone who is in the Tower in the event of a lightning strike! Wow – the thought of being at the top of that mountain inside that Tower during a lightning storm created quite a visual image! What a ride that would be!
Today the Shoshone National Forest staffs the Clay Butte Lookout Tower with volunteer staff who are available to answer questions and share information with visitors. Volunteers take advantage of living quarters located on the bottom floor of the Tower. Last word from the Forest Service is that the Clay Butte Lookout Tower will be open to visitors from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm daily. And by the way – there are restroom facilities on-site.
Kim Capron – Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road