Misadventures at Garnet Mountain Fire Tower

secluded fire tower on a mountaintop, panoramic views, a wood stove to keep us warm, and all the alcohol we could drink—that’s the weekend we bargained for.

It was not the weekend we got.

Jonathan, the planner he is, booked Garnet Mountain Fire Tower nearly six months ago in anticipation of a romantic pre-birthday (mine) weekend. It had been a dream of his long before we even met. He knew everything about it.

Everything except, apparently, how to get there.

The old fire tower sits atop Garnet Mountain, and as the name suggests, is in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky Montana.

Day One

We left Friday afternoon to allow enough time to reach the tower before the sun set. The directions were clear, and we had two choices: Hike four miles over 2,500 feet of elevation gain, or drive an “off-road vehicle” accessible road all the way to the door.

A 4×4 off-road Toyota Tacoma is an off-road vehicle, right?


At the hairiest part of the road, I thought I might watch my beloved partner roll to his death off the shoulder. (I got out to guide the wheels. There was nowhere to guide them on such a narrow road.)

Even if we survived the drive in, any weather would have made getting out impossible, and there was lots of weather in the forecast.

Defeated, dejected and demoralized, we bailed. We drove to a car-camping site with our tails between our legs and warmed our bodies and souls with whiskey and beer. I joked that even the best preparation is no match for the chaos that often follows me— indeed, I can hardly remember a time anything in my life has actually gone according to plan—but that’s the fun part, right?

It was too soon for such humor. Still, with a warm meal and half our supply of booze in our bloodstream, we went to bed happy and hopeful. We would make it to the fire tower.

Hike to Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout
Day Two

So the fire tower is a backpacking destination. We’re backpackers. We could make it.

Except we were missing a key piece of equipment: backpacks. We had packed, hastily, for a car camping trip.

“Glamping,” if you will.

Sunshine provided some false hope, and we rigged a pack out of a Mountain Khakis tote and NRS straps. The tote held two sleeping bags, wrapped in a garbage bag to protect from rain, and two days worth of water (barely). We stuffed a change of clothes and dry food into a daypack, and perishable food and beer into a soft cooler. The tower was stocked with basic cookware: a camp stove, pots and pans, cutlery, so we only needed two meals, plus snacks.

It was sunny at the trailhead. By our first steps, it started raining. The higher we got, the harder the rain fell, dampening our spirits with every step. By the last half mile, rain turned to sleet turned to snow, and we could only see our feet below us. The wind seemed to want to turn us around. It howled at us not to continue, not to take one more step. It threw snow at our faces. It seeped under our clothes.

Finally, we arrived at the tower soaking wet and frozen. Any views the tower offered were invisible to us—there was only snow as far as we could see (about 10 feet). But we had a wood stove! Hallelujah! And firewood! And we made it to the fire tower, dammit. Nothing could stop us.

Clothes hung to dry, fire roaring, the weekend we imagined started to materialize. We kept our promise to empty our food and booze supply (had to lighten our load for the hike out), and had nothing but each other’s company and some playing cards to entertain us for the evening. Misery is a powerful aphrodisiac, apparently.

This was our happy ending.

“we were missing a key piece of equipment: backpacks. We had packed, hastily, for a car camping trip.”

Day Three

Just kidding! We couldn’t end our weekend without one more little hiccup: We dried our shoes just a little too close to the fire. They would do their jobs for the hike out, but our feet wouldn’t be happy by the end.

Clear skies turned snowy again by the time we set out, but this snow was gentle. Even in shrunken, charred shoes, the hike down was swift and seamless. The foliage lit up overnight, shielding us from snow in a canopy of orange and yellow.  And a truck full of food and drink we couldn’t carry waited for us at the trailhead. I had never been so excited about yellow Gatorade

This whole account makes us sound like ill prepared, novice, even idiot adventurers. In this case… well, we were. But an easy, romantic getaway weekend is hardly worth writing, or reading, about. Disasters are the stuff of memories.

Garnet Mountain Fire Tower: Bring a backpack, strong legs (or an ATV), and a hearty amount of humor. This story was originally published by Planet Jackson Hole.