The Forgotten Fire Towers of Northeast Tennessee: What to Know, Where to Go

20181015-Tennessee-Camp Creek Bald Lookout Tower

Today, a fire tower is something rare, special, and even a bit mysterious. But just a few decades ago, as many as 5,000 manned fire towers were sprinkled throughout the forests and mountains of the United States.

After devastating wildfires laid waste to 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana in 1910, the newly formed U.S. Forest Service embarked on an ambitious plan for fire prevention and suppression. This plan included the creation of an extensive fire lookout network, a detailed communication plan, and a bevy of highly trained fire spotters. And though lookout towers had existed before 1910, their prevalence multiplied in the aftermath of that year’s massive wildfires.

Under the new plan, people were paid to occupy fire towers, and these jobs became more popular in the 1930s when President Roosevelt formed the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Forest Service took advantage of the CCC manpower and commissioned the construction of thousands of towers all over the country, including nearly 100 in Tennessee. During World War II, many of the towers doubled as Enemy Aircraft Spotters, and then gradually they were no longer used or were torn down. While there is still the occasional manned lookout tower, most of those that remain serve as hiking and bird-watching destinations, as their function demanded that each tower have a far-reaching view of forests and mountains.

In Northeast Tennessee, there are a host of fantastic fire lookout towers to visit, some of which you can still climb for an unparalleled view of the region’s rugged landscape. We’ve rounded up a few that you won’t want to miss on your next trip to the area.

Pinnacle Fire Tower

Perhaps one of the most visited lookout towers in Northeast Tennessee, the Pinnacle Fire Tower is situated atop Buffalo Mountain near the little town of Unicoi. Though reaching it on foot requires a 9-mile round trip trek, the gentle grade makes this hike extremely attainable and enjoyable for many people.

Once you reach Buffalo Mountain’s peak, the 40-foot tower will afford you panoramic views of Unicoi and Washington counties and their ripples of wooded mountains. For those who don’t fancy a walk in the woods, the tower can also be reached via Fire Tower Road on the northwestern edge of the Cherokee National Forest.

Holston Mountain Fire Tower

While the lookout tower atop Holston Mountain can’t actually be climbed, this 7-mile hiking experience is undoubtedly a spectacular way to spend a fall day. Holston Mountain itself is remarkable to see, stretching nearly 30 miles from Elizabethton, Tennessee, all the way to Damascus, Virginia. It’s third highest point is the 4,100-foot Holston High Knob, where you’ll find the old fire tower.

From the parking area on National Forest 56 near Elizabethton, you’ll ascend gradually for about a mile to reach the 100-foot-tall lookout tower, which was transplanted from Mississippi in 1943. This interesting bit of history makes it a sight to behold, though your real reward on this hike is another 2.5 miles down the trail. Follow the Holston Mountain Trail past the tower and merge onto Flint Mill Trail, which will lead you to a fantastic and little-known overlook called Flint Rock. From there are views of South Holston Lake spreading out below before retracing your steps back to the starting point.

Kettlefoot Fire Tower

Hidden amid a web of more than 50 miles of trails within Doe Mountain Recreation Area, Kettlefoot Fire Tower is one of the park’s crowning attractions. The 60-foot tower stands atop the recreation area’s namesake mountain and can be reached by ATV, mountain bike, or foot travel on the well-marked trails.

From the tower’s elevation at nearly 4,000 feet, a clear day will give you views of Watauga Lake, Grandfather Mountain, and many other stunning features of Tennessee. Legend has it that the tower was named for a large bear that got its foot stuck in a kettle, though, whether or not this is true will likely remain a mystery. Either way, Kettlefoot Fire Tower and the rest of Doe Mountain’s enormous acreage are not to be missed when visiting Northeast Tennessee.

Bays Mountain Fire Tower

Also known as the Garden Mountain Fire Tower, this structure is revered for offering one of the most spectacular vantage points in Northeast Tennessee. On a clear day, the 100-foot tower commands a view of four states—Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—as well as a 360-degree view of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains.

The 1937 tower is tucked into Kingsport’s Bays Mountain Park, which is Tennessee’s largest city park at 3,500 acres. The well-groomed 5-mile hike begins by meandering through the park’s native animal exhibit and then alongside the lovely 44-acre lake. The final half mile leading up to the tower is steep and challenging, so allow yourself plenty of time to make the trek. You can return the way you came, or complete the loop on the Hemlock Trail.

Camp Creek Bald Fire Tower

Nestled on top of what is often considered the highest point in Greene County, Camp Creek Bald tower might have the most interesting history of Northeast Tennessee’s many lookouts. The tower’s location is famous among locals for having once been home to the Viking Mountain Resort, a grandiose but financially troubled ski lodge in the 1960s and ‘70s. After changing owners many times, the property was eventually purchased by the U.S. Forest Service, and the resort was torn down.

The squat steel tower that now stands on the site can be reached by driving Viking Mountain Road to Jones Meadow, and then hiking along the Appalachian Trail to the bald. It is believed that Earl Shaffer, the first-ever AT thru-hiker, spent the night in the tower during his trek in 1948. Though the tower’s cab was replaced in the 1960s, its concrete base dates all the way back to 1929.

Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated Media in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism.

Featured image provided by Brian Greer