Lilacs frame Baker Butte fire tower on the Mogollon Rim

A hike up
to Baker Butte culminates at an idyllic, pine-shaded pinnacle. Swarms of hummingbirds
whip through lilac-scented air and masses of ladybugs cling to trees, shrubs and
knee-high wildflowers.

Fire lookout Shirley Payne and her horse Rameses.

Nearby, a horse chomps hay in a makeshift corral while a
friendly black Labrador retriever noses a tennis ball. Perched on a knoll at
the edge of the Mogollon Rim, the mood surrounding the Baker Butte fire tower is
as calm and pastoral as a romantic passage in a Victorian novel.

Pine thermopsis (golden pea) bloom April – July

But this
enviable life removed from city heat, traffic and noise belies a very serious

“Are you
coming up?” The voice of fire lookout Shirley Payne broke the silence as she
called down to me and my hiking partner from the catwalk of the 30-foot-high
tower. “Oh, yeah,” was my no-brainer answer.
Payne, who has worked in the tower for 23 years, welcomed us with a
plate of fresh-baked poppy seed muffins.

Payne's dog Jeffrey takes a break near the corral.

The tower
is located near the western edge of Rim Road (Forest Road 300)–a 51-mile dirt
route that runs between State Route 87 south of Clints Well to State Route 260
near Forest Lakes. Rim Road makes for an iconic scenic drive for anybody with a
high-clearance vehicle and the fortitude to endure some queasy, edge-hugging
sections. Of the many Coconino National Forest fire lookout towers that dot the
Rim, Baker Butte is one of the easiest to reach on foot. For a moderate
3-miler, park at Baker Lake (usually not more than a soggy bog) at the junction of FR 300 and SR 87 and hike 1.2
miles on FR 300 to Forest Road 300B (the road to the lookout) where there’s a
parking area for the General Crook Trail, then continue 0.4-mile uphill to the
summit. The summit road passes through archways of Gambel oak trees, pines and
Douglas firs. Fringed with ferns, raspberry brambles and colorful spreads of
Canada violets, Pine thermopsis, sandwort and wild strawberries, the road
twists uphill in long loops landing at the base of the fire tower.

Views from tower catwalk stretch from Flagstaff to Tucson

The tower,
which earned a spot on the National Historic Lookout Register in 2006, wears its heritage
well. Constructed with a not-so-subtle blend of original, repurposed and new building
materials, the practical yet homey loft is softened by Payne’s collection of
quilts, plants and mementos. Neatly
arranged instruments, radios, binoculars and maps speak to the intense,
sometimes harrowing, work of fire spotting and coordination of incident response
teams—the daily grind of a fire lookout.

Thick tree cover on the summit road hike.

long-gone original tower cabin that was built in 1921 was replaced in 1937 with
the present 12’ x 12’ model that’s perched on a metal skeleton with wooden
stairs. The catwalk was added in 2009 and various upgrades to walls and windows
surround a floor covered in speckled, cracked linoleum that smacks of
mid-century utilitarianism.

Copies of
Payne’s book, Baker Butte Journal 2010,
sit near the guest register. Well worth its $20 sale price, the photo-rich
volume presents a slice-of-life account of a season in the tower. It's packed with
play-by-play descriptions of wildfire response, turbulent mountain weather,
recipes and the misadventures of “cidiots” (visitors from cities with
irresponsible forest habits) who litter, cause damage, raise hell and sometimes need
rescuing. A stroll around the catwalk
reveals see-forever vistas. On most days, the peaks of Flagstaff, Williams and
the White Mountains can be seen with the naked eye standing over seas of
Ponderosa pines. On the best days, Picacho Peak and Mount Lemmon in Tucson show
their silhouettes 200 miles to the south.

Jeffrey is always ready for a game of fetch
Payne offers fresh-baked muffins to tower visitors.

Below the
tower, a tiny cabin serves as Payne’s home for six months (usually May –
October) each year. Draped in lilac bushes that were planted in the 1980s, the ad
hoc abode has been expanded, adapted and upgraded over decades of use.

Hummingbirds gather at feeders placed around the tower
Tools of a fire lookout's trade.

The sunny
kitchen was salvaged from a Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps camp at
Mormon Lake and repurposed into a compact, fully-equipped work space (with hot
and cold running water to boot) where Payne cooks up her culinary specialties like
the yummy muffins she serves visitors. Some
of her recipes use wildflowers and berries harvested from the forest.

Payne's book describes her experiences working in the tower

an array of hummingbird feeders attract several species including the Broad-tailed, Rufous and Magnificent. During summer, flocks of the glinting little
birds can drain a feeder in just hours, which keeps Payne busy with refill runs
up to three times a day. In addition to the elk, chipmunks, turkeys, western
tanagers and deer that hang out around the tower, Payne keeps two special
four-legged helpers at her mountain top work environment. Rameses, a 21-year-old
Missouri Fox Trotter–a gaited breed (horses with a sure-footed, rhythmic
stride) who loves mint candy treats, and Jeffrey, a friendly 3-year-old black lab with a fetch fetish and
boundless energy provide companionship and assistance.

Raspberry brambles produce fruit in late summer

During fire season, the Baker Butte tower is
open to the public between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. when Payne is on duty and closed for lunch
between noon and 1 p.m.

The cabin kitchen was salvaged from a CCC camp
Canada violets bloom April – September

As Arizona
heads into another fire season, forest visitors should respect fire restrictions and safety protocols.
The last thing any fire lookout wants to see is a plume of smoke drifting skyward
from a human-caused blaze. When visiting
a fire tower, please observe proper etiquette.

• Respect
visiting hours. Do not attempt to enter a tower when no lookout is present.

• Wait to
be invited. Lookouts may not allow visitors when monitoring an active fire

FR 300B begins across from a General Crook trailhead

• Lighten
up. Leave bulky packs and trekking poles behind. Tower stairs are narrow and
space is tight inside.

• Ask
permission before taking photos or approaching companion animals.

• Listen
up. Follow the lookout’s instructions and don’t touch instruments.

• Learn something. Ask questions. Most lookouts are veritable founts of knowledge about the forests
they watch over.

Begin at Baker Lake (bog) for a 3-mile hike to the tower.

LENGTH: 3 miles roundtrip from Baker Lake or 0.8 mile
roundtrip from the General Crook trailhead.


ELEVATION: 7430 – 8074 feet from Baker Lake or 7866 –
8074 from General Crook trailhead.


From the
State Route 87/260 junction in Payson, go 28 miles north on SR 87 to Forest
Road 300 (Rim Road) located just past milepost 281.

Option 1:
Park in the dirt turnouts on Rim Road near Baker Lake just a few yards in from
SR 87.

Option 2:
Follow FR 300 (make a sharp left at a Y junction at 0.1-mile)
1.2 miles to the Baker Butte Summit Road (FR 300B). There’s parking
directly across from the summit road in the General Crook trailhead. Forest
Road 300 is bumpy dirt but passable by passenger cars.


Management Coconino National Forest