Travel

On the lookout: Fire towers in N.H. worth a visit

The fire tower in Blue Job State Forest in Farmington.
Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe
The fire tower in Blue Job State Forest in Farmington.

As far as the effort-reward ratio goes, this hike was a winner. It was easy to find; there was plenty of parking at the trailhead; it was a quick loop hike with a moderate 350-foot-or-so elevation gain (easy enough for families and out-of-shape friends and relatives); dogs (on leash) were welcome; and the view at the top was super sweet.

We were hiking the trail through Blue Job State Forest in southern New Hampshire to a fire tower near the Blue Job Mountain summit. It was an early fall hike up rocky beds and boulders and through a sun-dappled spruce-fir forest. We watched hawks soar overhead as we walked the short, ½-mile-or-so trail to the fire tower. After two flights up the historic steel fire lookout tower (it was first built in 1913), we had a near 360-degree view of rolling hills, forests, meadows, farmlands and mountain peaks. On this clear morning, we could see the Monadnocks to the southwest and the White Mountains to the north.

Fire towers in New Hampshire were first constructed in the early 1900s, often funded by local lumber companies. Through the years, the state gradually took them over. By 1917, the state of New Hampshire was operating 29 stations. Today, there are 16 fire towers still in service. Fifteen are owned and operated by the state, and one tower, located on Red Hill in Moultonborough, is owned by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. They still serve the tried-and-true purpose of detecting fires in New Hampshire’s vast forests. New Hampshire has 4.8 million acres of forest lands covering 84 percent of its landscape, making it the second-most forested state in the country. On high fire alert days, 15 towers are staffed.

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“Fire tower watchers spot numerous fires annually, not only wildland forest fires, but structure and car fires,” says Bryan Nowell, with the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. “They also act as stewards of the forests as they meet and greet hikers, point out landmarks, and spread fire safety messages.”

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They serve lofty purposes, for sure, but from these elevated platforms, you’ll also have some of the finest views in the East. Want the best seat for this season’s fall foliage show? Climb to the top of one of New Hampshire’s tall fire towers. Visit five lookouts and you can receive a free patch and certificate of recognition as part of the Tower Quest Program (www.nhdfl.org/fire-control-and-law-enforcement/fire-
towers.aspx
). The website also has information, descriptions, and directions to New Hampshire’s fire towers.

Here are some of our favorites.

Mount Kearsage

Warner and Wilmot, N.H.

There are several ways to get to the bare, 2,937-foot summit of Mount Kearsage, home to one of the more popular fire towers in the state. No matter how you get to the top, the resulting views are spectacular. “On a clear day, you can see into Boston,” says Nowell, “and to the top of Mount Washington.” From Winslow State Park, you can hike the Winslow Trail, gaining about 1,000 feet in elevation over about 1.1 miles to the summit. The 1.7-mile Barlow Trail, with open ledges and scenic outlooks, is longer but more gradual. Go up one and down the other to make it a loop.

The Rollins Trail, from the Rollins State Park picnic area, takes you on a short , ½-mile-or-so, steep climb to the summit fire tower. The longer, five-mile Lincoln Trail, off Kearsage Valley Road, traverses the northwest slope of Black Mountain before hooking up with the Rollins Trail for the final scramble to the top.

Belknap Mountain

Gilford, N.H.

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One of our favorite hikes to do during the fall foliage season is the loop up and down pretty Belknap Mountain. The 2,384-foot summit doesn’t sound impressive to high-elevation seekers, but the mountain’s isolation and open summit makes it a prominent peak in the Lakes Region. It’s about a 1½-mile round-trip hike. The rock-strewn Green Trail ascends 0.7 miles to the top. The Red Trail is a little longer at 0.8 miles. The fun begins at the summit, where you’ll find the historic steel tower, originally built in 1913 (though it’s been rebuilt and replaced several times through the years). Climb the tower stairs for excellent views of Lake Winnipesaukee, and the southern White Mountains, slopes ablaze with color in autumn.

Red Hill

Moultonborough, N.H.

Since the 19th century, hikers have been drawn to 2,029-foot Red Hill, lured by great views of Lake Winnipesaukee, Squam Lake, and the surrounding mountains. Climb the steps up to the fire tower viewing platform located at the summit and you’ll have some of the prettiest views in the state. The 3.4-mile round-trip Red Hill Fire Tower Trail is a consistent, steady pitch, and the main route to and from the tower. The Eagle Cliff Trail is longer and tougher, about a 5.2-mile round-trip with some steep scrambling over ledges, but you’ll have some open views along the way.

Pack Monadnock

Peterborough, N.H.

Talk about effort-reward ratio: you can drive to this fire tower sitting atop 2,280-foot Pack Monadnock, located in Miller State Park, the oldest state park in New Hampshire. The twisty 1.3-mile road leading to the summit is open throughout the summer and on weekends in spring and fall. But what’s the hurry? If you have the time and energy, three trails travel to the summit. The 21-mile (yes, you read that right) Wapack Trail goes from Mount Watatic in Ashburnham, Mass., to North Pack Monadnock in Greenfield, N.H., climbing over the summit of Pack Monadnock. You can pick it up at the Miller State Park parking lot for the 2.8-mile trip to the summit and back. The Raymond Trail, about 3.2 miles round-trip, and the 2.8-mile round-trip Marion Davis Trail also lead to the fire tower. All are moderate climbs, with some steep, rocky sections.

Pitcher Mountain

Stoddard, N.H.

The trail leading to the 2,153-foot Pitcher Mountain summit and fire tower is short and sweet, a perfect half-day excursion if you’re looking for a little exercise, fresh air, and amazing views. It’s popular with local families; dogs (on leash) are welcome, too. The easy-peasy hike is about 1½ miles up and back. Tower views of mountains, lakes, valleys, and dense forest stretch for miles in all directions. Pack a picnic and stay awhile.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.