Montana Outdoors

February 15, 2011

Burnt Fork Pinnacle

On a clear, brisk morning in early October there was a light touch of frost at the trail head just off Forest Service Road 5498 in western Montana’s Coeur d’Alene Mountains : it would be an excellent day for a hike up to Burnt Fork Pinnacle, three miles up toward Reservation Divide on USFS trail 418 and inside the Reservation Divide roadless area.

Trail head for Burnt Fork Pinnacle

There is nothing extraordinary about the Pinnacle which sits about 2,400 feet above the Ninemile Valley at an altitude of just over 6,600 feet and 1,200 feet below Three lakes Peak, another couple of miles up the trail, but it, like many of the old fire lookout sites, is a part of the history of this region, and it in particular has an interesting old story tied to it.

About 20 miles southeast of the Pinnacle is the Ninemile Remount Depot which, in or around 1932 when the L-4 style cabin used as a lookout on the Pinnacle was built, was home to what was sometimes referred to as “a thousand mule cavalry” of mules. In those days the only means the Forest Service had for transporting heavy loads was on the backs of mules, and at Ninemile the Forest Service raised a Mammoth breed of mules by breeding Morgan horses with Jacks. They became the elite of pack stock, weighing around 1,700 pounds and capable of carrying up to 300 pounds on their pack saddles. The Ranger Station is still there on the grounds of the remount ranch which remains the winter home of the Forest Service mules and horses that are still used in this region in the summers.

(For those who are not familiar with the old L-4 type cabins used as lookouts, here is a photo of one that still remains on top of Big Hole Mountain, fifty miles west of Burnt Fork. The one on Burnt Fork Pinnacle was destroyed in 1950:)

Big Hole lookout cabinBig Hole Lookout cabin

Trail 418 is a reasonably good hiking trail and still quite suited for horse travel as well, winding through an old burn at the lower elevations

Lower part of trail to Burnt Fork Pinnacle

Lower part of trail to Burnt Fork Pinnacle

and some beautiful, grassy mountainsides as it ascends to the old lookout site.

Middle part of trail to Burnt Fork PinnacleL

Middle part of trail to Burnt Fork Pinnacle

Middle part of trail to Burnt Fork Pinnacle

Middle part of trail to Burnt Fork Pinnacle

Higher end of the trail to Burnt Fork innacle

From the higher regions of the trail, Squaw Peak, which was recently re-named Ch-paa-qn (pronounced “cha-pock-qwin”), can be seen to the east where it looks down on the Remount Depot from an altitude of 7,996 feet.


After three hours of pleasant hiking and a healthy climb of 2,400 feet, it was a pleasure to enjoy a sunny and leisurely lunch in a green and sheltered little saddle just above where the old cabin once stood,

Burnt Fork Pinnacle

study the higher country to the west,

West from Burnt Fork Pinnacle

Three Lakes Peak to the north,

Three Lakes Peak

the Bitterroot Mountains far to the south,

Bitterroot Mountains

and the Ninemile Valley to the southeast;

Ninemile Valley

and enjoy the recollection of this story about two greenhorn firewatchers who manned the lookout during one summer nearly eighty years ago:

Mike and Ellen were newlyweds who would be spending the summer in the cabin at Burnt Fork Pinnacle. When they left the Ninemile ranch for their 20 mile trip to the lookout with everything they needed tied to the pack saddle on a jenny, the ranch superintendent told them that they could entice the mule with a piece of candy if she balked along the way, and after a pound of candy she was following them just like a pet. He also instructed them that once the jenny was unloaded at the cabin they would simply have to head her back down the trail, give her a slap on the rump, and she would trot back on down to the ranch all by herself.

In these parts, weather conditions can change very quickly, even in early summer, and this time they did. By the time they arrived at the cabin, the weather had deteriorated into a regular old Montana blizzard with a very cold wind and blowing snow. Mike quickly unloaded the jenny, hustled everything inside the tiny glass house and built a cozy fire in the little stove. Stepping back outside, he pointed the jenny back down the trail and gave her a slap on her backside. She just stood there. When he went back inside to stoke up the fire, the snow-covered old mule walked up and just stared into the window with such a pitiful look that the greenhorns soon brought her into their already cramped quarters.

It was a tight fit that night in the 14 X 14 room, with Mike sleeping against one wall and Ellen against the other and a seventeen hundred pound mule curled up between. Next morning with a pat on the rump the mule, without further hesitation, went back home to Ninemile, all alone. (This story along with many other ones and some good locations and descriptions of the old lookouts is contained in the book Fire Lookouts of the Northwest by Ray Kresek).


  1. Those photos are stunning! That sheltered saddle looks like a great place for a dry camp. I love those open fir parklands.


    Comment by Aaron — February 15, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    • Yes, that would be a great place for a camp, and I am considering spending a few days there next fall during elk season.


      Comment by montucky — February 15, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

  2. Great Photos and story, Who ever said animals were dumb was never around them much.


    Comment by Jim — February 16, 2011 @ 6:02 am

    • That’s sure true Jim! I think they understand us much better than we understand them usually.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

  3. The Ninemile Valley photo is especially attractive to me. Tremendous vista! — as are all the landscape scenes. Monty Roberts of Horse Whisperer fame says that mules are “one tick” smarter than horses and he knows what he is talking about. Mike and Ellen sharing that L-4 with a mule! — I’ll never forget that.

    It’s always so elevating in mood to come to your blog and view your art.

    On sharing space with mule and horse, Brenda and I are thinking about setting up a small stock pen near the house so Star can come up and visit us closely while we are about the house. A friend of ours came home one afternoon and their horse had managed to push the terrace door aside and was standing in the great room, having disturbed or messed up nothing. Just standing there.

    I envy you in a good way the opportunity you have (and Bill) to go into the forests and high country. Thanks for bringing back pictures for the rest of us.


    Comment by Jack Matthews — February 16, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    • I would bet that Star would enjoy that pen near the house as much or more than you and Brenda would, Jack.

      Having such easy access to the wild country is indeed a precious privilege. Just about every time I hike one of these back country trails up to a mountain top, it occurs to me that if everyone in the world could do it at least one time in a year, the world would become a much different place.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  4. Love the photos, oh what a view. Love the mule history too, especially the mule sharing quarters with the newlyweds. I had no idea they were such huge animals – 1700 pounds! Wow!


    Comment by Bo Mackison — February 16, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    • I’ve seen some of the mules they have bred there. They are just awesome animals! A few years ago I volunteered to do some trail maintenance work with the Forest Service here and became friends with one of those mules. Perhaps I’ll post a story about that some time.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  5. Thanks so much for the beautiful vistas and delightful story. I’m a big fan of history and stories of times that were seemingly simpler.


    Comment by anniespickns — February 16, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    • I am too. This area is still much closer to those simpler times than the more “civilized” parts of the country and I hope that will never be lost. I try to pass on what I can.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  6. Awww, what a story, so funny! And breathtaking views to go w/ it! =)


    Comment by Tricia — February 16, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    • Reading that story was what stimulated me to visit there in the first place and it was wrth the effort.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  7. Hi Montucky, What great information and spectacular phtographs to go with it. My husband’s late grandfather was a National Forest Service Forest Ranger in the 1920’s – 1930’s in Idaho. He used to live in places such as that small cabin for weeks at a time. Have a wonderful day today!


    Comment by wildlifewatcher — February 16, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    • I bet your husband’s grandfather had a lot of stories to tell! I spent the summer of 1960 working for the Forest Service in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho along the Idaho/Montana border. The job began as a disease control effort for white pine trees and ended up as a firefighting job.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

  8. Thanks for breaking up my winter with a lovely Autumn hike in the Montana mountains, Terry!


    Comment by Scott Thomas Photography — February 16, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    • My natural tendency toward procrastination saved this story until now, Scott. As I put the post together I found it interesting just how fresh much of that trip still is in my memory. Just about every bend in the trail.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  9. Great shots and very interesting history! Thanks, Terry!


    Comment by Barbara — February 16, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    • Usually I can’t find much information about the places I visit. I was pleased to at least find a little about this one.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

  10. What I delightful story. Can you imagine a mule sleeping with you in a cramped cabin? LOL Beautiful, rustic scenes and oh so lovely area to hike.


    Comment by Anna — February 16, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    • Actually, the mule might have made it a bit warmer in there, although if she snored…


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

  11. I believe that I would have loved working at one of those lookouts. Thanks for posting the grand views that came with job.

    And we think we are smarter than animals!


    Comment by sandy — February 16, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    • It’s not too late, Sandy. There are still a few manned lookouts around. The folks who man them love it and do it for many years. It’s also easier now than in the early years, when the lookouts were required to fight the fires and work on trails too.


      Comment by montucky — February 16, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  12. I need to check out that book! You hit my anxiety weakness again with a few of these… they are beautiful though!!


    Comment by kcjewel — February 16, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    • The book makes me very humble when I read of those hundreds of lookout sites and the paltry 15 or so that I have visited.


      Comment by montucky — February 17, 2011 @ 12:22 am

  13. That’s such a sweet story. I love animal lovers, that was very nice of them to invite her in.


    Comment by Candace — February 16, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    • I love mules and so I would probably have done the same thing.


      Comment by montucky — February 17, 2011 @ 12:24 am

  14. Now, that’s one hike I would enjoy. Thanks for the great series of photographs.


    Comment by knightofswords — February 17, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    • I think you would enjoy it. The scenery isn’t as spectacular as some of the other places because of the burn at the bottom, but once above that it’s really nice because it’s open enough to be able to see for miles around. I will go back, but probably for two days, giving me time enough to go on up to three Lakes Peak.


      Comment by montucky — February 17, 2011 @ 10:58 am

  15. This is beautiful country, spectacular to say the least. And the story about the 1700 pound jenny, I laughed out loud, probably because I would have invited her in too.

    Thanks. This was precious.


    Comment by Bill — February 17, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    • I often think about that story and laugh too, when I picture her face looking in the window!


      Comment by montucky — February 17, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

  16. gorgeous views! a perfect picnic lunch I bet. and what fun stories!


    Comment by silken — February 17, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

    • My hiking lunches are a bit on the Spartan side, but they are usually eaten in some wonderful surroundings.


      Comment by montucky — February 17, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

  17. Awesome, awesome photos. But, when reading Your text, I felt like reading some book of my favorite Western writer Zane Grey.

    Thank You.


    Comment by sartenada — February 18, 2011 @ 3:45 am

    • Scenes like those keep me hiking again and again into the high country, Sartenada.

      Zane Grey is one of my favorites too. When I lived in Arizona I visited his cabin in Northern Arizona and used to fish and camp in that area very often.


      Comment by montucky — February 18, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  18. The photos are absolutely awesome. I would love to be there.


    Comment by timkeen40 — February 18, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    • Right now I would too. Because of snow and ice that place will be inaccessible until April. I’m anxious to bet my boots onto solid soil again. Thanks for the visit, Tim!


      Comment by montucky — February 18, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

  19. Loved the mule story. That was one smart mule. What a beautiful place!


    Comment by kateri — February 19, 2011 @ 7:09 am

  20. These are incredible photos, montucky! Thank you for the wonderful story about the mule curled up in the cabin for the night.


    Comment by farmhouse stories — February 20, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

    • I thought that was a cute story, and visiting the place where it took place was an interesting experience..


      Comment by montucky — February 20, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

  21. What a marvelous collection of images… when I visit your blog is when I really miss the mountains and long to be out there hiking in such beautiful country! Enjoyed the story too… the booklet came yesterday but I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to read any of it yet! Proper thanks will show up shortly… 🙂


    Comment by Victoria — February 24, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    • I know what it’s like to miss these mountains. When we lived in Arizona we would come back here to visit every summer. When we entered Montana it was such a joy, and when we left the state again I have to confess there were tears in my eyes.


      Comment by montucky — February 24, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  22. I love the photos and I wish I could hike up to the higher mountains to see the views you do.


    Comment by Evangeline Art Photography — March 6, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    • Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment, Evangeline! I wish you could hike there too, especially into the roadless areas that I love so much. I wish everyone could! There is always beauty there and there is no other feeling that I know that rivals seeing the true wild country as it has always been.


      Comment by montucky — March 6, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  23. Just discovered your blog today. Love the photo essays. As a volunteer at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, where they have an actual L-4 lookout that was moved there from Sliderock Mountain near Philipsburg, I am wondering whether your photo of the log cabin lookout is really an L-4 or some other design. There is an excellent photo display in the Miller Creek Guard Cabin (also at the HM@FM) about the history of fire lookout towers and their predecessors that folks interested in lookouts should make a point of seeing.
    I’ve bookmarked your blog, will be back!


    Comment by Kim — March 28, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    • Hi Kim! Thanks for the visit and comment! Next chance I get I will visit that display at the Miller Creek Guard Cabin: thanks for the info. I could be wrong, but as I understand it there were three generations of the L-4 and the one on Big Hole, being built in 1930, was the first generation (1929-1932 version). The roof design would be different than the one from Sliderock which would have been the 1933-1935 version. At least these are the cabin dates in Ray Kresek’s book Fire Lookouts of the Northwest. There is some pretty good information and photos also here.


      Comment by montucky — March 28, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

  24. great photos and story.thanks for sharing.


    Comment by Jeff Price — February 18, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Jeff. Thanks for stopping by!


      Comment by montucky — February 18, 2012 @ 8:55 pm

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