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Monday, May 20, 2019


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 purpose.
“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.
The 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
Outside, 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 incident.
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.
RATING: moderate
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.
Fire Management Coconino National Forest

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