Enjoy The Hike Or Stay The Night: Mountaintop Fire Towers

Find a mix of adventure and solitude atop West Virginia’s old fire towers.

The Olson Observation Tower, the first fire tower in the state was built around 1916 in order to— you guessed it—spot wildfires raging in the distance, so officials could contain them as early as possible. But, since the days of watchtowers operating with carrier pigeons have passed, many of these old beauties are near-forgotten.

But don’t worry! There are still a few gems throughout the Mountain State, and some have even been renovated into camping enclaves.

So take a climb to the top of one of these towers and feast your eyes on some seriously indescribable views of the West Virginia wilderness and the night sky:

1. Olson Observation Tower

The Olson Observation Tower is the oldest of all these towers and the first steel tower in the state, originally built in 1922 and used until 1963. While the tower proper is locked, head up the staircase to get a look from the top— which is more than worth the 133-step climb at an elevation of 3,736 feet. You’ll be rewarded with a stunning 360-degree view of the sprawling beauty of Monongahela National Forest. See if you can spot the Cheat River or the Otter Creek Wilderness, which is especially beautiful in the fall.

You’ll find Olson Tower at the end of Forest Road 717, which you can access from US Route 219. Any old passenger car will do—nothing special is required for this trek. You can also access Olson Tower through a few different trails, but we recommend adding a couple of miles to your trip by taking the Canyon Rim Trail. This observation tower is open from mid-April to December.

Thorny Mountain Fire Tower, WV

2. Thorny Mountain Fire Tower

Originally constructed in 1935, this tower rises 53 feet (Some may say 65 feet) above the Seneca State Forest and has all of the original features (though some have been restored). Some of the trees in the area were posing a risk to the tower, so they have been cleared out— which means you get open, 360-degree views here, too. Before you get to see the spectacular view, you have to make the trek up 69 rugged steps to reach the tower.

What makes Thorny Mountain Fire Tower so special is that you can actually rent out the cab, which is now a living space. Get a full-blown, star-filled grown-up treehouse experience. You can stay in the tower from May to October, and the cost includes firewood. Don’t forget your flashlight—the tower only has natural light. We suggest booking a reservation up to a year in advance since it is such a popular accommodation. To make a reservation, call 304-799-6213 or 1-800-CALL-WVA.

3. Bickle Knob Observation Tower

The area of the Monongahela National Forest surrounding the Bickle Knob Observation Tower which was built in 1933 has a thriving ecosystem, filled with spruce and hardwood trees that are home to wildlife like black bears, white-tailed deer and bobcats. At an elevation of 4,003 feet, this Randolph County platform’s original cab has since been replaced with a wooden viewing platform for the best views of the landscape. Get to the tower from Forest Road 91, then take a short footpath.

Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in repurposed fire tower

4. Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory

Hanging Rock Tower was built in 1956 and functioned as a fire tower until 1972. This Southern West Virginian spot is the place to go if you’re itching to see some regal birds of prey soaring through the sky. Visit in the fall, when hawks, eagles, falcons and osprey all have migration routes past the observation tower in the fall. Also, the wonderful view will take your breath away by the view at an elevation of 3,800 feet. Talk to on-site raptor experts to learn all that there is to know about hawks and more, or even help them with their annual counts. The best part? It’s free!

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This post was last updated on March 18, 2022