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Offering views typically reserved for eagles, the newest addition to the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s rental program sits anchored to a rocky ridge northwest of Helena.

Granite Butte Lookout was first built in 1932 to watch over Stemple Pass and south along the Continental Divide. The Forest Service rebuilt the tower in 1962, but after a half century of relentless Montana weather, the structure fell into disrepair.

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'The lookout is part of the history of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail,' John Gatchell, Montana Wilderness Association federal lands policy director, said. 'Part of that is recognizing it is not only the high quality recreation along its spine, but also recognizing that this is the only lookout on the CDT and it’s important to maintain that history as well.'

Five years ago the Montana Wilderness Association approached the Forest Service about refurbishing the lookout. After years of volunteer projects and finding funding, on Aug. 26, Granite Butte Lookout became available for public rental.

Volunteers and the Forest Service rendezvoused at the lookout last week to celebrate the renovation and addition to the rental roster.

John Gatchell, MWA federal lands policy director, agreed that an organization devoted to wilderness restoring a structure with a road to its doorstep is a curious relationship. He explained that MWA became the nonprofit stewards of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, conducting nearly 50 trail projects in recent years. Part of recognizing the Divide corridor is looking beyond the seclusion it offers.

“The lookout is part of the history of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail,” he said. “Part of that is recognizing it is not only the high-quality recreation along its spine, but also recognizing that this is the only lookout on the CDT and it’s important to maintain that history as well.”

The lookout was “pretty much a junk heap” when volunteers began the project, Gatchell said.

“A lot had to be torn down -- it really was a liability,” he said. “The volunteers put in a lot of work to be able to put the pieces together and for the public to be able to enjoy this on the Continental Divide.”

Funding for the project came from the Missouri River RAC committee, private donors, the Firefighter Lookout Association, the Recreation Trails Program and the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest.

At more than 6,800 feet, the lookout juts from a grassy ridge as an unmistakable icon of the forest. Fresh lumber brings modern construction while preserving the historic character. Heavy steel cables embed deep into rock and serve as a reminder of the harsh winds that can hammer the high country.

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The tower is extensively grounded due to the frequency of lightning on the mountaintop.

Inside, a wood stove offers some winter comfort, a bed provides ample accommodations and a table and shelves dot the rest of the floor plan. But it is the 360 degree views that will leave visitors with an unforgettable image.

“It boils down to access for the public and always being able to get on their land,” said Lincoln District Ranger Michael Stansberry. “It’s a great place for skiing and hiking, and this just enhances that for everyone.”

The partnership played a key role in seeing the lookout refurbished, he said. While the Forest Service did put money toward the project, it had limited capacity to spearhead any construction.

“It took a lot of effort from the volunteers, but I think it was effort that was well worth it,” Stansberry said. “It’s good for the local economy, for a historic nature it’s important and the public gets a new place to come and stay.”

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The southeast view, toward Helena, from the Granite Butte Lookout deck.

For more information and to rent Granite Butte Lookout or other cabins, visit www.recreation.gov.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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