You should know about the forest service cabins in Montana. Retired patrol cabins, ranger stations, fire lookouts, and private residences which have gone into public hands, they’re one of the great secrets of public lands recreation in North America.
Why am I writing about these cabins now? Because the Forest Services takes reservations a half year in advance, and summer is six months away.
Most cabins can be driven to, as can the vast majority of lookouts, making them ideal for rest or preparation at the start or end of a backcountry trip, destination for visiting friends or relatives, and most especially for a relaxed weekend away. Or has been our case recently, pseudo-camping trips with an infant. M and I have gone on a number of cabin trips intending to hike vigorously and see much of the surrounding area, but that never seems to work out.
These days I make a point to pack at least one good, thick book and plenty of luxury food, while M prefers to pack a jigsaw puzzle. Little Bear, who has been to four cabins, has yet to express preferences beyond a few toys/objects for drool. My favorite cabins and lookouts are therefore ones in cool locations and with pleasant facilities, that provide the correct mix of luxury and immersion in the wild.
Aside from reservations in advance, cabin trips require a modest amount of preparation and planning. A handful have electricity, and running or at least pump water on site, but as a rule you can expect a pit toilet, and plan on bringing all your own water. If you’re making, and more importantly doing dishes for, fancy meals I’d suggest a minimum of 2 gallons per person, per day. If you need some extra containers, plastic kerosene jugs are watertight, fairly cheap, and the appropriate blue color.
Other things to bring on almost any cabin or lookout trip include slippers (especially in winter), plenty of coffee and tea, fresh batteries in your headlamp, a battery or propane powered lantern, and a good skillet. Most cabins are well stocked with dishes and cutlery, and many have a nice selection of cast iron, but sometimes the skillets are a bit rough. A saw and hatchet or axe in the vehicle are a good idea. The later to cut out any deadfall which might try to block the road, the former as a backup. Only once has the axe at a cabin been missing, but when you were planning on cooking on the woodstove, and can’t split wood, life gets complicated. On that note, be sure to bring some newspaper for tinder, cabins are often short of this crucial commodity.
All the cabins and lookouts discussed below can be driven to with a passenger car and a reasonably skilled pilot, under summer conditions. The other three seasons can be a whole different affair. If in doubt call the local ranger district, and be conservative. During our solstice visit to Ben Rover the normally well-plowed North Fork road was subject to a holiday lapse, and a half foot of new snow on our last night made the spur from the cabin back to the main road dicey for our little hatchback. Only 8 psi dropped from the drive tires and decent skill on my part had us not getting stuck (though my parents in the 4×4 behind us would have shoved us out).
If you’re visiting the west side of Glacier National Park, the Ben Rover cabin is highly recommended. A little less than a mile from the Polebridge entrance station, a similar distance from the Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon, and around 100 meters from the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Ben is a great base for hiking, backpacking, boating, fishing, skiing, hunting, or just hanging out. It has not very good mattresses for eight, a propane stove, oven, and lights, and a nicer kitchen and interior than many houses. A 50 dollars a night it is in my book a total bargain. The only reason we’ve only stayed there on two occasions is not that it’s only an hour from our house, it is that the Ben fills up early, year round.
Challenge Cabin is another local favorite. A winter-only rental, the location may not be prodigiously stunning, but it’s a nice cozy cabin with a moderate ski in that makes for an ideal beginner outing. The parking area is regularly plowed and right off the highway, and the 7 miles in is all on a road which gets regular snowmachine traffic, and is even occasionally groomed. The stovepipe was recently replaced, and now getting the cabin sauna-hot is very possible. A small creek nearby means that in all but the coldest weather it is not necessary to melt snow.
Casey knows a lot more than I do about lookouts in Montana, but my favorite out the few I’ve stayed in is Garver, without question. By definition lookouts have good views, but the position of Garver Mountain makes these views better than most. As a bonus, Garver still has its wood stove. Just don’t try to build your fire in the oven compartment.
If you’re at the Basin Station cabin early enough in the spring you might well see bison in the field out back, before the NPS and state wildlife comes along to haze then back into Yellowstone (the above photo is from the park, I forgot to get one of the cabin). What Basin Station is, year round, is a charming and affordable (less than 10 dollars more a night than many campgrounds) place to stay a 10 minute drive from the park entrance. It has bunks, a quality wood stove, and windows on three walls. It does not get much better.
Cabins and lookouts are a great resource. They aren’t camping, but as family and Little Bear have shown us in the last year, some times camping is more than you want. Cabins are a great gateway, and hopefully serve to get folks out in the wood who wouldn’t otherwise venture beyond hotels. This being the case I hope the Forest Service continues and expands the cabin rental program, especially by adding more facilities beyond summer trailheads. It would also be nice to the see the Park Service get involved. Until that happens, get planning, and get your reservations in soon.