The Mount Cartier fire lookout is perched on a ledge on the south ridge of the mountain

On lookout: The history of — and how to get to — Revelstoke’s fire lookouts

There are five historic fire lookouts near Revelstoke, all accessible on foot, a few on by bike, one by ATV, and another in your car.

There are two ways to the top of Mount Cartier. The easy way is with a helicopter. The hard way is up the 15-kilometre trail that snakes its way to the summit of the 2,610-metre high mountain — more than 2,100 metres above the valley below.

That’s how I found myself getting to the top of Cartier early last July, hauling my mountain bike with me — the steep, relentless trail too much for me to pedal along the whole way.

The trail up Mt. Cartier was built in the early-1920s to access a forestry lookout near the summit. From here, forest rangers would watch for lightning strikes and call in forest fires.

Dozens, if not hundreds of lookouts were built throughout the province. Around Revelstoke, four are still standing and the foundation of a fifth remains; all are accessible by the trails built nearly a century ago.

According to Kevin Lavelle, a local forestry official who has done a great deal of research on the history of lookouts, the Cartier lookout was built in 1922, though the trail, along with a telephone cable, was probably put in a year before.

“Unfortunately, the Mt. Cartier forestry lookout was not utilized for long, as it soon became apparent that due to weather conditions, forest fires were able to get well established long before being detected from such a lofty vantage point,” wrote Lavelle in a 2011 article in the Revelstoke Times Review. “The value of such lookouts diminished as a result and technology would soon give way to more mobile and electronic detection systems that are in use today.”

It is believed the Cartier lookout wasn’t used after 1930, with a permanent lookout established on Mount Sproat to the south in 1956. The lookout remains, having withstood 90 years of winter and summer storms, with only the roof being replaced.

***

The call to bike up Cartier came the previous evening. I was just looking to go for a bike ride, but when word came of the plan to go up Cartier, I said yes. I knew I may be in over my head, but also knew that I’d regret missing an opportunity to bike from the top of one of Revelstoke’s signature summits.

And so 10 of us met up at the Modern that morning, drove out to the trailhead and started pedalling. We climbed from the start, then lost precious elevation with the short descent to McKay Creek. After crossing the creek, we were on Cartier proper, the trail an endless series of switchbacks through the interior rainforest, with no views but trees. As the first group up the trail that summer, we cleared the blowdown as we climbed — about 50 trees in total.

After a few hours we arrived at an old, run-down cabin at  about the nine kilometre mark. We sat for lunch at a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the river below and the Gold Range of the Monashee Mountains across the valley. Only six kilometres to go.

Soon, we started to see signs of elevation gain. The forest opened up and we finally entered the massive Greenslide avalanche path that defines Mt. Cartier. The trail zig-zagged through alders and past sub-alpine pine trees. We reached the plateau on the north ridge — a friend and I lagging behind the rest of the fitter group.

Then it was into the Greenslide, the last few kilometres of the trail a series of narrow switchbacks barely a foot wide, hacked into the side of the mountain by the pioneers who built the trail to access the forestry lookout more than 90 years before us. The last remaining snow patches made for precarious crossings, with the slope falling away at a 45 degree angle all the way to the valley 2,000 metres below.

The bike would be pushed, then carried on the shoulders, and maybe ridden for a bit — whichever worked best — until it finally came time to leave it behind for the short scramble to the summit. An old cable provided support through the loose rock.

Just before reaching the summit of Cartier, we passed by the old lookout, still standing after all these years. We summited first and enjoyed the views and a beer. Then we checked out the lookout; before returning to our bikes and the endless descent ahead.

I’d like to say it was worth the climb, but that would be lying. While my friends flew ahead, I skittered nervously through the avalanche path, and then had an uneven ride through the sub-alpine slopes before. By the time we reached the forest, I was spent. Small technical sections threw me around and I cursed at my bike every time I came off. Finally we reached McKay Creek, climbing back up to the lookout, and then enjoying the final fast and flowy descent to Airport Way, where our trucks and beers awaited.

Cartier — check!

Other nearby lookouts

The Mount Cartier lookout is the hardest to access in the Revelstoke area. Fortunately, if you’re interested in experiencing this bit of B.C. forest history, there are four others you can reach nearby. Check out the slideshow above for pictures from each lookout.

Mt. Revelstoke

Sitting near the summit of Mt. Revelstoke, this well-maintained fire lookout is the easiest to access. It’s just a matter of driving up the Meadows in the Sky Parkway, taking the free shuttle bus the final kilometre to the summit and hiking about 100 metres up the paved trail to the lookout. There are viewpoints enabling you to look out in all directions.

Eagle Pass Mountain

Eagle Pass makes for a beautiful hike, with relatively quick access into a vast alpine bowl before the steeper, more challenging hike to the summit. To reach the trail, drive west of Revelstoke along the Trans-Canada Highway until you reach the Crazy Creek Forest Service Road, which is on the right. Follow the road for 8.5 kilometres until you reach a Y, then follow the sign to Eagle Pass Mountain. The trail starts at an elevation of 1,500 metres and quickly ascends through the forest into an alpine bowl dominated by several massive rock faces. From there, it switchbacks through big rock slabs and up a ridge to the summit, where the foundation of an old fire lookout is all that remains — the rest having fallen apart decades ago. It’s 3.5 kilometres, and 800 metres of elevation gain to the summit. From here you get 360 degree views of the Monashee Mountains, the Shuswap and beyond.

Sproat Mountain

Sproat is the farthest mountain south before you reach the Beaton Arm. The lookout here is very well maintained by the Revelstoke ATV Club, and there’s a working stove inside. It’s accessed by an ATV trail and is a popular destination for motorized adventurers. There’s also a shorter and steeper trail to the summit for those looking for access by foot. To access the lookout, head south of out of Revelstoke down Airport Way. From the end of the pavement, keep going down the Alkokolex FSR, turning right onto the Crawford FSR at about the 12-kilometre mark. Keep going until along the Crawford until you run out of road and see the trail. The trail itself crosses several big avalanche paths before it gains the ridge to the summit. The trail is lined with wildflowers and the views up and down the Arrow Lakes are stunning.

Joss Mountain

There are two trails up Joss Mountain — one from the east and the other from the west. Directions to both trails can be found at www.revelstoketrails.com. The 8.5-kilometre eastern trail is used by both hikers and mountain bikers. From the trailhead, it scoots through the forest before entering a steep-sided valley. The trail makes its way up the west side of the valley until it reaches a summit plateau dotted with alpine lakes and covered in wildflowers. It’s truly one of the most spectacular areas around Revelstoke. The trail wanders through the plateau and amidst boulder fields until it reaches the summit, where a recently restored lookout awaits. We recommend using your bike to get up this way, because while the climb is hard, the descent is one for the ages. The alternate way to get here, especially if you’re on foot is from the western trailhead. This trail is shorter (4.5 kilometres) and steeper and brings you to the same spot.

 

 

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