Before I get into the details of the Squaw Mountain Lookout, there are two important details I need to cover.
One, I do not like the cold. I’m from Florida and below 70 is chilly to me. Two, I work in an office 5 days a week most weeks of the year. My days then are spent fairly comfortably, plunked down in a chair in a climate controlled environment.
Camping out at the Squaw Lookout one night in January was not one such environment. But being stuck inside all winter makes you do things without thinking. So when the group text came about spending the night inside an old fire hut at the top of Squaw Mountain, my response went bouncing back across the Denver cell towers with an emphatic yes.
A few days later I had packed all of the jackets I owned into a duffel bag and my friends piled into my Mazda6, lovingly named the Adventure Taxi. The next stop for this party sedan was a small pullout near the top of Squaw Mountain. Leaving town I hoped my sleeping bag rated for 15 degrees would be enough to keep these Florida bones from freezing over.
History of the Lookout
Situated at 11,486 feet above Evergreen, Colorado the Squaw Mountain Lookout was originally built in the 1940’s to monitor the surrounding terrain for wildfires. It has since been retired from those duties and is now available for renting overnight.
At only 14 by 14 feet it isn’t necessarily a large structure, but the upper room is completely lined with windows, providing 360 degree views of the surrounding area. You’ll be able to see Denver, Pikes Peak, Longs Peak, and many other mountains around you. The upper room also has two beds so you’ll be able to fall asleep to the stars and wake up to the sun cresting the tops of the peaks.
Below the lookout area is a small kitchen and dining area with additional bunk beds. For bathroom duties there is a small outhouse just down the hill from the lookout, but depending on the season you might find the route to get there covered in snow.
The Mazda6 is a FWD, mid-size sedan that most owners use for clogging roads during rush hour or shuttling kids to school. Me, I prefer to take this thing off-road where I can garner odd looks from over-built 4Runners. Still, there was some hesitation about taking an all-season shod family hauler up a winter pass with questionable conditions.
The route took us west on I-70 and through Idaho Springs. From there, it was a left onto State Highway 103. This road is what you take if you want to bag Mt. Evans. Though instead of turning at Echo Lake and taking the final ascent up to the summit, keep on 103 and it turns into Squaw Pass Road.
The further up this road you get, the less people you see. In fact, it had been quite some time since the last Subaru Outback had passed us, where the direction they were headed was back down into Idaho Springs. So it was much to our surprise that we spotted a truck stuffed into a snow bank. There were two protagonists in this situation; One guy was waist deep in snow pushing on the hood and the other had been keeping his foot on the gas, spinning the tires in reverse.
We pulled over to offer help. Upon stepping onto the road, both myself and Rick almost went tailbone first into the pavement. What we hadn’t realized is that we were driving on a skating rink.
These were not ideal conditions for us and it seems it wasn’t for the men in the truck. As it turns out, they had broken their driveshaft, so what was once a 4WD vehicle was now only capable of pulling itself along by its front wheels. Much like the trusty Adventure Taxi.
While it turns out we couldn’t help them get their truck out of the snow bank, the grins on their faces let us know they would be fine to leave behind. Pulling back on the road, I started in 2nd gear and short-shifted to keep the tires from losing any semblance of traction they may have had.
Only a short 15 minutes later, and seeing no other vehicles or distressed drivers, we had reached our destination. A small pullout on the side of the pass was where we would leave the car for the night and, unbeknownst to us, we would also be leaving behind any consistent warmth.
As we unloaded our gear, we all picked up on the faint sounds of music playing through the trees. Just down the mountain from where we were is Echo Mountain, a ski facility. This particular evening they happened to be playing Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me over their loudspeakers, sending his baritone voice echoing down the valley.
With Frank’s blessing and a backpack full of Michelob Ultra, spirits were soaring.
Hiking to the Lookout
To get to the Squaw Mountain Lookout a little bit of effort is required. In the summer you can pull off Squaw Pass and drive two miles up to a parking lot. From there, it’s another two-mile hike up a few switchbacks to get to the lookout. In the winter, you hike all four miles.
Out of the four in our group, three of us were planning on hiking and brought snowshoes to handle any soft snow or ice we encountered. Rick, on the other hand, brought his backcountry ski setup and went whisking off up the hill ahead of us. His plan was to skin to the top, ski back down to us, then skin back up again. While we trudged up the hill to our home for the evening he accomplished his ski mission.
The one downside to hiking up the four miles is that we weren’t exactly moving quickly. This isn’t because it was our first rodeo, but rather snowshoes are clumsy to wear and we were all making this trip with backpacks and duffel bags strapped to ourselves. It was only one night, but I didn’t want to risk forgetting some infrequently used piece of cold weather gear.
This meant we started to lose daylight as we continued to ascend up the mountain. Eventually we did have to strap our headlamps to our beanie laden heads and walked three wide across the trail to keep the area in front of us well-lit.
About an hour after we left Frank Sinatra and the climate controlled car we came around a corner to see the lookout. Silhouetted against the inky night sky we had finally found our oasis.
Spirits lifted and the chatty banter that had been silent for the last 30 minutes finally returned.
We had made it.
Getting into a 70 Year Old Shelter
This elation was short-lived.
Once the four of us had clambered our way up the slippery steps to the front door of the lookout, we struggled to get into the key holder. It used a code that was emailed a few hours earlier, but just as your hands are hard to move when it gets cold, this little lock box was also not complying with our efforts.
Luckily there was a patient individual in the group who seemed to cope well with the cold (not me) and calmer heads prevailed.
Finally we had gotten in. After driving out to Idaho Springs, heading up an icy pass, hiking four miles mostly in the fading light, and struggling with a frozen lock box, we were inside our sweet, precious shelter for the night.
The lower quarters housed the kitchen so we emptied our backpacks and began planning the nights meal. While the group was coming up with extravagant camp recipes with the food we had brought, I popped upstairs to the sleeping quarters and lookout area to turn on the heaters. There are four total and they are your typical home-level space heater. Each heater was plugged into its own outlet and turned on to full blast. I wanted to get the inside of that lookout as warm as the beach on a Florida afternoon.
I then rejoined the team downstairs and began helping with setting the table.
Not 3 minutes after being in the dining bunker the lights went out. We were steeped in darkness and the ensuing silence was broken by a collective ‘oh, what the fuck’.
There was no drawing of straws or playing of rock-paper-scissors to decide who would try to fix this. I had plugged in the heaters and cranked them up full tilt, so it was on me. The circuit breaker had tripped so it should be an easy fix. Flip the switch, head back upstairs, and calm down on the number of heaters plugged in.
In your home finding a circuit breaker is a straightforward process. You go to where it has always been, open the door, and reset the circuit. In an old lookout at the top of a mountain in the middle of the night? Well, step one would be the hardest part.
At this point I had removed and put back on my Sorels no less than 6 times. In and out in and out. Into the warmth, out into the cold. The headlamp went back on my head and I wandered around the lookout hoping to spot a circuit breaker box or panel.
After fixing the electrical issues and getting the heaters humming without trouble upstairs, we finally were able to sit down and enjoy a delicious pasta dinner.
Winding Down for the Night
With only the upstairs being heated out of fear of tripping the circuits again, we all piled in the upstairs area and set up our sleeping quarters for the night. Amidst the unrolling of sleeping bags and cracking of Mich Ultras, a bluetooth speaker made its way to the middle of the room and dance jams began reverberating through the wooden structure we were confined to.
Rick had picked up a stomach issue and was hammering TUMS while curled up on the bed. Laura was exhausted and quickly tucked herself in for the night. This left Amanda and I to hold down the dance party. Shakira will probably never have a concert on the top of a mountain, but that night her voice serenaded us and turned our little home into the most exclusive club in the world.
When it was finally time to call it a night and turn off Justin Bieber, who now had come on as the second act, we found that the beds inside the lookout must have also been from the 1940s. They sagged and the padding was equivalent to a stack of two newspapers. The only semblance of comfort I had was my well insulated sleeping bag.
But while I didn’t sleep well, the view outside the window was stunning. It was pitch black, mind you, but the light from the moon was washing over the mountains around us, casting a beautiful glow on the peaks. And the stars! The stars were like little LED lights glowing and twinkling in the dark sea of the sky.
It’s moments like this, filled with trivial trials and the subsequent beauty of getting through it, where you can really appreciate being alive. Away from the computer screens and incessant noise, deep in the woods, and surrounded by your closest friends, there is a sense of clarity on what matters most in life. A few laughs and a warm bed were all I needed. These are the moments and experiences I want to keep chasing. Not for the sake of collecting them and checking off a list of ‘life to-dos’, but for the simple reminder that time is never on our side.
Waking up at the Squaw Lookout
When the sun began to return to the sky from its trip around the globe, we were rewarded with uninhibited views of the landscape around us.
To the east, Denver. To the west, Mt. Evans. North, Longs Peak. All splayed out in front of us in a way no IMAX theatre could ever convey.
The morning was spent running outside to the balcony, taking in the sweeping views, then promptly sprinting back inside to the warmth. I tried to take some pictures, but they will never do it justice. This is a place you need to go for yourself. Views like this are the reason most of Colorado is obsessed with 14’ers. Honestly, it sucks hiking up the side of a massive rock and wheezing most of the way. At the top your breath is taken away for a different reason, though.
Those mountains, and the experience of seeing them in all their grandeur is why I left toasty Florida.
Getting Back Down the Mountain
After cramming our sleeping bags and empty cans back into the duffel bags, the snowshoes were strapped back onto our feet and we began the four mile hike back to the car. Rick skied, we trudged.
Eventually we made it. The car hesitated to fire up with the temperatures hovering in the single digits, but it relented. The gear was piled back into the trunk and we headed back towards town. Before returning home there was one more stop, though. El Dorado in Golden. If you’re a fan of breakfast burritos, do yourself a favor and pop in for one. Or two. Ok, three.
Book Your Stay at Squaw
So let me tell you this. If I had a choice between sitting in a climate controlled office with the world at my fingertips through the internet, or freezing my ass off in the middle of winter in a hut with my closest friends and no cell service, I would choose the cold. Any day of the week.
Go reserve a weekend at the Squaw Lookout and experience it for yourself. If you happen to choose a night that falls between the months of November and March, don’t plug in four heaters at once.