To many hikers, the fire towers adorning the summits of some of New Hampshire’s most-visited mountains may seem like a relic of the past. While aircraft have largely replaced fire towers for spotting wildfires—although they’re still used in times of high fire danger—the towers themselves have become a popular destination for hikers because of the outstanding views they offer. Increasing the appeal of “bagging” fire towers is the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands’ Fire Tower Quest program, which awards a patch to those who visit at least five of the state’s 16 standing towers.

There are numerous factors that differentiate the Fire Tower Quest program from other New Hampshire hiking challenges along with a handful of great reasons to visit these historic places. Here are just a few:

Oak Hill Fire Tower. | Credit: Tim Peck

1. Easily Attainable

Earning a patch only requires you to visit five fire towers, which makes this incredibly accessible, especially compared to larger, more time-consuming lists like the New Hampshire 4,000 footers, the 52 With a View, and the New England Hundred Highest.

2. Diverse Difficulty

Most towers are reached via short or moderate hikes maxing out at around five miles, while some towers are even accessible by car. The towers sit at elevations ranging from 605 feet to 3,360 feet and none of them require navigating tricky terrain, like what is found on the Terrifying 25.

3. Spread Out

New Hampshire’s 16 standing towers are spread out across the state and every county has at least one. This means that every New Hampshire resident can get at least 20% of the way to earning their patch without venturing too far from home. Meanwhile, out-of-staters don’t have to drive all the way to the White Mountain National Forest to hike many of these towers.

4. Super Scenic

Fire towers were strategically placed to deliver outstanding views of the surrounding area, something any scenery-focused hiker is sure to appreciate.

5. Experience History

More than a mere destination, the fire towers are landmarks of the past—many have stood for more than a century—and are thus a great way to experience the history of the state’s forests firsthand. They also stand as a testament to early efforts of conservation and stewardship.

Mount Kearsarge. | Credit: Tim Peck

A Brief History of New Hampshire’s Fire Towers

A series of dry summers and an abundance of residue from heavy logging along with threats like sparks from locomotives, matches from smokers, and lightning combined to cause multiple fires in New Hampshire in the early 1900s. In 1903, 84,000 acres of standing timber were destroyed in the White Mountains alone. Between 1900 and 1905, fire consumed about 35,000 acres in the southern part of the state.

The loss of a considerable amount of valuable timber in these fires—along with the concerns of burgeoning recreationists—planted the seeds of New Hampshire’s first fire towers, which began to show up around 1910. The organizing of the fire towers was a joint effort between the NH Forestry Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, and the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association (NHTOA; a group of the region’s major timber owners).

By 1912, 18 fire towers were operational (12 owned by the state and 6 by NHTOA). The number jumped to 26 in 1913, and by 1917 there were 29 towers operating in New Hampshire. The towers stood largely unchanged for two decades until the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 blew down thousands of acres of forest and a number of towers. After the storm—and thanks in part to an influx of manpower and materials from the Civilian Conservation Corps—a number of towers were repaired, upgraded, and added.

The fire towers began to shut down during World War II due to a lack of manpower, although a number of them were kept open thanks to the efforts of women known as the Women Observers on the Forest (WOOFs) who kept watch for both forest fires and enemy aircraft.

After the war, the fire towers fell into further disuse due to a combination of the decline in wildfires and the ease of using airplanes for spotting fires. By 1970, the Forest Service had destroyed and removed all 17 of their towers; by 1980, only 22 towers were operational in New Hampshire. In 1992, the number of active towers had dwindled to 16, which is where the number remains today.

The view from Belknap. | Credit: Tim Peck

Fire Tower Quest List

Tower  Elevation 
Belknap Mountain 2,384′
Blue Job 1,356′
Cardigan Mountain 3,121′
Croydon Mountain 2,781′
Federal Hill 690′
Green Mountain 1,907′
Kearsarge Mountain 2,937′
Magalloway Mountain 3,360′
Milan Hill 1,737′
Pack Monadnock 2,280′
Oak Hill 920′
Pawtuckaway 908′
Pitcher Mountain 2,153′
Prospect Mountain 2,059′
Red Hill 2,029′
Warner Hill 605′
Pack Monadnock. | Credit: Tim Peck

Five Can’t-Miss Fire Towers

Looking to earn your Fire Tower Quest patch? Here are five great towers to get you started.

  1. Oak Hill: A roughly two-mile hike—on the aptly named Tower Trail—gaining more than 600 feet of elevation delivers you to this tower just outside of Concord. Ascend the stairs for a view that extends all the way to the Whites.
  2. Pack Monadnock: A short (1.5 miles) yet steep (gaining almost 1,000 feet) hike brings you to the tower on top of Pack Monadnock. So does a roughly mile-long paved road that’s open to those more inclined to drive. No matter how you reach this tower, make sure to take in the view that, on clear days, extends from Mount Washington in the north to Boston in the south.
  3. Mount Kearsarge: Kearsarge also offers options for hikers and drivers. Hikers will enjoy a roughly three-mile round trip to the tower and back from Winslow State Park, while the auto road running from Rollins State Park brings hikers within a half-mile of the stunning summit views of White Mountains, Mount Monadnock, and Ragged Mountain.
  4. Cardigan Mountain: The feel of the bare rocky summit of Mount Cardigan, and the fire tower that’s found there, feels a lot like one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers. There are numerous routes to the tower on Mount Cardigan, the most popular of which is the roughly mile-and-a-half long West Side Trail. From the tower, take in superb views of Mount Monadnock, the White Mountains, and Camel’s Hump in Vermont.
  5. Belknap Mountain: A roughly mile-long trip on the Green Trail or Red Trail brings you to the summit of Belknap Mountain, the highest peak in the Belknap Range. On top, you’ll find the fire tower that was originally built in 1913, and an amazing view of the Lakes Region.

Even More Fire Towers

Looking for a more of a challenge or to bag even more fire towers? Check out the list of New Hampshire Fire Towers Past and Present, a list of over 100 former fire towers in the Granite State.

Mount Cardigan. | Credit: Tim Peck