Chasing Snow-Capped Views: Two of West Virginia’s Fire Towers in Winter

Kicking off 2024 with a winter off-roading adventure in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains presented an unparalleled experience in capturing two of the state’s fire towers.

Kicking off 2024 with a winter off-roading adventure in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains presented an unparalleled experience in capturing two of the state’s fire towers.

Editor Note: This post is associated with “A Winter Expedition Off Roading in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains,” featured on our partner site, American Byways.

The weekend’s weather forecast predicted a severe winter storm, expecting up to 12 inches of snow and temperatures fluctuating from mid-teens at night to mid-30s during the day. These conditions were perfect for camping enthusiasts who prefer the absence of mosquitoes, ticks, and extreme heat.

I arrived at Backbone Mountain in Tucker County late at night, seeking a remote camping spot to photograph the sunrise from the Backbone/Olson Tower site. The Backbone Tower, erected in 1922 on Backbone Mountain, holds the distinction of being the first fire tower in the state. It was eventually handed over to the U.S. Forest Service and remained in use until 1963 when it was replaced by Olson Tower, named in honor of Ernst B. Olson for his 28 years of service in fire control and conservation with the Monongahela National Forest.

The journey to the site was manageable despite the snow-covered gravel road. Nestled among pine trees, I prepared my car for a night of camping, setting up insulating window shades, a Hest memory foam mattress, a 20-degree sleeping bag, and a blanket, ensuring a comfortable slumber.

Waking up hours later, I was greeted by one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever captured. I quickly launched my drone into the chilly morning air, capturing the sky’s purple and pink hues during the civil twilight.

As the sun rose at 6:59 AM, I maneuvered the camera to catch the sun’s rays filtering through the fire tower’s windows.

The landscape, blanketed in fresh snow, was enchanting and serene – a magical scene I had all to myself.

Later on, I photographed the Pinnacle Knob Lookout Tower located in the Allegheny Wildlife Management Area. This tower is perched on Pinnacle Knob, a section of the Allegheny Front, in Mineral County. Nearby, the remains of a second fire tower now serve as a picturesque overlook, close to three communication towers.

The journey to the top presented its own set of challenges. While there was less snow, the route was strewn with icy boulders and slippery road surfaces, making the ascent to the summit quite demanding.

The developnment of fire towers in West Virginia were the result of massive fires following the cutting of the original virgin forest. The first towers were erected by the state in 1916 and featured two floors: the first floor was the living quarters of the observer while the second floor served as an observation room.

Fire tower lookouts used telephone lines to communicate with district offices. As technology advanced, portable short-wave radios became more common which not only decreased the dependency on telephone lines but also enhanced communication between the towers, wildfire response crews, spotter aircraft, and tankers.

In the early 1970s, the state started to reduce staff at its fire towers, shifting to aerial reconnaissance. During the wildfire season, teams of pilots and spotters flew specific routes over the forest, relaying wildfire locations to crews on the ground. The last fire tower operated by the state’s Division of Forestry closed in 1990.

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