Mt. Morrell Lookout | Seeley Lake, Montana
Fire lookouts have been used in the west since the early 1900s. Mt. Morrell and Holland Ridge lookouts were built in 1921. This lookout is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register.
The 2860 foot elevation gain from the valley bottom at Cottonwood Lakes puts you 7706 feet above sea level. The journey provides an opportunity to experience a variety of habitats. The road at lower elevations passes through a logged area showing various stages of tree regeneration.
At almost 8000 feet elevation, there will be snow on the peak most years in July. Wildflowers bloom nearly all summer. One should not be surprised to see bears, montain goats, deer, elk, coyotes, mountain lions, chipmunks, gopers, ground squirrels, rabbits, and several species of birds. The three main lakes visible are Seeley Lake (W) Placid Lake (SW) and Browns Lake (SE). Six other lookouts can be spotted. Three active: Stark, Union Peak, and Saddle Mountain. Three inactive: East Spread, Double Arrow and Jocko.
Driving Directions from Nearest Town or Landmark
To reach this lookout from Seeley Lake Post Office, drive north about 1/2 mile on SR 83 to Morrell Creek Road, turn right following Cottonwood Lakes signage. Its about 7.7 miles on a good gravel road to the Morrell L.O. road which angles up the hill at the largest lake in the small chain. Its another 8.2 miles on this narrow, single-lane mountain road with minimal turnouts. Driving ends at the saddle abourt ¼ mile north of the lookout. Leave vehicle at parking area and walk the last ¼ mile to the lookout. Allow at least one hour to drive these 16 miles up the mountain to the lookout.
The first lookout cabins, built in the 1920s were two-story cupola structures, with living quarters below the glassed second story. The people who had to use them didn't like the style because they had to climb downstairs to cook, get a drink or clean house. In the 1930s a new style was introduced which was single floor with many (144 panes) windows, was square dimension and had a peaked roof. After WWII with an expanded road system the USDA Forest Service started using flat-roofed lookouts set on concrete bases. In the 1950s many lookout cabins were on high metal or wooden towers.
In June 1945, the Forest Service began experimenting with using airplanes to patrol the vast wildlands which would eventually replace using people stationed in lookouts. The first study area covered the two million acrea area which stretched north from here, between Flathead Lake and the plains, to Glacier Park. Pilots and observers patrolled the area after thunderstorms passed through, reporting smokes by radio to a dispatch center. Sometimes the surveillance planes would carry smokejumpers and drop them on the fires as they were spotted.
In the mid-1940s, smokejumpers trained at nearby Seeley Lake. Sometimes when injured they recuperated on Mt. Morrell. Maynard Shetler occupied the lookout in the summer of 1944, after he broke a foot during a parachute landing, to observe the endless ridges stretched out as far as the eye can see -- east across the Bob Marshal Wilderness to the Rocky Mountain Front, north to Glacier National Park and Canada, west to the Mission Mountains, south to the Anaconda-Pintler range, and southwest to the Bitterroot Mountains.
Like most lookouts, life during an electrical storm was a special experience. As Maynard noted: "Life on a lookout during a storm has its moments. You look down on lightning strikes and record them. The phone rings even though disconnected. Every piece of furniture has its own ground wire. A storm is a beautiful sight if you don't think about getting electrocuted yourself."
Although a lonely outpost, there was plenty to do for the lookout. There was always wood to chop and windows to wash. Most supplies arrived by mule, but occasionally a lookout had to pack their own 10 miles uphill.
Meals took longer to prepare on the wood stove and took special techniques. Shetler said, "Cooking at a high altitude is an art in itself." and claimed he never mastered the art--an opinion not shared by everyone. "Smokejumpers Erling Gamble and Lew Berg brought my mail to me one Sunday (a fourteen mile hike one way). They ate the pie which I made for them and said it was good, even though it was pitiful in my opinion."
Water was scarce on most mountaintops. They often fetched it daily by the canteen if they could find a seep. The lucky ones had a spring within a quarter mile. Others needed to walk much farther, or up and down over treacherous trails. The amount of water they used depended on how much they liked the hike. In 1943 Joe Osborn broke an ankle during smokejumper training and recuperated at Mt. Morrell Lookout. Having a hurt leg and being a flatlander from Indiana, he didn't particularly appreciate the daily water run (a 2000 foot descent) and wrote an ode about his situation -- naming it "Room without a Bath."
Oh daintiness, from me forever gone-- But no, 'tis not forever; there within The bag is water, tempting me to thin The crust of grime that doth reside upon This frame of mine. To bathe, or not to bathe? This question troubleth me. And what about The dishes soiled, and how can I look out Through dusty windows, or my whiskers shave? Perhaps I should no longer wrack my brain With thoughts about this question. Now I fain Would go to bed. To sleep, perhaps to dream Of running water and a shower clean. To wake and still begrimed arise. To drink, And once again upon the problem think.
The following summer Shetler confessed "Needing to make the round trip on a broken foot helped me to conserve water."
These days water is hauled up a road, and solar panels are used to operate the radios and keep a cellular telephone charged.
There have been a couple gonzo bicyclists who thought getting a good aerial view of the Swan range from Morrell fire lookout was an idea they couldn't resist. It's a 3000 foot climb from Cottonwood Lake. It’s a good place to go it you want to get away from the summer heat.
Historical Time Period for Site
1921 to Present. The original lookout was built in 1921 with a log cupola cabin. The present 10' concrete base topped with an R-6 flat cab was built in 1962 and is still in use.
The lookout is accessible at any time visitors can get up the mountain. During the fire season, while the lookout is occupied, visitors are asked to respect reasonable social hours in consideration of the person on duty.
The lookout is open during the fire season (approximately late-June through late August). The road is open whenever snow allows and closed October 15th for hunting season. The lookout provides a challenging ride for cyclists.