A natural vacation

  National forests in the Northwest have opened unused fire lookouts, stock stations and maintenance cabins to the public. All can be rented for overnight camping with up to a two-week stay allowed in some places. Because each facility is rented by the national forest in which it is located, two brochures, available at most Forest Service offices, are helpful: A Guide to Your National Forests and The Northern Region Directory. The latter lists over 50 rentals in 14 national forests. Accommodations at some are so isolated renters have to hike, snowmobile or ski in. Overnight fees range from $15 to $40 with space for up to four persons and amenities such as a cookstove, table, chairs, cooking utensils and beds or bunks. The rental program began in Alaska about 10 years ago and quickly spread to Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. These days, Big Creek Baldy Lookout, on the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana, has become so popular it is often reserved a year in advance.