Earth Notes: Lagged Lookout Trees

Aug 1, 2018

There were no fire lookout towers in the Arizona of the early 1900s. Instead, early firefighters found tall ponderosa pines near mountain tops or other strategic viewpoints. They fitted the trees with handmade steel spikes—known as lags—that they used as footholds to climb the trees.

Hull Tank Lookout Tree
Credit U.S. Forest Service


These fire-spotting pioneers rode horseback along forest trails to reach these “lagged” trees, then climbed to the tops and sat like birds for hours. If a spotter sighted smoke, he’d climb down and ride to the nearest town or telegraph office to notify volunteers.

Many of the lookout trees had map boards installed up top, to help the spotters pinpoint a fire’s exact location.

One of these helpful giants was the “Overgaard Tree”—which would’ve been large even back when it was lagged in the 1920s on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. It finally succumbed to the Rodeo-Chedisky Fire in 2002.

It wasn’t until the1930s that the Civilian Conservation Corps began building modern fire towers. These more sophisticated lookout perches were often located near old lagged trees.

Christine Haese and her husband Paul have searched local forests for twenty years for any remaining historic trees. Over the years, people have found several lagged lookouts still standing—many with their original map boards in place.

Until they fall to fire or old age, these statuesque trees are still accessible to hikers, photographers, and natural history enthusiasts—living monuments with stories to tell in their gnarled, scarred bark.