Located on a granite outcrop that is the highest point in the Rampart Range, the Devils Head Lookout has operated continuously as a US Forest Service fire lookout for more than a century. The first female fire lookout in the country, Helen Dowe, served at Devils Head from 1919 to 1921. The present lookout tower and ranger cabin date to 1951 and were recently restored by HistoriCorps volunteers.
Finding Fires on the Front Range
Soon after the US Forest Service was established in the early 1900s, the agency planned a series of seven major fire lookouts along the Front Range from New Mexico to Wyoming. One of the sites chosen was Devils Head, a mountain in the Rampart Range about forty miles southwest of Denver. Named for its jagged crest, Devils Head reaches an elevation of 9,748 feet and commands a view that extends west to the Continental Divide, south to the Spanish Peaks, east to Kansas, and north to Longs Peak and southeastern Wyoming. On clear days it is possible to spot a fire up to seventy-five miles away. The region’s first forest ranger, William R. Kreutzer, might have already been using Devils Head as a fire lookout during his tenure from 1898 to 1905.
Of its planned seven Front Range fire lookouts, the Forest Service ended up establishing only four: Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming, Twin Sisters near Estes Park, Squaw Peak west of Denver, and Devils Head. The first official fire lookout station was established in 1912 on a granite outcrop at the summit of Devils Head. This first station consisted of a fire finder (a device used to calculate the directional bearing and pinpoint the location of a fire), a table anchored to the rock, a protective guardrail, and a small shed with a telephone to report fires. At that time the only access to the lookout was via a daylong pack trip from Watson Park, so in 1913–14 a horse barn and a one-room log cabin for the lookout were built in Devils Half Acre, a clearing at the base of the granite outcrop.
In 1919 the original barebones lookout station was replaced by a square wood-frame observatory that housed the fire finder and telephone. At the same time, the barn in Devils Half Acre was converted into a combination bunkhouse and storehouse, and the one-room cabin was abandoned. Rangers serving at the Devils Head Lookout used these buildings for the six months each year when fires were most likely, from about late spring through fall.
First Female Lookout
Soon after the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Forest Service faced a shortage of men who could serve as fire lookouts. In 1919 Helen Dowe, a thirty-year-old woman who worked for the Denver Times, applied to serve as a lookout. Her application was successful, making her the first female fire lookout in the United States, and she was assigned to Devils Head that summer.
Dowe spent three seasons as a lookout. In her first year she was assisted by Nina St. John of Ottawa, Kansas, and in 1920 by her aunt. She soon gained attention from national magazines and became a role model for women. She received thousands of letters from other women and inspired many to apply for similar positions. In 1920 a writer for The Denver Post noted, “She has demonstrated that a woman is fully as efficient as a man as a forest fire lookout—probably more so.”
Recreational Use and New Facilities
The publicity surrounding Dowe’s service helped spur visitation to the Devils Head Lookout, which was already increasing because of the growing popularity of outdoor recreation in the 1910s and 1920s. Aided by Denver’s growth and the rapid proliferation of cars and roads, Devils Head quickly became a popular weekend destination for Front Range residents. By 1921 an automobile camp and picnic area had been established, and in 1936 the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a short trail from the campground to Devils Half Acre and the lookout tower.
The most substantial changes to the site came in 1951. That June, 100 members of the 973rd Construction Battalion stationed at Fort Carson began to dismantle the 1919 lookout station and build a new one. They hauled construction materials to Devils Half Acre by mule, then painstakingly lifted supplies up the side of the granite outcrop. The new tower, completed in September, was a one-story wood-frame building on a concrete foundation, with large windows and wooden decks on all four sides. Later that fall the construction crew upgraded all the other facilities at the site, building a new ranger cabin and two outhouses in Devils Half Acre, installing a metal staircase up the side of the granite outcrop to the lookout tower (rangers had previously used a log with steps cut into it and a wooden ladder), and establishing a new 1.4-mile trail from the campground to Devils Half Acre and the tower.
Fire lookouts began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, as aerial surveillance became more accurate and less expensive. The Devils Head Lookout is now the only lookout tower still active in Colorado and one of only a few in the country that still maintain regular seasonal operation. It remains useful because it overlooks an area of heavy recreational use that also contains a growing number of residences, making fires both more likely and more likely to destroy property. Constant monitoring is imperative for early detection. As of 2015, Bill Ellis has served as the fire lookout for more than thirty seasons.
The Devils Head Lookout was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, and in 2012 it celebrated its 100th anniversary of continuous use. Since 2013, HistoriCorps volunteers have worked to restore the deteriorating lookout tower and repair the ranger cabin’s roof. The lookout tower is open to the public while it is staffed, usually from approximately mid-May through mid-September. It receives more than 15,000 visits per year.