Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hickory Ridge Tower; A Questionable Climb

Just a few miles further up the ridgetop hugging Tower Ridge Rd from the Blackwell Horse Camp sits the 110 foot tall Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower.

This particular fire-watch tower was built in 1936 for a cost of about $1000 and by 1953 was one of 8 in the area and about 5000 nearly identical towers across the nation, though by 1964 it cost just shy of $10,000 to build one.

For several days I had been contemplating riding the Quad-B the 5.5 miles up the road to check it out. 

There's a trail of about the same length paralleling the road from the horse-camp to the tower but, while biking is allowed I would need a permit, and frankly an 11 mile hike (No permit required for hiking) there and back to see the tower just wasn’t – well, I just wasn’t feeling it!

To avoid the need for a permit all I had to do was ride the Quad-B to the the campground entrance, hang a left on Tower Ridge, and start pedaling, but on my way back from hiking Whitetail, since I was already in The Van, I decided to bypass the campground and just drive on up to the tower instead. (Nice how well that worked out isn’t it!)

There was virtually no traffic on the narrow gravel road but it was a little after noon on a Saturday and the area is criss-crossed by trails. Along the way I passed the Grubb Ridge Trailhead which looked to be pretty well packed with cars.

In fact the base of the Hickory Ridge Tower is also a trailhead for several trails, not to mention a relatively short hike down to an old cemetery, so the tiny parking area there was pretty crowded as well, but I managed to find a spot to slip The Svelte Little Van into, though all the sunny spots were already taken so I had to settle for shade. (When you live on solar you pay attention to things like that.)

Most of the occupants of the cars must have been out on the trails, but I had just finished a hike and had come here for the tower experience.

Considering our nanny-state's liability concerns as well as budget constraints, I thought I would be coming to look at the tower from the wrong side of fences and locks so wasn’t expecting that last little line on the lower right of the sign.

Now to the sensible that reads as a warning, but – well – yeah, you know where this is going. . .

9 landings, 133 steps, and 110 feet up to a little box just barely large enough to lay down in!

How could I say no?!

Weellll. . . Partway way up that question changed to what the hell was I thinking!!

The steps were no big deal, I’ve climbed worse, you just take them slow and steady, but remember that $1000 price-tag to build this thing? Well I’m here to tell you, it was so damn cheap because this thing is SpindlY; with a capital S capital Y!!

I had covered about 2/3rds of the climb and was doing fine, but then I did something wrong which set up a harmonic wobble in the entire tower that was suddenly attempting to throw me off! I had to stop where I was and hang on tight until it finally died down.

OK, that’s enough to make a guy reevaluate the decision that put him up here in the first place!

It didn’t help that now I was reminded of reading that long-time tower watchman Raymond Axsom was pretty scared the time the tower got struck by lightning, but the time he was really scared was when a sudden storm blew in and the tower was whipping around so bad all he could do was wrap his arms and legs around the steps he had been caught out on and hang on.

But, then again, I already had all those steps behind me and when I, very slowly, tilted my head back until I was looking straight up I could see that there were only three more landings to go!

Back in the day there were no yellow railings here in the tower,

Stolen photo. The alidade in the Hickory Ridge Tower has long since been removed.

just a hinged trap door that didn’t interfere with the alidade used to vector in on fires.

I don't mind the railings!

In the early days of this tower there were some 80 farms and homesteads around it, but the vast majority of those have been reclaimed by the forest now

along with several small communities such as Yellowstone, Maumee, and Elkinsville.

My stay in the tower was cut short by a quad of young people crowding in behind me about 15 minutes after I got up there.

Two young couples, one of the most dangerous demographics, what with the males egging each other on as they try to impress the females, who, at this age (Mid 20's) still love the attention and are encouraging the boys with giggling glee.

I bailed out, OK, more like carefully eased on out, and left them to their post, but only just, adolescent mating rituals.

Once I got my feet back on solid ground I went in search of any signs of the garage, which wasn’t hard to find since the foundation had been solidly built,

and the house that used to go along with the tower.

Both can be seen in the 1951 photo on the bottom left of the sign now at the base of the tower. (Visible in the fourth image from the top of this entry.) The house is easy to see in the photo and the garage, or work/storage shed, is just peeking through the trees there across from the house.

Once I found the foundations, which in the case of the house was more like a full basement, I was already at the beginning of the 5 mile Sycamore Trail, (Hike only) with it's one-mile side trip to Terrill Ridge, the high point in the wilderness.

Hummm, another ambitious hike today, or head back to camp and catch up on my magazines while sitting in the shade with ice-cold water and some crackers & hummus ???

Oh hell! I’ll just save Sycamore Trail for next time. . .


  1. Nice view at the top ... glad you didn't turn around. LOL

    1. Wellll. . . When I was up there I thought I might be seeing some of the taller buildings of Bloomington out there in the distance and later that afternoon it briefly crossed my mind to climb back up the tower at sundown to check out the lights, but the thought of that damn thing wiggling and swaying as I climbed it again kept me safely in camp instead.