UNICOI — For more than 50 years, the Pinnacle Fire Tower high atop Buffalo Mountain served as a sentinel for the Cherokee National Forest, allowing lookouts to keep watch for wildfires in the surrounding hills and valleys.
Now, the public can share the same scenic views these lookouts once had.
The renovated Pinnacle Fire Tower passed its final inspection on July 27 and has been open to the public since. And although the silhouette of the tower looking at it from the bottom of the mountain is the same, Terry Bowerman, district ranger of the Cherokee’s Nolichucky/Unaka District, said the structure has undergone a significant facelift.
The legs holding up the lookout platform have been reinforced. The structure’s deck and cab have been replaced with steel, and the walls of the cab have been removed to create a more of a pavilion, providing visitors with a 360-degree view of the surrounding areas. Stairs leading up to the viewing area have been rebuilt, and new railing has been installed.
Bowerman said the tower’s redesign was completed with safety in mind.
The Cherokee National Forest stopped using the tower in the early 1980s, after which it fell into disrepair and dilapidation. Bowerman said the process of bringing an “adpative use,” or converting it from a fire tower to a public viewing platform, has been years in the making but picked up steam over the past three or four years.
The Forest Service was joined by the Partners of the Cherokee National Forest and local groups and individuals who sought to see the tower’s rehabilitation. An official “grand opening” ceremony for the renovated structure is planned for later this year.
Bowerman said the Forest Service hopes to eventually install a parking area reasonably close to the tower to cut down on the walking required to visit.
Also complete is the Forest Service’s approximately 4½-mile hiking/biking trail that winds up Buffalo Mountain and ends at the base of the tower.
Bowerman said the trail is graded specifically for mountain biking and hiking and has been completed for several months now. The trail starts on property owned by the town of Unicoi located off Exit 32 and near the future site of the Tanasi Heritage and Arts Center.
Bowerman said the Forest Service has worked with the town and Unicoi County on both projects. He also said the tower renovation was completed to not only preserve the structure, but to help boost economic development and tourism in the county.
Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said the projects are already having an impact.
“It’s already having a positive impact, not just on the town of Unicoi, but Unicoi County,” Lynch said. “We’re thankful to the Forest Service, and also the Partners of the Cherokee that worked with us and raised money, and all the people who participated in the fundraisers and helped us out in getting the funds to rehabilitate the tower. A big thank you should go out to all those involved.”
And although he hasn’t yet made the trek up to the tower, Lynch said he is looking forward to taking in the view from the top of Buffalo Mountain.
“There are spots up there, I’ve been told, that you don’t even have to climb the tower to get some really panoramic views,” he said. “... It’s been a lot of years since I climbed around on that thing, but I’m sure the view now is just like it was then.”