Washington Fire lookouts
Hiking to a fire lookout is one of the most amazing experiences! Although they are used much differently today than their original purpose. Long before GPS, helicopters, infrared heat sensors and other similar tech that is used now to find fires in the backcountry, these lookouts were crucial for spotting fires all throughout the cascades. Around the 1950's there were estimated to be roughly 500 lookouts in use just across Washington state. Today unfortunately only around 90 of those still stand. Many of them have been removed due to safety concerns due to weather beating them up over the years or just being neglected. But fortunately many do still stand with the generous donations of different groups or the state for some. And many of these lookouts are open to use on a first serve basis and some can be rented through the National Forest Service. They are perfect for day hikes, and overnight trips, and truly do offer some of the best views around! So lets get into some of my favorites!
PARK BUTTE LOOKOUT - 7.2 miles RT, 2020' elevation gain
This is by far one of my favorites in the state. There really isn't anything negative I can say about it. The hike in is beautiful. It starts in a meadow which is equally beautiful in the spring as it is in the fall. There are a series of wooden walkways you'll go over including a couple streams, it's the perfect start to a hike.
After the first mile or so is when you'll hit the first and main section of climbing. You'll somewhat quickly climb about half of the elevation of the hike over the next mile or so. You'll know the main climbing is done (or you just won't care anymore) because you'll all of the sudden leave the trees and pop out into an alpine meadow like area. Here you'll start getting your first views of Mt. Baker and the surrounding mountains. If you are hiking this in the fall, you'll be able to gorge yourself on fresh mountain blueberries. This part of the hike always takes me way longer because I can't keep myself from stopping every 10 feet to pick more ha ha.
After about a mile of some beautiful wandering around you'll approach another higher alpine meadow but this one has a few tarns in it. If you're low on water or want to go for a dip to cool off, this will be your last opportunity before the final ascent to the lookout.
The final climb to the lookout is steep but the views of Mt. Baker are a good distraction. Once at the top, enjoy some of the best views of Mt. Baker and the surrounding mountains. One great thing about this lookout is that it is open to camp at. It is on a first come first serve basis and competition is tough. So definitely plan to get here very early and have a tent as a backup option just in case it is already taken. When I went, my friends slept inside on the bed, and I chose to sleep with a view of Baker from the deck.
TOLMIE PEAK LOOKOUT - 5.6 miles RT, 1540 elevation gain
Tolmie Peak is a fun hike It is on the NW side of Mt. Rainier and enters the trees right away. But in only a couple miles or so you'll reach a lake and your first view of the lookout up above. This is where you'll also start to have some pretty good views! The next bit is kind of steep, but also offers some nice trail snacks in the fall of fresh blueberries. Once you reach the top, you're provided with an amazing view looking back at Mt. Rainier with the lake down below. This trail is also great for kids or for those not wanting to do too hard of a hike but want some great payoff!
HIGH ROCK LOOKOUT - 3.2 miles RT, 1300' elevation gain
High Rock lookout is great because it's a short hike, but steep. It's a very dramatic lookout perched right on a cliff edge with a massive valley below and Mt. Rainier right in your face. The views looking around aren't too shabby either. You can also see Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens from here. The lookout does look a little differently right now though as it was removed last year so only the bottom half remains. But it's still a great spot to hike to with great views. There are also a couple good camp spots just below the peak.
FREMONT LOOKOUT - 5.7 RT, 1120' elevation gain
This lookout is located on the north side of Mt. Rainier NP and is accessed via the Sunrise visitor center parking lot. This is a great hike for everyone. I've done it with my kids as well as guest from out of town that don't hike much. It's a pretty gradual hike for the most part and offers views throughout the hike which is one of it's great appeals and not to mention the view of Rainier is one of the best! This lookout is not open to the public unfortunately, but you're still able to hike to it and enjoy the deck. It's particularly great to go at sunset. Just be sure to bring a headlamp for the hike out.
MT. PILCHUCK - 5.2 miles RT, 2100' elevation gain
This is one of the PNW classics and is wildly popular! It's great for just a day hike or to camp at. This one does not have a bed like some of the others do, but instead a bunch of benches. The hike up is pretty steep and the first bit doesn't offer much for views. But at about half way up you'll pop out of the trees and have views most the rest of the way up and they are spectacular! On a clear day you'll be able to see Mt. Rainier, Glacier peak, Mt. Baker and the surrounding cascade mountain range. Sunset here is beautiful as is sunrise. You really can't go wrong on this hike.
If you do plan to camp here plan accordingly as there is not much water on this hike. So you'll likely need to carry most of your water up with you for cooking and drinking.
HEYBROOK LOOKOUT - 2.6 miles RT, 912' elevation gain
This is one of my go to "I don't have a lot of time but want to get out on a really quick and pretty hike" hikes. It is pretty steep but it's so short and honestly the views from the top are pretty amazing. This is one of the lookouts that you can only stay in with a reservation, but there's also a lower deck that is open to the public and offers great views of Mt. Index and Mt. Baring pictured above. This hike is also great because it's good for the whole family. I did it with my 4 year old. It took him a bit longer but I also made sure to stop at the Sultan bakery on the way out and picked up some delicious treats that enticed my son as a reward for making it to the lookout ha ha.
Also if you're in the area and want more to do before or after this hike I would recommend checking out Eagle falls just down the road for a quick viewpoint, also Lake Serene is a great hike and is located right across the valley right below Mt. Index.
HIDDEN LAKE LOOKOUT - 7.5 miles RT, 3250' elevation gain
This is one of my favorites in the North Cascades. The hike is steep climbing most of the way but it's worth it! The first mile and a bit are steep and in the trees but once you pop out of the them the views start. If hiking in the fall, you'll enjoy amazing fall colors on the open slopes as you climb towards the saddle below the lookout. As you approach the saddle, you'll start taking in views of Mt. Baker in the distance. Once you reach the saddle you'll get your first view of the hikes namesake, Hidden lake. I've actually never hiked down to the lake (one of these days I really need to though), but instead always head up on the last little bit of the climb to the lookout itself.
This lookout is open for camping in, again on a first serve basis. For whatever reason this lookout has seen a rough past. Because of the popularity of this hike, there is often vandalism and too many people that just don't treat it well. So if you do visit this lookout either for a day or a night, please respect it and leave it better than you found. This lookout is definitely a special one, and the views are amazing to say the least.
3 FINGERS LOOKOUT - 34.6 miles RT, 6880' elevation gain
This hike will kick your butt ha ha. Lets just get that out of the way. This hike is definitely not for the faint of heart or for those just getting into hiking. The first 10 miles in are on an old forest road, many chose to bike it but some do hike it. I chose to bike it which was a whole different level of difficulty as I don't bike often and I had many muscles screaming at me that weren't used to this kind of torture lol. After the first 10 miles, you finally get to the trailhead. The first 4 miles are a pretty nasty bush wack before you finally reach a little pond. Soon after leaving the pond you'll come to goat flat. From here you'll get your first view looking way, way out to the lookout.
When I did the hike, we chose to pitch a tent here just in case we got to the lookout and it was already taken, we could always come back down to this tent which would be ready for us. Worse case, it would at least save the weight going up since there is no where to pitch a tent higher up anyways. After leaving goat flat the trail wraps around to the backside of the 3 fingers as you make your way up. I did it in mid summer during all of the wildflowers blooming and it was absolutely amazing! The last mile or so to the lookout are pretty tough depending on what time of year you go. When I went we had to traverse over a very steep snow field in an absolute no fall zone due to a cliff and glacier not too far away. We opted to put on our crampons and pull out our ice axes and are glad we did for the extra security it gave us ascending and descending the steep slopes. Finally we got past these sections and then it was just a final bit of hiking and climbing before we finally reached the lookout.
When you reach it the last little bit has some sketchy looking ladders that you'll have to climb. But they look way worse than they actually are, I was surprised to see how solid they were. We climbed those and were finally to the lookout. This lookout has got to be one of the gnarliest spots for any man made structure ever! It sits literally on a knife edge, two of it's sides look straight down thousands of feet while the other two only have small landings to hang out at. The views from this lookout really are hard to beat and to this day this lookout remains my favorite one! It's insanely hard to get to and I was worn out when we did, but it was completely worth the effort and I can't wait to do it again one day!
These fire lookouts really are a gem and such a gift for us to use. So please always respect them when you do visit.