My First Washington Fire Lookout
I’ll never forget my first fire lookout hike. It was about five years ago, I had just gotten back into photography, and I was meeting a bunch of strangers from Instagram at the Hidden Lake Lookout in the North Cascades. I was still leery of meeting strangers from the internet to go hiking, and I wasn’t sure what to expect at the top. But in the end it was two of the most memorable days in the mountains I’ve ever had. The views were out of this world, and the company turned out to be even better! Maybe it’s because my first fire lookout experience was so positive, or perhaps it’s just because fire lookouts are objectively awesome, but they continue to hold a special place in my heart all these years later. Every time I hike to one of these little shelters perched precariously in Washington’s backcountry, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to work in one.
The lookouts were primarily built during the early 1900s after a series of devastating fires made early fire detection a priority for the Forest Service. The fire lookouts were strategically built on mountain peaks across Washington, and consequently, demand some of the most epic mountain views in the state. While some fire lookouts are still active, most were abandoned long ago. Luckily for us, many of these historical relics have been lovingly restored to their previous glory by various hiking and volunteer groups.
The combination of mountain solitude and history makes any hike to one of Washington’s historic fire lookouts a special one that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point. I know that my first experience reignited my love for the outdoors, and I have no doubt it will do the same for you. There’s a reason a couple of these hikes showed up in my 10 Best Hikes In Washington post, and my Stunning Spring Hikes posts! To maximize your enjoyment I suggest checking current trail conditions on the Washington Trails Association website.
Leave Washington’s Fire Lookouts Better Than You Found Them
No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.
– David Attenborough
Everyone should be given the opportunity to experience the outdoors responsibly. It is my sincerest hope that by sharing the beautiful places that I visit in my blog posts, I can help engender a type of ownership and concern for our wild places. For that reason, I always have and always will choose education over exclusion. I believe that we all can act as stewards for the environment if given the opportunity. As stewards, it’s our responsibility to always practice “Leave No Trace” (LNT) principles while enjoying the outdoors.
In addition to practicing LNT ethics, I have also included specific information about how to get involved with the conservation and maintenance of each fire lookout included in this blog post. If you are not able to volunteer your time, donations are always appreciated, and most lookouts will provide an address and a suggested donation amount for spending the night. Think of it as a camping fee!
What To Pack For A Fire Lookout Hike In Washington
Because fire lookouts are located at higher elevations, they are generally only accessible during the summer and fall months. My favorite time to visit these historic structures is during the fall. There’s just something particularly cozy about shacking up for the night in a fire lookout as the nights get longer and the temperatures drop in the mountains. Even though you will have shelter it’s important to pack as you would for any trip into Washington’s wilderness areas. If you are planning on spending the night pack everything you would normally pack for a backcountry camping trip. You likely won’t need it all, but it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. For a complete list of camping and hiking gear, check out my Hiking & Backpacking Gear Guide! If you’re missing any essentials, you can use code JESS15 to get 15% off your entire first purchase at Backcountry.com!
Six Stunning Washington Fire Lookout Hikes
1. High Rock Lookout
High Rock Lookout is an excellent introduction to Washington’s fire lookout hikes. One of only five remaining lookouts in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, it is accessed via a relatively short and easy trail. The trail begins on Forest Road 8440 and climbs steeply through the forest to High Rock Peak at 5,685 feet. The lookout is perched dramatically on the edge of a sheer 600 foot drop off. The view from the lookout is dominated by Mt. Rainier, but it also offers expansive views of the Sawtooth Ridge and even Mount Adams to the south.
Spending The Night: Unlike many of the other lookouts on this list, you can’t spend the in High Rock Lookout, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the hike!
Pro Tip: When I did this hike, the Google Map directions took me to a spot on the road about half a mile from the trailhead. It was confusing because there is actually a small trail at the place Google stops you -presumably from other people getting the same incorrect directions and trying to make their way up to the lookout. Instead, continue up the forest road, the trailhead will be obvious! There is a sign, as well as ample space for parking.
Get Involved: High Rock Lookout is managed by the White Pass Country Museum and Historical Society in partnership with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and other volunteer groups. If you would like to volunteer your time or money to help restore the lookout please contact the White Pass Country Historical Society.
Distance: 3.2 miles RT (according to the sign at the trailhead, but my watch gave me closer to 4 miles)
Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,350 ft,
2. Evergreen Lookout
Built in 1935 for detecting wildfires, Evergreen Lookout sits at 5,587 feet, on top of its namesake mountain. The lookout tower is located in the Wild Sky Wilderness and is accessed via a short, sweet, and pretty darn steep hike up the Evergreen Lookout Trail. The views are a little less dramatic from Evergreen Lookout than some other fire lookouts, but the views are still expansive, and in my experience, this lookout offers more solitude than some of the others. Evergreen lookout is unique among Washington fire lookouts because you have to make reservations to stay there. Some see this as a negative, but I personally view it as a huge bonus. Yes, you have to plan way in advance, and it can be challenging to secure a reservation. But you are also guaranteed the lookout all to yourself – and that is a very rare privilege indeed.
Spending The Night: Evergreen Mountain Lookout is open for overnight stays from July through September, depending on weather conditions. You can make a reservation for the lookout on the recreation.gov website for $85 per night. Entry to the lookout is by key, which must be picked up at the Skykomish Ranger Station before your hike.
The lookout cabin sleeps four and is furnished with one twin-sized bed and mattress, three extra mattresses, a table and chairs, a propane stove, two battery-powered lanterns, a cooking pot, dishes, and a coffee pot. There is no water or heat at the site. All trash and food must be packed out, and guests are expected to clean the cabin before leaving.
Pro Tip: The hike up to Evergreen Lookout may be short, but the forest road up to the trailhead is of the extremely long and windy variety. If you are prone to car sickness, this might not be the hike for you.
Get Involved: The Evergreen Lookout is maintained and cared for by the Everett Branch of the Mountaineers. If you would like to volunteer or join a guided hike to this destination, they’d love to hear from you!
Distance: 3 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 1425 ft.
3. Winchester Lookout
The thing about Winchester Lookout is that it’s so pretty at the top that I can never decide if I want to stay in the lookout, or camp along the ridge in my tent! It’s a quick hike, and you will enjoy expansive views of some of Washington’s most famous peaks and mountain ranges along the way. I don’t think it’s far fetched to say that Winchester Lookout has some of the most expansive views for the least amount of effort in all of the Cascades. So it goes without saying that it’s a popular hike!
Spending The Night: Camping in the Winchester Lookout is on a first-come, first-served basis, and is limited to 12 people. Although I genuinely can’t imagine 12 people fitting comfortably inside. The good news is that there are quite a few excellent tent camping spots up along the ridge next to the lookout. Alternatively, you can car camp down at Twin Lakes! The Winchester Lookout is located within the Mt. Baker Wilderness Area, and wilderness regulations apply.
Winchester Lookout is locked and not open to the public from November through May. Winter visitors can’t access the inside of the lookout or use it as a shelter. The lookout generally reopens in June, or when snow conditions allow. Check the Washington Trails Association website for current trail reports.
Pro Tip: You don’t necessarily need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to make the trip up to the trailhead, but The Twin Lakes Road is best suited for high clearance vehicles. If you can’t drive to the Winchester Mountain Trailhead, parking is at the Tomyhoi Lake Trailhead, adding 2 miles to the hike.
Yellow Aster Butte is another beautiful hike up the Twin Lakes Road that I would highly recommend if you have some extra time in the area.
Get Involved: Winchester Lookout is maintained by the Mt. Baker Hiking Club volunteers. The club organizes numerous opportunities to participate in outdoor activities every year. It’s an excellent opportunity to get involved in the local outdoor community while you help protect the places we play!
Distance: 3 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 1300 ft.
4. Pilchuck Lookout
The main appeal of Pilchuck Lookout for me is it’s proximity to Seattle. Compared to many of the lookouts on this list, Pilchuck is a relatively accessible hike. The drive is only about an hour and fifteen minutes, so on long summer days, this one fire lookout hike you can potentially fit in after work. The walk up to the peak of Pilchuck Mountain climbs its way up through old-growth forest, boulder fields, and finally scrambles up some large shale rocks and a ladder to the lookout. The views at the top are arguably more subtle than those lookouts located in the heart of the North Cascades, or at Mount Rainier. However, they are still beautiful – particularly if you’re able to enjoy them for sunset or sunrise.
Spending The Night: The general rule for Washington fire lookouts is that if they are not staffed or available for rental, they are open to visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. If your heart is set on camping, I’d highly suggest bringing a tent or hammock in case the lookout is already full.
Pro Tip: Fire lookout hikes are always very popular, but Pilchuck is perhaps among the MOST POPULAR. That means you will not be alone. To enjoy the views in semi-solitude, make sure to get an early start, or, better yet, spend the night.
Get Involved: For more information about volunteering or maintaining this facility, contact the Everett Mountaineers.
Distance: 6 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2300 feet
5. Park Butte Lookout
Of all the fire lookout hikes I’ve done in Washington, Park Butte is easily one of my favorites. It doesn’t hurt that we had perfect weather and the place all to ourselves. But even without those perks, there’s a lot to love about Park Butte Lookout. For starters, the trail is beautiful, the lookout is in great shape, and Mt. Baker is so close you could almost reach out and touch it.
Spending The Night: Spending the night in the Park Butte Lookout is on a first-come, first-served basis (more on that in a second). The Park Butte lookout is inside the Mt. Baker Wilderness boundary, and Wilderness regulations limit party size to 12 people.
Frustratingly, the whole “first come,” system seems to mean different things to different people. I’ve shown up to a lookout to find one other person already there and been turned away. I’ve also been the first person to a lookout and then had 10 other people and 2 dogs decide to camp out next to, on top of, and around me. So when it comes to fire lookouts, my suggestion, as with most outdoor adventures, is to hope for the best, but never assume you’ll have the place to yourself.
Get Involved: For more information about volunteering or maintaining this facility contact Mt. Baker Hiking Club. The club organizes regular opportunities for hiking and other outdoor activities that promote the conservation of recreational areas in the Whatcom County region.
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,200 ft.
6. Hidden Lake Lookout
Hidden Lake Lookout was the first lookout hike I did in Washington, and what an introduction it was! Perched precariously on a mound of rocks at 6,850 feet, Hidden Lake Lookout offers expansive views of southern North Cascades National Park and the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
I always think of the hike to Hidden Lake Lookout as consisting of three fairly distinct sections. The firs section resembles many other trails in the North Cascades as it slowly switchbacks its way through dense forest. Thanks almost abruptly, the path opens up and zig-zags its way up through a massive open valley. The third section of the trail takes you up above the tree line and through a boulder field until it abruptly ends at a gigantic rocky pinnacle. Route finding can be a little unclear at this point, but the lookout is located at the top of the rock pinnacle. You DO NOT need to head down toward the lake. Instead, follow the trail that makes its way up the rocks to the lookout cabin – there are usually some cairns to assist you. You should not need to climb or scramble up any rocks until the last 10 yards or so.
Spending the Night: Hidden Lake lookout is another first come, first served sleeping situation. I have been to Hidden Lake Lookout more than any other fire lookout in Washington, and I have only seen it unoccupied once. So I would definitely prepare to share or bring a tent! If you stay in the lookout, be sure to donate what you can to help cover supplies (there’s a rough guideline of $15-$25/night), and there are usually pre-addressed envelopes for that purpose in the lookout.
If the lookout is full and you want to tent camp, the best spots are reached via a rocky scramble through the massive boulder fields above the lake. While the Hidden Lake Lookout is not located in North Cascade’s National Park, the area down from the saddle toward the lake is, and to camp there you’ll need a backcountry permit. To secure a backcountry permit, stop at the Marblemount Ranger Station on your way to the trailhead.
Pro Tip: There’s no easily accessible water source at the lookout, so if you’re planning on spending the night, bring more than you think you’ll need! This is actually true for most of the fire lookouts on this list, but given the difficulty and length of the Hidden Lake hike, I thought it was worth a reminder.
Get Involved: Hidden Lake Lookout is maintained by the Friends of Hidden Lake Lookout under the auspices of the Skagit Environmental Council. You can visit their Facebook page for information regarding maintenance days, or to find out which supplies might need restocking.
Distance: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3000 ft
I hope this list of historic Fire Lookout hikes in Washington inspires you to check out a few for yourself. If you have a lookout hike that you’d like to add or further information on how to support the maintenance and restoration of these extraordinary structures, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Happy trails!
Please note that this post was written in partnership with Backcountry.com, and some of the links above are affiliate links. That means I may earn a small commission on any purchase made – at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. I appreciate your support! – jess
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