November 22, 2017

Hiking to a Room with a View: Washington State’s Fire Lookouts are Worth the Trip

There are 93 still-standing Fire Lookouts in Washington State. Once a serious tool for fighting fires, these structures are now a prime destination for serious hikers.

Hiking in the Pacific Northwest has become one of my passions: fresh air, exercise, camaraderie and/or solitude, photo ops, the thrill of exploration and the satisfaction of achievement. It is good to set goals isn’t it?

What’s Your Goal?

When I first started out I set a goal with the number of vertical feet in a year (100,000) and found myself staying close to home to minimize the drive and try to maximize the feet. But after a couple years I had a fairly fixed set of trails that became my routine and wanted to explore more. The next year a condition was added to my vertical feet goal “without duplicating the same trail”. I ventured a little farther afield, and sometimes off-trail to reach the new goal.

Over the winter, I read an article about fire lookouts in Washington State. In Washington State at one time there were over 700 fire lookouts sitting on mountain tops manned by Forest Service personnel during the summer months looking out for forest fires. The great thing about a fire lookout is its location: on the top of a mountain with great views all around. Technology and development have rendered many fire lookouts obsolete. In Washington State today, there are only 93 fire lookouts still standing (or partially standing). A few are manned as remote areas remain in this state. A couple of lookouts were recently decommissioned by the Forest Services and are closed-up. Maybe they will get passed off to some local organization to maintain for hikers.

Some of the fire lookouts are maintained by local groups and they typically allow overnight stays on a first come basis; the weekends are typically lined-up and you need to get there early.

Visiting every Lookout in the State

Surfing the web for Washington Fire Lookouts I found an article on a local hiker that had recently completed visiting all 93 still standing lookouts, some people are working on visiting all 700 plus original sites. Wow, now that’s a goal. I had a new goal – no not 700, just 93 still standing fire lookouts. I had already visited three of them, so I was well on my way. Gosh darn it, this working Monday to Friday is really impacting my chances to stay overnight and my goal achievement progress! So far I have only visited 33 of the 93 fire lookouts. I should not say “only” as 33 is over 1/3 of the way to my goal in just two years!

Planning the trips: value the journey as much as the destination

I have found myself planning and driving to trails that are amazing. Sometimes the drive to the trailhead is half of the adventure. Maneuvering along fire roads with potholes or partially washed-out sections that make me wish I was driving a vehicle with much greater clearance than I have. Or a Fire road that traverses a saddle between two mountains with views and drops on either side, how cool is that. But to some fire lookouts you can drive up well maintained roads most of the way (and a few all of the way). Many of the trailheads to the lookouts are along roads that are closed in the winter and are unreachable most of the year.

However, during hiking season there is no guarantee that when you get to the top that you will get that view that you think that you were promised. The weather changes or the clouds don’t burn-off until you get back down and you’re in the midst of the clouds with little to no visibility. Or on a cloudy day one could break through the clouds and be left with a view of distant peaks above the clouds. And then there is the rain or snow. So with my GORE-TEX® jacket stuffed in my pack for protection (or at times even wearing it) I head out prepared for a day out in nature.

Access Issues

There is one lookout that is surrounded by private land, but in the winter the Mount Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA) has permission to set up cross-country ski trails through this land and they have a hut on the property available for overnight use from December to April. So this past April I headed out Friday night after work and fought traffic and drove to the trailhead. It was snowing when I arrived, I hiked the four miles to the hut and stayed overnight. The next day I snowshoed the six miles to Puyallup Ridge Lookout, had my lunch, and snowshoed 10 miles back to the car. It was a gorgeous day and the sun was shining; I wore a long-sleeve hooded t-shirt. I was close to Mount Rainier but it was in clouds the whole day until my drive home.

Desolation Peak

This past September some friends and I took a water taxi 14 miles up Ross Lake in the North Cascades. There we hiked up to Desolation Peak. We camped overnight at a primitive campsite in the saddle below the summit. Desolation Peak Lookout is famous not only for its views but also for being manned by the beatnik writer Jack Kerouac for the summer of 1956. We had a great weekend and the lookout was still being manned. Jim the lookout was very friendly and explained the Osbourne fire finder, the grounding system for lightning strikes and other cool features. Someone had left a kettle-bell up in the lookout but Jim didn’t use it for exercise, he heated it up on the stove top in the morning and held it in his lap or gave it to visitors to keep warm on those colder mornings. He also mentioned that the following Wednesday that he would be closing up the lookout for the winter.

Winchester Mountain Lookout

Earlier this fall on a hike up to Winchester Mountain Lookout with my dog, we saw a bear maybe 100 ft up off the trail in a wild blueberry patch (well I don’t think my dog actually saw or smelled the bear as she didn’t react). We kept going but I was a little more cautious after that even though I did stop to pick and eat a few blueberries myself. This lookout is famous for its spectacular views and minimal effort as the trail is just over 2 miles one way. It was a gorgeous day but there was a heavy haze in the air from the forest fires and visibility was limited.

Next summer

With a third of my goal completed in the last two years, I’ve still got plenty of adventures ahead to finish the full list. Next summer I have a couple of priorities.
Three Fingers is a famous lookout because it is perched upon one of the summits of Three fingers peaks in the Cascade Mountains. The road to the trailhead is washed out and impassible by car. People mountain bike 10 miles to the trailhead and then hike from there camping overnight at Goat Flats. It typically remains snowed-in until late summer, so it might be a late season attempt next year. Until then: who knows. That’s the joy of this goal – there are no rules, and the only prize is the journey itself.

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