I LOVE arriving at the peak of an epic hike and seeing a tall, wooden lookout boasting big vistas. Even Jack Kerouac was seduced by the romance of fire lookouts, choosing a summer as a lookout on Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park. He went for the solitude, hoping to use the time to write, but didn’t accomplish much during his stay, according to Historylink.org. We’re not going to give the guy too much grief for that.
Washington has more than 100 lookouts, according to the Washington Trails Association, and some are still used for firefighting. Volunteers work at others, and some lookouts are open to the public.
Lookouts are a sure sign of an unobstructed view. Pick hikes with a fire lookout and you’ll likely be rewarded on a clear day with a sea of craggy peaks and possibly a 360-degree vista.
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North Cascades National Park
Distance: 6.8 miles round trip
Elevation: 4,400 feet
Naturally, we had to include this classic made famous by Kerouac’s 1956 stay. This steep hike starts out in low-elevation forests and moves up to alpine meadows above Ross Lake. Take a good look at the elevation before heading out; it’s a tough hike by anyone’s measure. That said, the vistas are beyond grand, and if you’re a literary nerd, this is the one for you.
North Cascades National Park
Distance: 12.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 5,100-6,000 feet
Sourdough is for you ambitious ones: It’s straight-up relentless. It’s also one of my favorite hikes in the state. The switchbacks show up right at the beginning, and keep going and going. If you’re there at the right time of year, snack on huckleberries and blueberries along the way while getting your legs back after the steep climb. The lookout at the top is on the National Historic Lookout Register, and the 360-degree view at the top of Diablo Lake’s glacier-fed waters, Ross Lake into Canada and magnificent jagged peaks in every direction is worth the intense climb.
Mount Rainier National Park
Distance: 5.6 miles round trip
Elevation: 800 feet
Fremont Lookout provides a gentler choice for fire-lookout fiends. The hike starts in the popular Sunrise area and meanders through beautiful alpine meadows with views of Mount Rainier. On a clear day, you can see Glacier Peak, Mount Stuart and possibly Mount Baker.
Distance: 2.6 miles round trip
Elevation: 850 feet
This quick hike will still work your legs and is a good spring or late-fall choice. You’ll have views of the Skykomish Valley, Mount Index and Ragged Ridge. The best views are available from the lookout itself, so head up the stairs and enjoy the view.
North Cascades Mountain Loop Highway
Distance: 5.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 2,200 feet
Popular Mount Pilchuck is one of the first historic lookouts many hikers experience in the state. It surely sets the standard for lookout vistas with an astonishing panoramic view of the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Olympics to the west, Mount Baker to the north, Glacier Peak and the Cascades to the East and Mount Rainier to the south. If only we all didn’t know about this spectacular place. It is not as tough as some of the others on this list, but Mount Pilchuck is rocky and can be slippery, so be prepared for varying conditions.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.