Mount Rainier National Park was once home to eight fire lookouts. The four that remain today provide some of the park’s most attractive hiking destinations for walkers who don’t mind steep trails in exchange for a way-above-average visual payoff.
If you have a taste for early 1930s architecture, have I got some view properties for you: two-story mountaintop timber frames, each with one-room uppers (14 feet by 14 feet) and wraparound balconies; windows on all sides, filling the top half of every wall; unobstructed, long-distance sight lines to the biggest greenbelt imaginable.
Caveats: Parking access is miles away; water not included.
Outdoor enthusiasts cherish wilderness lands, delighting in their emptiness of civilized intrusions. Yet most take a sanguine, romanticized view of fire lookouts. They’re man-made structures, yes, but constructed with a noble aim — to serve as sentinels that safeguard the landscapes we hold dear.
Amber Casali’s splendid new book, “Hiking Washington’s Fire Lookouts,” reports that by 1942, when Congress ended funding for Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps projects, more than 600 lookouts had been erected throughout Washington, and 8,000-plus nationwide.
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Lookouts proliferated after the Great Fire of 1910, when flames fanned by violent winds scorched 3 million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, prompting zealous fire-protection efforts. But as fire-detection methods advanced (aerial surveillance, radar), lookout numbers dwindled. Fewer than 90 in the state are still standing, Casali notes.
Mount Rainier National Park was once home to eight of these lookouts, the first a stone shelter built in 1917 just below Camp Muir on Anvil Rock (9,584 feet). Only four remain today — Mount Fremont, Shriner Peak, Gobblers Knob and Tolmie Peak — and serve as some of the park’s most attractive hiking destinations for fit walkers who don’t mind steep trails that require above-average grunt work in exchange for a way-above-average visual payoff at each hike’s apex.
A lookout is found in each park quadrant, sometimes staffed by volunteer docents. None are actively used for fire monitoring. This tour moves clockwise from the northeast:
Mount Fremont, 5.6 miles round-trip, 800-foot elevation gain (all figures from Casali’s book). Taking off from the Sunset parking area (6,400 feet), this slow-and-steady climb to the park’s highest lookout (7,181 feet) is a little less strenuous than routes to lookouts in the park’s southern half, but still a challenge.
The wide, well-traveled path to and beyond Frozen Lake leads to a five-way intersection, with options to connect with the Wonderland Trail, head up Burroughs Mountain or take aim at Fremont. Take a hard right and begin the sweeping uphill route to a seemingly faraway structure perched on a distant outcropping. It’s just 1.3 miles and less than 500 feet to climb from here, so take heart.
Shriner Peak, 8.4 miles, 3,420-foot elevation gain. This is clearly the most difficult of the four trails, but it may also be the prettiest. After the first 2.5 miles, hikers take a switchback and get a breakout view of previously hidden Rainier that can cause most brains to jump the tracks from workout mode to a state of gasp-and-gawk.
Views remain fairly constant as you huff and puff your way to the summit. Beyond the lookout, you can find two backcountry camping sites (backcountry permit required). For her visit, Casali elected to trudge to the top, lugging overnight gear, and believes her effort was suitably rewarded.
“I saw beautiful sunsets and sunrises there, so I would say this is my favorite lookout in the park,” Casali said. Parking for the trailhead is an easy-to-miss wide spot on the east side of state Route 123, about 8 miles south of Cayuse Pass.
Gobblers Knob, 7 miles, 1,000-foot elevation gain. Casali makes the right call in her guidebook by directing hikers to use the Glacier View/Mount Beljica approach for this lookout. Access begins outside the park via Forest Service Road 59 off state Route 706 before reaching Rainier’s Nisqually entrance.
The dirt road is rough, especially early, but passable for passenger cars. You can get bonus views from Glacier View and Beljica before you reach the lookout. (Glacier View hosted its own lookout from 1934 to 1960.)
You can approach it from inside the park by hiking the closed-to-traffic Westside Road a few miles to reach the Lake George trailhead, then climb to the lookout. Either way, plan to arrive at midafternoon or later to optimize light.
Tolmie Peak, 5.6 miles, 1,000-foot elevation gain. Starting near Mowich campground, at the end of 17 miles of a dusty, bumpy dirt road, nearly all of the climbing happens in the final mile as the trail curls around Eunice Lake.
At the summit on a clear day, the afternoon view of Rainier rising above a bluer-than-blue Eunice Lake is one of the best shots a photographer can bag anywhere in the park.
Casali lists three other lookout hikes on Rainier’s periphery: Sun Top, via state Route 410, Forest Service roads 73 and 7315, Kelly Butte near Greenwater and dramatically isolated High Rock, in the vicinity of Ashford east of the park. Popular Noble Knob, also near Greenwater, was a lookout site between 1934 and 1954.
What happened to Rainier’s other four lookouts? Pete Sabin, a summer worker in the late 1950s and early ’60s, is part of a team of former Rainier staffers documenting park history. He says early lookouts – Anvil Rock (9,564 feet, just below Camp Muir) and Colonnades (6,718 feet, near Golden Lakes, Northwest quadrant) — were positioned too high.
“When the clouds blew in, lookouts couldn’t see anything below them,” said Sabin, 75. “Lookouts were once put on top of Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, too. I think the original idea was to get up there and see a wide area, but they weren’t too efficient.” A 1934 lookout atop Crystal Peak came down in the early 1970s. Sunset Park, a 1948 replacement for Colonnades, was gone by 1973.
While attending the University of Washington, Sabin spent the summer of 1961 staffing Gobblers Knob. In 1963, he was in Fremont. He loved the lifestyle — enough that he served as a volunteer host at Fremont for 10 years before moving with his wife, DiAnne (whom he met at Rainier), to Montana.
“I was 18 when I started,” Sabin said. “It was fun. I liked watching mountain goats at Fremont. I never saw anything like a UFO, but I enjoyed all the views.”
Mount Rainier Fire Lookouts
Shriner Peak: Built in 1932, elevation 5,834 feet
Gobblers Knob: Built in 1933, elevation 5,485 feet
Tolmie Peak: Built in 1934, elevation 5,925 feet
Mount Fremont: Built in 1934, elevation 7,181 feet
Anvil Rock: Built in 1917, elevation 9,564 feet, rock hut just below Camp Muir replaced by a wood cabin in 1928; abandoned 1942
Colonnades: Built in 1930, elevation 6,718 feet, near Golden Lakes; abandoned 1941; dismantled early ’60s
Crystal Peak: Built in 1934, elevation 6,595 feet; abandoned due to snow damage late 1960s or later; dismantled early ’70s
Sunset Park: Built in 1948, elevation 5,530 feet, built to replace Colonnades; abandoned 1960s; dismantled 1973
Hiking Washington’s Fire Lookouts by Amber Casali, The Mountaineers Books
Forest Fire Lookout Association (firelookout.org)
Former Fire Lookout Sites Register (firetower.org)
National Historic Lookout Register (nhlr.org)
Fire-lookout fan sites: