At one point, some 8,000 fire lookout towers sat atop U.S. mountain peaks, mainly in the West, serving as both a home and watchtower for fire lookout staff before technological advances made fire spotting more efficient.
Many of the fire towers were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression era. Today, just 2,000 towers remain, nearly 100 of which are in Washington. Many can be visited during a day hike or backpacking trip and some even allow overnight stays (if you can score a slot).
If the tower is open when you visit, hikers are generally welcome to pop in, check out the digs and imagine themselves scouting for fires in the distance. Here are eight treks to Western Washington fire lookout towers to add to your summer hiking list. Be sure to gear up, make sure you have the requisite passes and find trail conditions (and specific trailhead info) on WTA.org before you go.
Park Butte Lookout
Pacific Northwest Trailhead, FS-13, Concrete
Park Butte is about as close as you can get to summiting Mount Baker without actually standing on its peak. This fire lookout sits atop a rock face right in the shadow of Koma Kulshan. The well-maintained, 7.5-mile out-and-back hike gains 2,220 feet of elevation and features unobstructed views of Baker, alpine meadows and rushing rivers. If you look closely from the top, you may even be able to spot mountaineers making their way toward the mountain’s summit.
Winchester Mountain Lookout
Twin Lakes Trailhead, NF-3065, Glacier
Practically a stone’s throw from the Canadian border (check your phone to see if you connect to Canadian service!), Winchester Mountain is well worth the bumpy ride to the Twin Lakes Trailhead. At 3.4 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation gain, the short hike will leave your jaw on the floor with every step, surrounded by lush meadows and Cascade peaks on all sides. The fire tower is first come, first served for sleeping, but if it’s taken, there are plenty of other sweet camping spots at the top. The road to the trailhead is steep and gnarly, and it accommodates just one car in some spots. At minimum, all-wheel drive and high clearance is required.
Mount Pilchuck Trailhead, NF-4200, Granite Falls
With its proximity to Seattle and short (but still challenging) trek, Mount Pilchuck is a popular fire lookout hike for good reason. The 5.4-mile round-trip hike travels through old-growth forest before reaching a boulder field that eventually leads to a fun scramble to the fire tower. The easy access means that you’ll likely have plenty of company, and at just over an hour’s drive from Seattle, it’s a doable after-work summer hike. The fire tower is first come, first served, but given its popularity, staying a night is not an easy ticket!
Heybrook Lookout Trailhead, Stevens Pass Highway, Gold Bar
This beginner-friendly hike is just 1.3 miles round-trip and is located just off Highway 2, which means there are no forest service roads to navigate. The trail to Heybrook Lookout has some decent elevation gain at 850 feet, but is a peaceful walk through the woods before arriving at the fire tower. Those with a fear of heights may wish to enjoy the view from the picnic table, but the views from the top are worth the climb: full sights of Mount Baring and Mount Persis.
Granite Mountain Trailhead, NF-9034, North Bend
For a good challenge just 47 miles from Seattle, Granite Mountain is another great option for a pre- or post-work hike. The 8.6-mile out-and-back route gains 3,800 feet of elevation, so it’s no walk in the park, but the steep price delivers views of Mount Rainier and nearby Kaleetan Peak. Bring plenty of food and water and take your time tackling this summit. This popular route is best hiked during the summer months, as the trail crosses a large avalanche chute. If you hike during snow season, mountaineering skills are required. As with all these hikes, especially during shoulder season, check conditions before you go.
Red Top Lookout
Red Top Lookout Trailhead, FS-9702, Cle Elum
One of the newer lookouts on this list, Red Top Lookout was built in 1952, restored in 1972 and is still operational today. At just 1.5 miles, this short, steep hike leads to an incredible view of the Teanaway Ridge, Stuart Range, Mount Rainier, and the Chelan and Entiat mountains. This is a great hike to do with kids. If the lookout is open, go ahead and peek inside, where you can check out the Osborne Fire Finder, a compasslike tool that helps lookout workers and volunteers determine the location of a fire.
Golden Lakes Trailhead, Westside Road, Ashford
For folks looking to leave the crowds a bit (and who don’t mind a longer hike), Gobbler’s Knob is a great option. The hike gains 2,500 feet of elevation over 11 miles and features beautiful wildflower meadows and backpacking options at Lake George, a crystal-clear alpine lake. Views from the top include most of the major Cascade peaks, including Rainier, plus Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and the Olympics. Westside Road, which leads to the Golden Lakes Trailhead, closes in the winter.
Sourdough Ridge Trail, Sunrise Park Road, Ashford
This iconic Mount Rainier hike to the Fremont Lookout is a 5.6-mile round-trip adventure, with 1,200 feet of elevation gain and expansive views of the state’s tallest peak for nearly the entire hike. From the fire tower, take in the views of nearby peaks and the Olympic Mountains. With its easy access and large parking lot, the fire tower hike also draws large crowds. If you prefer some quieter hiking, aim for a weekday jaunt or plan for an offseason hike.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included erroneous information about fire lookout tower trailheads. It has been updated to clarify trailhead locations.