Park Butte, Washington - Sleep in a Fire Lookout by a Glacier Covered Volcano

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

Looking for a one of a kind weekend get away with unparalleled views? Ok with a place that is a little rustic and a bit unpredictable? If yes, this might be the adventure for you! Sleeping in a Fire Lookout overlooking glacier covered Mount Baker is quite an experience, but takes a bit of planning.

What do you want to know?

Fire Lookout Accommodations

Exclusive Bar with a Great Vibe? - Yes on the weekends, as long as you bring your own beverage! If you are into the adventurous young backpacking crowd and a couple intrepid people who are brave enough to hike back in the dark, you will be in good company. The balcony tends to fill up for the magic sunset hour and everyone has a story to share.

Reservations? - None! This place is first come first serve, so no need to make up your mind until the day before. However, depending upon your luck, timing, and dedication you could end up with the place to yourself or no place to stay. More on that below.

Clean Bathrooms? - Yeah…not so much. The only bathrooms are pit toilets and they are at the trail head. Due to the fragile environment humans are required to pack out any solid waste. I have heard that there is a primitive toilet at Mazama Camp Shelter (about 1.5 miles away), but I haven’t verified. If you are someone who usually has to pee in the middle of the night you might want to plan ahead, because getting up and down from the lookout can be precarious in the daytime and potentially dangerous in the dark.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

4 Star Accommodations? - If the stars are awarded on location, absolutely! How many places include 360 degree mountain views, glaciers, a volcano, and let you stay in a little piece of history? The accommodations themselves are also truly luxurious when compared to most backpacking setups.

Art Collection? - Yes! Over the years many people have added their contributions to the guest books and a couple are even pinned up on the ceiling and walls.

24 Hour Maintenance? - The drawers and space under the bed are full of old tools if you want to take it on yourself.

Dark Skys? - Not completely. You can see the lights of Bellingham in the distance and it was surprisingly bright.

Cleaning Service? - You are it. Please leave it at least as clean as you found it and remove all food.

Enough Room for your Friends and Family? - It depends. There is a bed for two and two chairs. There are two cabinets that can accommodate a person each, and 2-4 people could sleep on the floor, maybe more but that is getting pretty cozy. I think 4 is comfortable if you don’t want to be stepping over people.

Heating and Climate Control? - Not exactly. It was surprisingly cozy inside even with a windy night in the 40s. On hot days the balcony is shaded and likely to catch a breeze if there is one to be had. If the weather is bad be careful. This is a high point and vulnerable to lightning. There is a lightning stool inside with glass insulators for feet, but I think that is about the last place I would want to be in a storm.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

Seasonal? - Yes! Snow can linger until July depending upon the year and the Lookout caretakers close the shutters to protect it from winter storms in late September or early October. You can technically still go in after they are down, but you lose out on the view from inside. If you find the outer door on make sure to put it back and secure it to keep this place protected. If left open the lookout can fill up with snow.

Food and Beverages? - As fancy or casual as you like. You hiked to get up here so no judgement. If you go the right time of year you might be able to feast on wild huckleberries and blueberries growing nearby. I had some in my oatmeal and they were delicious.

As for water, that depends upon the conditions. You can bring enough or filter/treat some. There is always some you can filter, but you may have to hike a mile to get it. Sometimes there are pools nearby, but in a drought season they can get stagnate and some of that water is runoff from the trail that gets some horse traffic. Make a mental note of where the water is flowing on your way up.

Cell Phone Service? - Maybe a little. It seemed like there was none at the lookout for AT&T and T-Mobile, but a few people with Verizon had a little and one guy was actually able to video call his girlfriend.

How to Stay?

Still interested? If you want to give it a shot you have a few options, but nothing is guaranteed. Your best shot of securing the lookout is a combination of going early and off peak. Check the trail reports before you head out.

A. Pick a random day and hope for the best, but temper your expectations. When we got there the family that stayed Friday night said they arrived around 11AM Friday morning and found it empty.

B. Pick a weekday, particularly one without great weather. This will give you the most solitude and good odds.

C. Get up early so you can hopefully beat everyone else.

So you made it up there and the place is empty? Congratulations!

As long as there is nothing on the beds claiming them the place should be yours. Now you have the option of staying there and relaxing, while politely telling others that it is claimed or unrolling sleeping pads as a sign to others that it is claimed and go out exploring. You can unpack your sleeping bag and other things you don’t want to carry and generally people are respectful, but I would not leave anything valuable or edible.

If you want to give it a shot I would recommend a backup plan just in case. We left a backpacking tent in the car so we could come back down and camp if it didn’t work out. There are some amazing campsites nearby on the Railroad Grade Trail.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

Our Overnight Adventure:

Part 1 - Dusk to Dawn:

We were trying for one of the most competitive nights, a Saturday night on a clear sunny day. Knowing the odds were against us, we decided to do what we could to improve them. The plan was to sleep in the back of my car, get up before dawn, and hike up there in the dark. We figured our chances were fairly good, but all it would take was one other determined person just a few minutes earlier than us to unravel it.

When we drove into the parking lot around 9PM on Friday night the lot was over half full and our hearts fell. This is normal for a weekend, but not this late! Our confidence was shaken, but not our determination. We decided to move out wake up time one hour earlier and hope for the best.

We peeled ourselves out of the car at 4AM and hit the trail. The sky was clear and we motivated ourselves with the promise of a beautiful sunrise at the lookout even if we didn’t get to spend the night.

Following this trail in the dark is very easy, with one exception and it is pretty close to the start of the trail. There is a river crossing that isn’t very deep or very wide, but is fairly powerful and fed by glacial melt water. Sometimes has a bridge and from the lower trail we could see it above us shining in our headlights, so we went around to the upper trail. Perplexingly, from there it was below us. After checking from the lower side again we decided the bridge appeared to be out and we would have to find another way across. The loud rushing water in the dark was very intimidating, but we found some suitable rocks and logs and made our way across, then guided by GPS found the trail on the other side. Mount Baker’s glaciers glowed softly in the starlight above us.

After that the trail was impeccably marked. For me, hiking in the dark is a bit trance like. You focus on the ground in front of your feet and tiny beam of light that you cast, while the rest of the world that usually overwhelms your senses is lost beyond the beam. You notice smells and sounds more, but sense of time and progress seems to drift.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

As we approached the last mile the sky started to lighten and some campers started to stir. A scary dog ran towards us out of the dark at one campsite, but luckily it was all talk. We felt the clock ticking and hurried on, watching the beautiful light slowly trickle in around the mountains.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

The last push for the fire lookout was the steepest. As I climbed the final stairs to the lookout I heard soft voices. A family was there and it looked like they had spent the night. They confirmed that yes, they were packing up and going home after sunrise! We were relieved and elated as we settled in to watch the sunrise! The morning was crisp and perfect as the waves of color rippled across the sky and the sun made its spectacular entry.

Part 2 - A Day on the Mountain

Now that we had secured our spot for the night we had two options. Stay here and relax or go out and explore.

I opted for the later. I had been here before, but it had been stormy then. Today looked like the perfect opportunity to try and climb up to the glacier. On my way up there I met another woman who was also hiking solo and we joined up for a fun adventure.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

A few hiking options with approximate mileage measured from the lookout:

Trail Distance Elevation Gain Description
Railroad Grade 7.1 miles 11.25km 3,000ft 900m Out and back to the Eastman Glacier
Cathedral Craig 3.6 miles 5.75km 1,300ft 430m Loop that connects to Bell Pass and Ridley Creek
Scott Paul 13 miles 20.9km 3,450ft 1150m Loop below the Eastman Glacier, shorter from the parking lot

When I got back to the lookout, I found that my friend had gotten to participate in a surprise activity. The fire lookout caretakers from the Skagit Alpine Club had shown up to do some seasonal maintenance. They were an eclectic group and all shared a common passion for the lookout.

The lookout was full of all kinds of quirky little things, like a mini rainbow xylophone, some games, notebooks, antique maps. It seemed likely that this group was responsible for many of these objects and had placed each one intentionally with a vision. My friend got to help them out painting the railings to help shield the wood from the elements. They put a couple of the shutters down, but were kind enough to leave most of them open for us. They said they have to close them all for the winter because the storms are harsh enough to do some damage. The year before one had blown off and ripped right off its hinges. One of their missions today was replacing it with a new one they had built and carried up the trail.

Lots of people came and went throughout the afternoon. One particularly memorable family had a berry picking claw scoop. I had never seen one before, but they said it worked and their youngest child’s blue face was proof of that. We took some family photos for them and I’m not sure it they were smiling more or if we were. That kid’s teeth were just as blue as his face was!

Around 3PM a guy showed up and forcefully announced that he was staying in the lookout for the night. If he was nice about it or had arrived earlier in the day we might have been more sympathetic and invited him to sleep on the floor, but many people had been up that morning and had already been turned away by the caretakers. He and his girlfriend spent over four hours taking photos in and around the lookout with a variety of outfits and props. That entire time they never spoke to us or anyone else except asking people to stay out of the way. They ended up setting up camp just below the stairs and were back for round 2 at first light.

We had a second rude guest, although this one was cute about it. While we were sitting inside a chipmunk suddenly popped in the door, took a look at us, and dove under the bed. We spent a little while trying to chase it out, but it seemed pretty determine to stay and there were far too many things to hide under.

Around sunset the lookout got busy again. Lots of people gathered on the balcony to watch the sunset and we joined them with some canned wine. Most people were camping nearby. There was a jovial comradery as we swapped adventure stories of exploits in Washington and around the world and talked about food. The only thing that was missing was a campfire to keep us all warm, so as soon as the colors faded the cold started to set in and we sadly all parted ways.

Park Butte Lookout - Washington State

Part 3 - Overnight

We burrowed into our sleeping bags, but the night wasn’t quite over yet. One of the caretakers had left us with a parting gift. We set an alarm and when it went off we bundled up and went outside to watch and wait. Right to the minute, we saw something moving across the sky over Bellingham. It was the international space station. It came straight at us, glided over Mount Baker, and was gone. Slow enough to easily track across the sky, but impossibly fast! It is so crazy to think that humans can survive up there moving at more than 4 miles per second, making an infinite loop of the earth. I wonder what it feels like.

We settled into the creaky bed and waited for sleep. I thought back on all the history this place has seen.

Imagine being a fire lookout person out here on your own, back before the roads were built. You are in pristine wilderness far from civilization, with just the thread of a phone wire as your only link. One that could easily be severed by storm or chance. Would you embrace the solitude or would it eat away at you as you searched the horizon for smoke?

Now it is WWII and again you search the horizon, but this time for planes. Do you feel safe in your perch away from the violence or worry for someone back home?

I wonder if the astronauts on the space station and the lookouts here over the years would feel any kinship? Both in an incredible place in the service of something bigger than themselves, but with some of the discomforts of “camping,” albeit under very different circumstances. Would you prefer the freedom of the physical space of the mountains with limited human contact, or the confined living of a spacecraft as part of a team for months at a time?

I wonder if Native people ever watched the sunset or sunrise over Koma Kulshan (Mount Baker’s original name) from these rocks? How did they feel about the mountain?

That night the wind howled around the lookout and made some truly frightening sounds, but the lookout didn’t budge. Some others I have been in flex or shake in the wind, but this one is quite solid. At least once I was woken by silence. It is funny how you can become comfortable enough with the howling that it would lull you to sleep and silence would be a sudden shock.

The morning came with gloomy skies and no sunrise. The mist raced around the mountain tops. We ate, packed up, and hurried down the mountain in hopes of avoiding the rain.

On our way down we joined another hiker with a large pack of gear. He was a mountain guide and had successfully summited with a group the day before. Maybe their lights had been the ones we had seen creeping up the mountain before first light the day before. He said there had been a couple science groups from one of the universities up there taking samples and measurements Friday and Saturday. Our strangely full parking lot Friday night mystery was solved!

We got some light rain on the way down and were back in the car by 9AM. The entire way down we didn’t see anyone headed up, so no early taker for the lookout that Sunday with a storm rolling in.

General Trail Info

Trail Head: Northern Cascades - Route 20 North Cascades Highway

GPS Coordinates: 48.514166, -121.221859 Map

Trail Notes
  • Moderate Trail
  • Moderate Road
  • 7.5 miles out and back
  • 2200 ft Elevation Gain
  • Toilets at trailhead
  • Dog friendly
  • Best time to visit is summer, check reports for snow conditions
  • Need a Pass - US Forest Services (see Recreation Passes and Permits for options)
  • Water crossings - sometimes there is a bridge

Limited parking at the end of a 15 mile dirt/gravel road. By National Forest Road standards this one is pretty good. Most of it is wide and just a little bumpy and you can make pretty good time. There are a couple pot hole sections that require a little careful driving, but the road is wide enough to zig zag around most of them. The lot at the end has lots of parking, including a horse trailer section, but it does fill up. This is a very popular backpacking and hiking area.

More Info & Trail Reports

Park Butte - WTA

Weather - Mount Baker - Check out the two lower elevations for a idea of what to expect.

Diving Conditions - This is one of the better dirt roads but the conditions change every year. Here is a taste of what it was like in 2022.

What to Bring?

  • The Basics - Good to have on any hike

  • Footwear: Hiking shoes, preferably waterproof.

  • Sleeping Bag: I had a Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20° similar bag which was overkill and I didn’t even have to zip it.

  • Sleeping Pad: Even if you sleep on the bed it is good to have one to reserve you spot and as a barrier between you and that mattress. I used an inflatable one with a built in “pump.” It is super compact, but a little crinkly.

  • Camp Stove: You can survive the night on cold food, but it is always a nice treat to have something hot. A very basic stove will work here since you are sheltered, but you might not want to count on it for a real backwoods adventure with possible inclement weather. For an overnight like this I would just bring the stove, fuel, a pan for water, and a spork.

  • Food: As much as you will eat and then some, but preferably not enough to feed a family of 4, like we brought. You can go simple with something like ramen, dehydrated backpacking meals, or RiteRice. A little fancier and try to cook some real food, or super simple peanut butter and jelly or tuna. I like to do some wheat wraps with salami and cheese for lunch, and bring nuts, mini microwaved sweet potatoes, some fruit, and TJs Nuts on a Date Bar for snacks. I’m not a big fan of the dehydrated meals, but a dal packet and a rice packet make a really quick tasty dinner (usually more than I can eat). Breakfast can be simple oatmeal or overnight oats.

  • Light: Make sure you pack a headlamp and I like to have a small solar light.

  • Water Filter: Unless you are going to carry all your water you will probably want a filter. I have a Sawyer Filter and it works well but is a little time consuming and it can be hard to fill the bag. A water bottle or using a large ziploc bag to scoop and fill the bladders can make it a bit easier. I also use a Sawyer Gravity Filter for longer trips.

  • Sandals: I like to have a change of shoes so I can take off my boots and still have something to wear in the evening. Sandals are also good to have if the water happens to be high.

  • Extra clothes and layers: It may get cold at night so bring something warm.

  • Carabineer or hook and bag: Something to hang your food at night. You are inside but there are still critters. The lookout had some hooks and string on the ceiling.

  • Toilet paper and a bag to pack out

Where is the most interesting place you have ever stayed?
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