The vast, rugged landscape of Washington state is home to a multitude of secrets, hidden on spectacular high trails above the trees, and opening the door to a multitude of exciting adventures. Washington’s fire huts were once the first line of defense against forest fires, manned by volunteers who would spend summers in isolation. But now the huts offer overnight lodging and unique vantage points high above Washington’s craggy landscapes.
Here are classic fire huts in the upper left corner of the continental U.S.
With a relatively easy trail and a breathtaking view of Mt. Rainier, Fremont Lookout offers stunning vistas with a 5.6-mile round trip trail and just over 900 feet of elevation gain. The 1934-constructed hut is one of four remaining near Mt. Rainier, and plays home to mountain goats and black bear. In spring, the landscape lends itself to colorful carpets of wildflowers, contrasting nearby Rainier’s icy glaciers. As hikers climb higher, they are rewarded with an ever-expanding skyline of peaks, stretching for miles in the distance. This is a great trail for casual hikers or those with families and young children.
Constructed in 1918, Mt. Pilchuck fire hut is among one of Washington’s most popular, with an often crowded trail but and spectacular overlook of the North Cascades and several Washington’s famed volcanoes. The 3-mile trail, which gains just over 2,100 feet, climbs moderately steep and rocky sections. Along the way, hikers pass the remnants of the former Mt. Pilchuck ski area, which featured a rope-tow and chairlift but closed in the 1970’s. The peak is an exceptional climb throughout much of the year, and exhilarating in winter, however under snow it is prone to avalanches.
Built in 1935, Winchester Lookout features one of the finest skylines in the state. With overreaching views of Mt. Baker, Shuksan, Granite Peak, the Pickets, plus vistas all the way into British Columbia. Sitting just above Twin Lakes, hikers can choose to camp down below and make the lookout a day-trip, or camp inside the lookout on a first-come, first-serve basis. In winter, Winchester makes for a spectacular snowshoe or ski-in/ski-out experience, with an easy but secluded experience, made only difficult by a long approach into Twin Lakes. The location, plus the remote feel make Winchester Mountain one of the most-loved fire huts in the state.
As with Desolation Peak, Sourdough mountain has its own literary distinction as it was the temporary home for Beatnik poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder who occupied the space in the 1950’s. The vibrant wildflower-carpeted peak stands proudly above Diablo Lake, between a skyline of jagged granite mountains and lush pine forests in Northern Washington. The trail is one of the more difficult, following a series of switchbacks that rise well above tree line to a prominent lookout over the lakes, forests, and peaks.
Set at the heart of the North Cascades, Desolation Peak is one of the more strenuous hikes in the state and a difficult hut to reach. But it has historical significance, as it was the summer residence of writer Jack Kerouac. In 1956, Kerouac spent 63 days in the summer as a fire watchman. During that time, he formulated his ideas for Lonesome Traveler, The Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels. At the top, hikers are offered views high above Ross Lake, including Jack Mountain, and the jagged spire-like Hozomeen Mountain. For literary lovers of Kerouac’s work, Desolation Peak is almost like a pilgrimage.
Three Fingers Lookout
Dramatically perched above the Mountain Loop Highway, Three Fingers Lookout is one of Washington’s most iconic and spectacular fire huts, soaring high above the glacier. Three Fingers is one of the grand prizes of fire lookout excursions involving glacier crossings, steep ladder climbing, scrambling, and ultimate remoteness. Getting to the lookout involves knowledge of technical skills including ice axes and rope, but the perch allows for overnight stays and one-of-a-kind views and accommodations in the heart of the Cascades. Getting to Three Fingers isn’t for the faint of heart, but at an elevation of 6,854 feet it’s certainly one of Washington’s most unforgettable experiences.
It’s important to treat the fire huts and historical structures with care and respect including avoiding overcrowding, denouncing and reporting vandalism, and owning a sense of responsibility and stewardship for these extraordinary places. Treat them with the care and respect that any wild area deserves.