The Fire Lookouts of Mount Rainier National Park

The Suntop and Tolmie Peak lookouts are two of five lookout stations that can be found in, or near, Mount Rainier National Park. Top photo by Gary Hagemeister via VisitRainer.com, bottom photo courtesy of VisitRainer.com

Editor's note: While many fire lookouts across the National Park System are no longer actively staffed, thanks in large part to higher tech options for monitoring lighting strikes, many of these lookouts remain, aging sentinels that recall an earlier day of fire prevention in the national forests and parks. Thanks to the folks at VisitRainier we're able to share the following article by Craig Romano on the fire lookouts of Mount Rainier National Park.

Snow-clad and draped in glacial-ice, it seems unlikely that wildfire would pose a threat to Mount Rainier. However, ringing the base of the 14,410-foot volcano is a nearly unbroken canopy of towering firs, hemlocks, and cedars within the 235,000-acre national park. And surrounding the park are millions of acres of additional timberland managed within national and state forests and private tree farms.

When the nascent United States Forest Service decided that it was a good idea to start building fire lookouts to watch over this treasure trove of timber, they looked toward Rainier’s lofty slopes as the perfect spots to site them.

In 1916 the U.S. Forest Service constructed a stone shelter for fire watching at 9,584-feet on Mount Rainier’s Anvil Rock just below Muir Camp. The rock hovel was replaced 12 years later by a cupola cabin. And while this location did indeed provide excellent fire finding with its sweeping horizon spanning views, all too often it was shrouded in clouds prohibiting any viewing at all.

That was the issue too with the park’s second fire lookout situated on a 7,176-foot point on the Colonnade on Rainier’s northwest shoulder. Built in 1930, it was soon taken out of use, replaced by a new tower at lower Sunset Park. But Anvil Rock remained staffed until 1942, not so much as to report fires but to record weather data. Soon after the first tower was constructed on Mount Rainier, both the park service and the forest service realized what many hikers know today—that some of the best and more reliable alpine views are not on the mountain itself, but on the surrounding lower ridges and knobs immune to near perpetual cloud cover.

By the 1930s, the Park Service and Forest Service began surveying more appropriate locations for fire lookout placement. And with the nation now in a Great Depression with millions of unemployed young men enrolled in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), forest and park officials had an army of labor at their disposal to construct new fire towers.

Up they went, mostly two-story cabins with wrap around balconies, simple in elegance and utilitarian in design. Within the national park seven new fire towers were built: Shriner Peak (el. 5,846-feet) in 1932; Tolmie Peak (el. 5,939-feet) in 1933; Sunset Park (el. 5,530-feet) in 1933; Gobblers Knob (el. 5,485-feet) in 1933; Mount Fremont (el. 7,181-feet) in 1934, and; Crystal Mountain (el. 6,605-feet) and another lookout on a nearby knoll above Crystal Lake (el. 6,595-feet) in 1934.

And along the park’s periphery in the Snoqualmie National Forest (now Mount Baker-Snoqualmie), Wenatchee National Forest (now Okanogan-Wenatchee) and Columbia National Forest (now Gifford Pinchot) the CCC constructed scores of fire lookouts on ridges, knolls, and summits. To the north, lookouts sprouted up on Clear West Peak, Suntop, Kelley Butte, and Bearhead Mountain, among others.

To the south, a precariously built lookout was constructed above sheer ledges on 5,685-foot High Rock. And a lookout was built on a 6,310-foot rounded knoll in the Tatoosh Range, where long before beat poet Jack Kerouac immortalized the Deception Peak lookout in the North Cascades author Mary Hardy penned a well-received book, Tatoosh, in 1947 about her experiences as a fire watch during World War II.

Along Mount Rainier National Park’s western boundary, a lookout tower was built in 1934 on 5,450-foot Glacier View peak. Thirty years later, the Washington Department of Natural Resources constructed a tower on 4,930-foot Puyallup Ridge. It still stands and is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. However, it is rarely visited due to access issues over private land.

But the lookouts that still remain within the national park and adjacent national forest lands are accessible (mostly by trail) to the general public. Within Mount Rainier National Park, four fire towers remain, one in each corner of the park. And while these four survivors share the same construction, two-story wood-framed with wrap-around windows and balcony, they each provide a unique view and perspective of the sprawling forests surrounding Mount Rainier, and of the mountain itself.

Tolmie Peak Lookout

Sitting watch over the northwest corner of the park, Tolmie’s 5939-foot summit commands impressive views from “the Mountain” to “the Sound.” The trailhead is reached via the Mowich Lake Road where you follow the Wonderland Trail north for 1.5 miles to Ipsut Pass. Then bear left for 1.7 miles through open forest and sub-alpine meadows skirting sparkling Eunice Lake before making the final ascent to the peak.

Mount Fremont Lookout

Perched on a ridge over 7,000 feet, the Mount Fremont lookout has the distinction of being Rainier’s highest remaining lookout. Situated in the drier northeast side of the park, the meadows here are punctuated with pumice and rock. The view of Rainier’s impressive Willis Wall and Emmons Glacier is breathtaking. Thanks to a lofty trailhead elevation of 6,400’ at Sunrise, you need not work hard hiking the 2.7 miles to this lookout.

Shriner Peak

The loneliest of Rainier’s lookouts, Shriner guards the quiet southeast corner of the park. The 4.2-mile hike to this 5,834-foot peak begins off of SR 123. With over 3,400-feet of elevation gain, the trail is often deserted. Consequently, chances are good here for viewing wildlife. Much of the peak’s lower slopes were engulfed by a wildfire (before the lookout was constructed) creating open meadows and prime habitat. Bear, elk, deer, and grouse are abundant on Shriner.

Gobbler’s Knob

At 5,485-feet, Gobbler’s Knob is the lowest of Rainier’s lookouts. It used to be the shortest to reach, too, just a 2.5-mile hike from Round Pass off of the West Side Road. But Tahoma Creek has continuously flooded this road, forcing its closure. To reach the trailhead now, you must first bike or walk an additional 4 miles each way.

The trail cuts through incredibly lush and thick forest en route to the lookout. Placid Lake George offers respite from the continuous green canopy. Gobbler’s Knob has the distinction of being the closest lookout to the colossal volcano. From the viewing platform it feels as if “The Mountain” is breathing right down your neck.

Nearby, remaining lookouts on national forest lands also invite exploring and make for excellent hiking destinations.

Suntop

Perched on a 5,271-foot open knoll just to the north of Mount Rainier National Park, is the restored 1934-built Suntop fire tower. Reached by FR 7315 (off of FR 73 near The Dalles Campground on SR 410) Suntop is a popular family picnicking and sightseeing spot. Hikers and mountain bikes can access it by following a 7.5-mile trail from Buck Creek off of SR 410. And snowshoers and cross-country skiers follow the closed road in winter to the lookout.

High Rock

Perhaps the most dramatic of the remaining lookouts in the area, this 1930-built structure sits on a 5,685-foot precipitous peak along the appropriately named Sawtooth Ridge. And it’s only a 1.4-mile hike to this exhilarating destination teetering above sheer cliffs over 600 feet high. The trailhead is reached by following FR 8440 from Skate Creek Road (FR 52).

Kelly Butte

A fire tower has graced this isolated and rocky 5,409-foot knob since 1926. The current structure, built in 1950, was recently restored by volunteers. The trail has been rebuilt in places, making what was once a short and steep trail a little less steep. Besides great views of Mount Rainier, here as with Mount Fremont chances are good of seeing mountain goats. Reach the 1.7-mile trail via FR 7030 (rough in places) off of the Greenwater River Road (FR 70).

These remaining lookouts, like many of the surviving fire lookouts from coast to coast, are primarily no longer used for fighting forest fires. Succumbing to aircraft surveillance, these backcountry sentinels remain in place as historic landmarks, much admired by visitors. But beyond their weathered clapboards they also provide unsurpassed views of Washington’s beloved lofty landmark, Mount Rainier. No longer needed to suppress wildfires, these lookouts now ignite passion and awe in their admirers by offering some of the hottest views in the Northwest.

Comments

In some places, the Forest Service has started renting towers out for hikers or families to stay in overnight or longer. It must be an incredible experience to be able to spend a day or two in places like that.

Any chance NPS might try the same kind of thing. I'd jump at the chance to rent for a day or two.

Nice and informative article. For my photo guide for Mt. Rainier NP, I have a similar information Web page at http://www.wsrphoto.com/mtlookouts.html along with a map Web page at http://www.wsrphoto.com/mtlookoutsmap.html. I didn't include Kelly Butte because, while the view of Mt. Rainier from it are great, it's not in the direction most people go to visit Mt. Rainier. Thanks for your additional information.

Our company has provided aluminum fire wrap to protect lookouts like these and other historical structures from wildfires for several years now. We have always enjoyed knowing we help preserve these beautiful buildings for future generations. It would be nice if they were open for people to rent for overnights. It would really help people understand the need to protect our forests and history.

I was priviliged to live at Suntop Lookout for two summers in the 1960's and at Kelly Butte for two summers also. The isolation of Kelly Butte was fulfilling and the immediacy of Mt. Rainier for Suntop was wonderous. My most memorable moment was when I woke at 6 in the morning on a clear day listening to a bagpiper walking up to Suntop. I often think of our Fire Control Officer, Don Karou, and thank him for the job that I was made for and should have worked at until retirement.

In the early 80's I was fortunate to have a seasonal backcountry position at Mount Rainier and stayed several times in Gobblers Knob lookout, a beautiful experience. I still remember staying there on July 4 and watching multiple very distant fireworks displays from Puyallup to Seattle through binocs. Can't imagine being in one during a thunderstorm--there was a stool one had to sit on during an electrical storm that had ceramic insulators on the legs--I'd think it'd still be terrifying, though. The last time I visited the Knob in 2007, the lookout had been destroyed in a storm, but I see it has since been rebuilt.

Additions and Corrections:

Five lookout towers were built between 1932 and 1934. They were Shriner Peak, Tolmie, Gobbler's Knob, Mount Fremont, and Crystal Peak.
Four of the five are still standing and in use as back country rangers stations. Crystal Peak was removed in the 1960s. Crystal Mountain was at one time a lookout post but didn't have a building. The Sunset Park Lookout was built in 1948.

When I returned from Korea in 1970, manning one of these lookouts was my dream job; a dream never realized.