Park Butte Lookout Trail was definitely a highlight of my summer so far this year. I’ve never been able to successfully camp in a Washington fire lookout until this trip, years after I moved away Seattle! This moderate hike has all the things: panoramic mountain views, glacier views, meadows, and an old growth forest. If camping in a fire lookout is on your list, this Park Butte Guide is for you!
Land Acknowledgement: Coast Salish , Sauk Suiattle, and Skagit Land. Find what Native Land you are visiting by using the app Native Land! I encourage you to read the history and culture of the Indigenous people who’s land you are visiting!
Table Of Contents
- Park Butte Trail at a Glance
- History For the Nerds Like Me
- Park Butte Lookout Trail Directions
- Park Butte Lookout Trailhead
- Hiking to the Lookout
- Staying the Night in the Lookout
- Leave No Trace Principles
- My Experience
- Nearby Destinations:
- Conclusion: Park Butte Lookout
Park Butte Trail at a Glance
This Moderate Hike is approximately 7.2 miles roundtrip with 2,020 feet elevation gain located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The best seasons to hike this trail are July-October. There are NO reservations. It is a first come first serve experience to camp overnight there. I went in mid July and will chat about my experience with snow below!
- Northwest Forest Pass required or America the Beautiful Pass
- Dogs allowed on leash
- Permits not required/self issued at trailhead
History For the Nerds Like Me
Whenever I visit a structure high up in the mountains like this I always have so many questions. And of course I never have google in the backcountry to answer them.
Park Butte Fire Lookout was built in 1932. It was built to replace a tree that the fire guard would literally climb up to lookout. The roots from that tree still exist today at the base of the steps of the lookout. WILD. It took a team of 8 pack horses to haul up the materials and remained in service until 1961.
Koma Kulshan is the Indigenous Name for Mountain Baker
Park Butte Lookout Trail Directions
I used the navigation from AllTrails on Google Maps and it took me directly to the trailhead with no issues.
- 2 hours away from Seattle
- 5 hours away from Portland
From Seattle, take I-5 North to Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway). Turn left onto Baker Lake Road and another left on Northwest Forest Road 12 (NF-12). Stay right at the fork to go on NF-13 and this will lead you to the parking lot.
The road is a dirt road with plenty of potholes. I saw all sorts of different vehicles there! Having vehicle clearance is helpful, but not necessary to get there.
Park Butte Lookout Trailhead
The trailhead has a large parking space, but fills up VERY quickly. There are multiple trails that begin at this parking lot and one of the few climbing route options open right now for Mount Baker. The parking lot can hold approximately 50-60 vehicles and then more overflow parking on the road leading to the lot.
We drove here on a Monday morning, leaving Seattle around 8:30 am. Arriving at a moderately full parking lot was really disheartening because I thought for sure someone beat us to the lookout to camp, but stay tuned for that story.
Vault Toilets are available at the trailhead! Permits are not required for this backcountry camping experience.
New to backpacking? Check out these other guides I’ve provided on backpacking solo, what I bring backpacking and more!
Hiking to the Lookout
As mentioned before, we did this hike in Mid July of 2022. The snow melt was strangely slow this year, so there was quite a bit of snow when we did this hike. We did not need microspikes, but trekking poles definitely came in handy.
I always recommend some form of Navigation. My preferred form is using AllTrails offline maps that I downloaded before while I still had cell service. Especially in the snow, there were times where it was hard to know if we were going the right way.
I think the combination of hiking in on a Monday, coupled with a lot of snow still being present allowed us to have the lookout to ourselves.
Notable Trail Notes
The trail is very well maintained. Within the first mile you come to Rocky Creek. A footbridge is provided here during the months where deeper water is present. The rocks were a little tricky to navigate over but nothing like bouldering. My trekking poles again came in handy here.
After the rocky section, you enter an old growth forest where the switchbacks begin! Yay! Haha.
- Scott Paul Trail: branches off to the right 2 miles in and is a loop hike with several river crossings.
- Railroad Grade Trail: Leads to Easton Glacier and is used as a climbing route. Many people use this as an add on hike on the way down if you’re craving glacier views!
These junctions are well marked with arrows directing you to stay on Park Butte Trail.
Staying the Night in the Lookout
I’ve hiked to a few lookouts before, but was never able to stay in one overnight. I kind of knew what to expect because of this, but if you’re not familiar with fire lookouts, here’s what you can expect at this one.
Stated in the lookout is that you must not control who can and cannot enter the lookout. It also states that it is first come first served, so it’s a little contradictory in my opinion. We were luckily not in a situation where we needed to share. Two people hiked up after us and tented nearby.
We also hiked up with tents in case we were not the first ones at the lookout. Come prepared and assess the situation. We read many journals in the lookout log of groups of women having to share with 4+ strange men when they didn’t feel comfortable. I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation in the “rules”, and it’s even more complicated during a pandemic. Just be a decent human being and communicate politely. Please.
What is Provided?
This lookout included some lovely luxuries:
- a bed platform and thin sleeping pads
- blue bags for pooping (we’ll get to that)
- Locks – the door does lock, but not well
- A visitor log with many entertaining stories and artwork
Because the lookout sits at around 5,000 ft elevation gain, it does get chilly at night. Even when staying in the lookout, you are sheltered from the wind, but I woke up chilly a couple times.
Pooping at Park Butte Lookout
Haha. I really enjoy including this in my posts now. I used to have so much poop anxiety when I was new to the outdoors so, maybe this will help someone.
This particular lookout only allows pooping in blue bags (provided in the lookout drawer). Directions are also included in the lookout. But you basically poop on the snow/ground and then pick it and any toilet paper up like you would dog poop. Tie it off nice and good and pack it out with you. I prefer to bring a ziploc bag to put the blue bag in so that it is double bagged.
Do NOT leave or bury any toilet paper here. This place is way too popular. I prefer to bring a Kula Cloth (antimicrobial, reusable pee cloth) when peeing.
Leave No Trace Principles
Most people that get outdoors are familiar with the Leave No Trace or LNT Principles. If not I encourage you to check out the link. I’m going to break down some important things that I personally did not know much about as a beginner backpacker.
Tips for Packing Out what you Pack In
A lot of people don’t understand that you also need to pack out any food waste. This includes fruit/veggie peels, shells from nuts, etc. These things do break down, but at a VERY slow rate and also impact the wildlife in the area. Example: Banana peels can take up to 2 years to biodegrade. Wildlife can become too reliant on human food waste and lead to dangerous encounters as well as animals being put down due to this.
Bring a small garbage bag or ziploc and keep it accessible for your garbage.
We hit the trail around noon and arrived at the lookout around 3pm. Hiking there we essentially had no views due to fog. I think we were legitimately hiking in a cloud haha. When we were 0.5 miles away, a couple let us know that we would be the first campers to arrive at the lookout. This definitely made me motivated for the final push.
The snow for more than half the trail was really exhausting to hike it. It was very slushy and I made the mistake of hiking with trail runners. They were great for the grip they provided me, but a taller, waterproof option would have been great.
When we arrived at the lookout, it was pretty disorienting since we could not see any of the views. But as sunset approached the clouds began to clear and turned into a full blown cloud inversion, revealing Koma Kulshan or Mount Baker in all her glory.
Two brothers showed up 2 hours after us and shared the sunset with us! We all took turns taking photos of each other and gawking at the views.
It was truly a magical experience and was incredible sharing it with friends. We made dinner, drank wine, took hundreds of photos and played Yahtzee with 360 degrees of mountain views.
Looking for more backpacking trails in Washington? See my guide:
Looking for a unique Cabin Stay after Backpacking? See my guide:
Conclusion: Park Butte Lookout
Park Butte Trail Lookout is 7.2 miles roundtrip with 2,020 feet elevation gain and so worth the effort to get there. Come prepared with tents in case you do not have the option of staying in the lookout! Bring your favorite games and beverages and enjoy the incredible 360 views. If you don’t have time to overnight camp here, a day hike is just as beautiful!!
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