Trail Guide: Skyline Trail, Mount Rainier NP

This trail is hands down the best trail we hiked in 2020 and one of the top trails I’d say I’ve ever hiked. Very few views bring tears to my eyes and this trail did  just that. From 10 minutes into the hike until the very end I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were at least 5x more wildflowers covering this mountain side than I’ve seen anywhere even come close to, soaring mountain ridges and peaks as far as you can see, 300+ foot waterfalls gushing from glaciers, marmots for miles, and of course the imposing Mount Rainier itself looming over you as you climb. If you only have time for one hike in Rainier National Park or hell if you only do one hike in Washington state, go for this one. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 5-6 mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,680 feet
Difficulty: moderate
Time: 3 hours
Fees: The fee for Mt. Ranier NP is $30 or included with a National Park Pass.
Facilities: Bathrooms at the visitor center (at TH) and at Panorama Point

When to hike the Skyline Trail:

Early August through September/ early October. This trail takes a VERY long time to thaw and in fact the lower skyline trail was still closed due to sketchy ice crossings so we had to take the high skyline trail (not a problem anyways). If possible, plan your trip for August so that the entire loop is open and safe and the wildflowers are at their peak.

*Special tip: go in the evening for less crowds and absolutely stunning lighting. We started at around 4:30 PM and the beginning of the trail was a little crowded (still not bad for a NP) and there weren’t many people at all along the rest of the loop. 

Trailhead directions: 

The trail starts behind the Paradise NP Visitor Center and is easy to find. From Ashford, WA, drive and park anywhere in the massive lot for the visitor center. Take the John Muir quoted stairs up and head to the left following signs for Skyline. I highly recommend hiking this loop in the clockwise direction so follow signs left instead of right. The first portion of the trail is STEEP but paved and is shared by multiple trails so don’t fret if it feels very busy. 

Skyline Trail description:

The first 0.5 mile or so is paved and steep. Don’t worry though. While your heart rate and sweat rate maybe high, you will be amazed at the blanket of wildflowers surrounding every trail bend and the views of Rainier only get more impressive as you climb. Eventually other trails like Glacier View will branch off to the left. Keep right and the pavement will turn to dirt as you start up the skyline trail. The wildflowers continue to amaze as you climb and you’ll start catching glimpses of dozens of waterfalls cascading from the glaciers on the mountain. 

Keep an eye out as well for the mischievous marmot. They. were. everywhere. You’ll be able to see where the glacier view trail ends and the glacier begins as you readily climb above that glacier terminus. Here the views of the mountain are the most incredible. While all the glaciers we saw in the N. Cascades were undoubtedly impressive, nothing really compared to how close you come to the glaciers along the Skyline Trail. 

The hike post Nisqually Glacier turn off

In the not so far distance you can see (and hear) the incredible Wilson Falls which are just over 300 feet tall falling from the glacier of the same name. The trail will give you a short break from the climb and turn you away from the mountain towards the other impressive view and what I actually think of as the skyline. 

Nothing really compares to how close to the mountain you feel. It’s giant and incredible and yet there you are standing beneath it and feeling more and more empowered as you hike. There’s few hikes that really do that for me.

There are conical mountain peaks in all directions and incredible shaped ridges just across the way. A small trail will branch off on the left but continue straight as the trail takes a couple stairs and starts climbing again.

Just after the iconic (but short) stairs section of the hike you’ll reach Panorama Point. Again this is one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen in fact I may just have cried a little bit at this spot as I just couldn’t take it all in. (I’m pretty sure Braden got sick of hearing “I can’t handle this’ and “I can’t even”) 

Panorama Point

Views like this, I mean come on! Photos below of me trying to handle my feelings about this hike.

At panaroma point, you will sometimes have options. There is a trail that cuts right across to where you start descending; however this trail sometimes never thaws and the snowy trail can disguise many hazardous conditions such as unstable ice and glacier river ice bridges. If the trail says closed, believe it. It is only another 200-300 foot climb until you are done climbing and the next uphill section is pretty cool.

This is taken from the other side looking at Panorama Point and you can see a “trail” in the snow. It is very hazardous and should not be attempted in these conditions.

At this point you likewise “might not even” and could be skipping up the trail like I was….. so what is 300 more feet of climbing. In fact I never wanted to go down, instead I wanted to bask in the beauty that was 360 all around me. 

The next little bit of climb also introduces you nicely to the volcanic terrain. The terrain becomes less dusty and dirty and turns to black rocks and cliffs (surrounded by ever present snow fields which make quite the contrast)

The return hike

Now you will have finally reached the end of the climb and can start descending. You can just about see the entire trail down from the vantage points up there. After 30 minutes or so of descent you’ll reach another trail option. 

You can take the Golden Gate trail (a more direct and steep but beautiful trail.) Or you can take the full skyline route which goes near the Paradise Glacier hike turn off and adds about 1 mile. We were running out of daylight so we opted for the shorter Golden Gate trail. 
ZERO regrets.

The Golden Gate Trail

The trail switchbacks down in even more glorious series of wildflower meadows than you start out in and has 2-3 visible waterfalls the entire way. We only saw a few people but saw at least 20 marmots and 1 billy goat. It. was. glorious.

The marmots unfortunately target my favorite wild flower- Indian Paintbrush but there were still plenty of flowers to go around. Again I was positively skipping when normally at this point in a “moderate” trail I’d be ready to be done.

Myrtle Falls

I still wasn’t ready to be done and I maybe never will be. (take me back!) After the short switchbacks the trail mellows out and crosses a bridge which looks down on the stunning Myrtle Falls and UP at the incredible Mt. Rainier. The trail once again changes to pavement here and I highly recommend going down the short little detour to the Myrtle Falls overlook.


After the falls, you continue straight along the paved trail eventually catching glimpses of the National Park Inn and then the visitor center. The loop completes right at the same Muir stairs you started from. 

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Guide to North Cascades National Park

The North Cascades National Park is one of America’s least visited National Park and definitely less busy than it’s big name neighbors Mount Rainier and Olympus. Like all outdoor spaces these days, it is increasing in popularity and for good reason: It’s awesome! It’s the one place/ park in the lower 48 states where you can see the most glaciers and the layers upon layers of mountains go on forever. It’s home to beautiful glacial lakes and towering Pacific Cedar trees. If you’ve got a couple days in Washington, I highly recommend a 2 day (at least) visit to this incredible park.

Best day hikes in North Cascades National Park:

Best hikes for families:

Blue Lake

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of WA is a short and sweet hike to a dreamy alpine lake with views of the incredible Liberty towers and many nearby peaks. It’s great for the whole family although I wouldn’t recommend a dip in this lake- it’s cold! You can check out my entire trail guide here for this hike.

Distance: 4.8 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate

Trail of the Cedars:

This is a great short 1 mile RT hike through towering Cedar trees with informational plaques on the flora as well as a really cool suspension bridge right at the start. This trail is great for families as it is flat and there’s lots of fun Cedar trunks you can climb in and a wide trail for people to spread out on. Read my official trail description here:

Distance: 1 mile RT
Elevation Gain: flat
Difficulty: Easy

Best hikes for experienced adventurers:

Cascade Pass Hike

Cascade Pass offers views of several impressive peaks and glaciers and on warm days you can hear blocks of ice break off of nearby glaciers booming down the mountainside. It’s a decent climb up 30-some switchbacks that define the first 2.7 miles of trail and then a little beyond that. It’s only 1800 feet over 3.5 miles to the pass so doable for experience hiker families but not a walk in the park either. Get there early to snag a parking spot, especially on weekends. The road out is also a long unpaved journey- take it slow.

Distance: 7 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 1800 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

Park Butte Lookout Hike

The best hike in the North Cascade range has to be Parke Butte Lookout. It’s challenging without being ridiculous, bursts with wildflowers in the summer, and just offers jaw dropping views from a beautiful, historic WA lookout. I consider it one of the best hikes in Washington state if you are up for the challenge and don’t mind the crowds. For a more detailed trail guide, visit my post just for this hike here.

Distance: 8.2 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2030 feet
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous

Hidden Lake Lookout Hike

Like Park Butte lookout, this is another strenuous trail that offers a reward of being up close to multiple mountain summits and touching the sky itself in a beautifully preserved lookout. This is likely the most difficult trail on the list (right after Park Butte) and one that we missed being short on time. If you can, this is another fantastic hike experiencing beautiful WA backcountry and offering a chance (First come first serve) at staying the night in a historic lookout.

Distance: 9 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 2900 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous

Must see in North Cascades NP:

Washington Pass

This is a great viewpoint to stop and stretch your legs while taking in the views of one of the highest points along Hwy 20. The viewpoint is just under 0.2 miles RT from the parking lot and offers amazing views of the Liberty towers and  Liberty Bell Mountain. It also includes cool informational plaques about the building of the North Cascades Scenic Route 20 and designation of the park back in the 1970s. This viewpoint is right around the corner from Blue Lake’s trail head.

Diablo Lake Viewpoint

This is another glorified parking area with astounding views of Diablo Lake. Diablo Lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Diablo Dam and is great for canoeing or kayaking. The brilliant turquoise color comes from glacier flour (ground up rocks from nearby glaciers) that is suspended in the water.

When to visit North Cascades National Park:

While some roads and trails are still accessible in the winter, the North Cascades are definitely full glory starting in Early August. If you visit earlier than August, you risk the road to Artist Point still being closed and some of the trails still being icy. A visit in August ensures meadows bursting with wildflowers as well. Visit into the Fall (mid Sept- Oct) for less crowds and golden larches.

National Park Fees:

There is no fee to enter the park! However be mindful as a lot of the listed trails are just outside the park and managed by BLM so require at $5 fee if you don’t have a pass.

Where to stay near in the North Cascades:

There are not many towns within the park however I highly recommend some of the towns along the outskirt.

Winthrop: Best access for hiking Blue Lake and seeing both Washington Pass and Diablo Lake view point. (also one of the cutest towns we visited in Washington)

Concrete: Best access for Cascade Pass, Trail of the Cedars, Hidden Lake Lookout or Park Butte Lookout.

Hotels:

  1. Rivers Edge Resort– Winthrop $100+ in summer. We stayed here and absolutely LOVED it. It is located perfect on main street in Winthrop meaning you can walk to the (limited) restaurants and bars and really enjoy the old wild west feel of the town. Each of their cabins is private, well thought out, and most have private hot tubs on their balconies. We loved our stay here!
  2. Cascade Mt. Baker Hotel – $90 in summer. Great spot especially for hitting Park Butte lookout as it is the closest hotel to the TH. The room was huge, comfortable, and convenient to any of the again limited food options in Concrete.

Best campgrounds:

  1. Goodell Creek Campground- FREE. Easy access to the Skagit River for kayaking/ boating receational activities. 19 first come, first serve sites- vault toilets and drinking water, no showers or hookups.
  2. Gorge Lake – $10. Easy access with a boat launch and nice views onto Gorge lake. 8 sites available online. Vault toilets only- no drinking water or hookups.
  3. South Loop campgound- $16. Easy access with boat launch onto Diablo Lake boat launch. Reserve online during high season. Flush toilets and potable water/ no hookups or showers.
  4. Newhalem – $16. Very convenient to the Trail of the Cedars and other close by nature walks. Reservable online (see link below) and has flush toilets and potable water- no showers or hookups.

*For more options and details about camping in North Cascades National Parks- or to make reservations, click here.

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Trail Guide: Park Butte Lookout

Whew ok this hike- top 3 hikes in Washington EASY. It is a workout but not too draining, and has some of the best views of any hike we did except the Skyline Trail in Rainier NP. It has a cool river crossing, heaps of wildflowers, up close glacier views, and one of the most unique fire lookouts I’ve seen. There is also the added bonus of staying the night in the lookout but it is FCFS and incredibly difficult to snag. 

Park Butte Trail Details:

Distance: 8.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,030 feet
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult
Time: 3-5 hours
Fees: $5 National forest cash fee at the TH or display your NW Forest Pass/ National Park Pass

Trailhead directions:

If you are travelling from further W than Concrete or Seattle, take HWY 20 and turn left onto Baker Lake Rd. If you stayed in the town of Concrete, you can take a shorter route on Burpee Hill RD. Both of these roads converege at Lake Tyee and become just Baker Lake Rd. Once you pass Lake Tyee, you will drive another 5.5 miles to a left turn onto road NF-12. (This is where the dirt road fun begins). Drive 3.5 miles and turn right onto NF-13. Once on NF-13 you will drive 5.2 miles until the road dead ends in a large parking lot. The gravel road is full of deep put holes. Passenger cars can make it if you drive carefully and avoid the deepest of the pot holes. 

About Park Butte Lookout

This stunning lookout was built in 1932 to keep an eye out for wildfires in the surrounding Mt. Baker valleys. It is excellently perched with amazing vantage points of the Twin Sisters mountain range and even views of Rainier far off on the horizon. While the NFS has more advanced ways of keeping an eye out for wildfires now, you can see how well placed this lookout was back in the day. It is now just one of 106 lookouts left in WA and one of even fewer that you can enter and sleep in. The lookout is now maintained by the Skagit Mountain Club. 

Stay the night in Park Butte lookout

Sleeping in the lookout is free and available on a first-come first-serve basis. There is one double bed frame (Bring your own pads/ sleeping bags) and technically there is room for at least 2 more people on the floor. There are nearby water sources (about a 30 minute hike back down the trail) but the water is somewhat sulfur-y and not the most enjoyable tasting. I’d recommend packing in at least 3 liters and only using the water up there to boil and cook with. (you can drink it with a filter- it just tastes terrible) All waste must be packed out. Plan on using a wag bag for poop. 

If you want a shot at sleeping IN the lookout (especially during high season), plan a 2 night backpacking trip so you can tent camp near the lookout the first night and snag the lookout first thing the next morning. This is what MOST people do and the lookout is guaranteed to be taken every night. We didn’t bring tents with us so we started hiking up at 6:30 AM on a Tuesday morning. We were definitely the first people on the trail (I know because I hit every single spider web) and we got to the lookout at 8:30 AM only to have missed it by 30 minutes since a couple had tent camped the night before. It is extremely common to backpack a few nights up there… Plan ahead.

Trail Description:

The trail starts just to the right of the trail porta potties. The beginning of the hike is a relatively flat walk through boggy meadows with nice maintained boardwalks. After just under a mile, the trail leaves the meadows and enters a rocky boulder field with active rivers flowing down from the glaciers. The NFS maintains a bridge on this trail but it frequently changes position. Watch for cairns to show you the best place to cross through the boulders and water crossings. 

Once through the rocky fields, the trail will start to pick up on elevation gain quickly and the next 2 miles are definitely the worst part. The trail steeply switchbacks up the mountainside though the trees so views are a little limited (and if you are first on the trail, the cob webs are out of control)

The meadows

Eventually you will reach a signed fork in the trail and will only have 1.5 miles left. Keep left at this trail split and prepare yourself to encounter some incredible views. The trail will leave the trees and re-enter high alpine meadows bursting with all sorts of wildflowers. While the trail does still continue to gain quite a bit in elevation, the views are so good it is easier to forget you are working hard. 

Two more trails will split off to the right but keep left and within another couple minutes of your amazing views of Mount Baker you will start to be able to see the lookout. The last bit of the trail looks steep but is actually well graded all the way to the lookout. Take some time to enjoy the small tarns and reflections you can get of Mount Baker on clearer days. 

When you get to the tarns and lookdown on the small lake, you are almost there! Believe me, the views just KEEP getting better!

Once you reach the lookout, take in some of the incredible history and views of 1 hell of a lookout. There’s a “poem” and a guest registry inside and a few sturdy chairs around on the deck. Have your lunch and enjoy your stay before returning back down the same trail. 

Almost to the hut and the views were awesome

A note on crowds:

This trail is very busy on the weekends but on a Tuesday morning wasn’t bad at all. We got to the lookout at 8:30AM and hung around until about noon. In that block of time there were about 6 small groups of people that came and went. Overall don’t plan on having the place to yourself (even if you snag it for the night as other campers will be around) but who can blame anyone with views like this.

Additional Photo Gallery

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Trail Guide to Blue Lake in the North Cascades

Washington is definitely the land of stunning alpine lakes, and Blue Lake is numbered among 1 of the must dos. It’s great for families or adventurers just looking for a shorter time out. While it’s definitely still a bit of a work out, the switchbacks are all excellently graded and the overall length is short and sweet. The lake at the end is stunning and I particularly couldn’t get enough of the surrounding mountain peaks and spires of the North Cascades. You can also swim in this lake but be warned… it’s REALLY cold even by my standards.

Trail Details: 

Distance: 4.8 to the lake. (Add 0.5 if you do the upper loop add on)
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Time: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: Easy/ Moderate
Fees: $5 cash fee at trailhead or display you NPW forest pass/ National Parks Pass to cover the fee.

Trail head Directions: 

The trailhead for Blue lake is just off of HWY20. If you are coming from the East (Winthrop) the trailhead will be just 1 mile on your left past the Washington Pass overlook (which is on your right and another worthy stop) If you are travelling from the West, the trailhead will be on your right about 4 miles past the Rainy Pass TH. 

Trail Description:

From the brown house potties and trail head marker, follow the trail back into the trees. It will follow the road a short ways before veering to the right and beginning switchbacks up the hill. 

The switchbacks are very long but even out the trail nicely so the elevation gain is less noticeable. As you climb higher you’ll start being able to see incredible mountain peaks through gaps in the trees and even the start of some high alpine wild flowers. Eventually the trail comes near a little creek and heads straight up alongside it. This is when you are almost there! 
Once you reach the lake, you’ll come to a fork. Continue left to stay long the shore and even when the trail looks like it ends- continue through the rocks and you’ll find even more peace and quiet without the crowds. 

If you want to extend your hike a little and get great views down onto the lake, take the right fork and follow it a short ways up. The trail to the right loops around in a 0.5 mile loop or you can just retrace your steps after getting a good view back to the main trail which you follow the same way down. 

A note on crowds:

This hike can and will get busy as it is one of the best known short trails in the North Cascades National Park. There is extra parking allowed on the road but be safe as it is a highway. We started hiking around 1 on a Monday and there was ample parking in the lot and the while we certainly saw people on the trail and around the lakes- it never felt crowded. So a weekday if you can is best.

A note on swimming

After the grand success of Colchuck I was ready to swim in another alpine lake. Let me tell you though this lake is NOT the same. It was pins and needles the entire time and I could barely handle having my upper body in the water at all. (Talk about sucking all the heat out of your body in an instant cold) We took a few photos where I stood on rocks off shore so my upper body could remain out of the water but just the short swims to get out there were a little painful. So unless REALLY cold water is your thing, I don’t really recommend a swim in this lake. It is allowed however if you so choose. 

Abort!

What do you think, would you take a dip in this alpine lake? Whether you swim or not, Blue Lake is yet another pristine alpine lake worth the hike in one of America’s most underrated National Parks. I highly recommend checking this one out!

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Trail Guide to Colchuck Lake

Colchuck Lake used to be a hidden gem but is now quickly gaining in popularity. It’s a pristine alpine lake with soaring, jagged mountains above you, turquoise clear water below, and the added plus: water warm enough you can stomach swimming in. This lake is a real butt-kicker hike but an oh so worth-it destination. If your travels bring you near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, I can’t recommend a hike here enough. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 9 miles
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Time: 6 hours
Fees: $5 (cash only) forest service fee. Free with a displayed NPW forest pass or National Parks Pass.

Red tape:

This trail is getting notoriously busy. Get there early especially on weekend to park in the lot. The road has plenty of no parking signs yet people seemed to park there anyway. It seems it is hit or miss whether you will get ticketed or not. We drove in and got to the trailhead at 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning to find an already full lot. The bathroom facilities were out of TP and one of the outhouses was pretty gross. Bring your own supplies and make sure to take care of business before starting this hike. LNT and that includes poop! 

Trailhead directions:

From state hwy 2, take Icicle Road 8.4 miles until taking a left onto forest road NF-7600. Then take a slight right onto NF-7601 and follow this road 3.5 miles to Stuart Lake Trail’s TH. This is where you will park. The 3.5 miles on 7601 are rough and filled with large potholes. Drive slowly and carefully. A passenger car can make it although not very comfortably.

Trail Description:

We got there bright and early but still got a place in a pull out just outside the park lot that was full. As we drove an hour from our airbnb, we actually made breakfast at the car once we secured our parking spot so started hiking more around 7:30AM.

The first 2 miles are fairly easy going and follow a picturesque stream. You’ll reach a fork in the road with the right going down to the “horse ford” and the left to the bridge. Take the left fork to a very scenic bridge and prepare yourself now for the grueling climb. 

Almost all of the elevation gain is in the last 2.5 miles with a never ending uphill feel. It’s steep with few switchbacks and lots of roots/ rocks. You’ll pass a couple waterfalls visible just off trail and then reach a signed fork in the trail. Stay left for Colchuck Lake. 

From this fork it is another 1.5 miles. The trail almost immediately crosses another bridge into a boulder field and then continues its uphill onslaught to the end. There are plenty of great break spots however with one that faces incredible views of the valley you’ve been climbing out of and nearby peaks. Take your time and enjoy the journey. 

Eventually the trail will level out and you’ll catch glimpses of the lake but it takes some meandering to find a spot to get down to the shoreline. Even if the lake is busy, do some exploring and you’ll likely find some quiet shoreline to hang out and enjoy the views.

A note on crowds

The trail didn’t feel busy at all to us on the way up and even right around the lake where we were closest to the trail didn’t feel all that busy. On our way down however it was packed and we past constant groups of ill prepared hikers and families making their way up. Start your hike early if you’d like to enjoy the peace and beauty of this spot.

A note on swimming

Pack a swimsuit as well. We spent around 1.5-2 hours eating lunch, taking photos, and swimming. The water was the warmest of any alpine lake I’ve felt. I even had no problems sitting up to my waist for 30 minutes in the sun and when I hopped in to swim, there was little of that tell tale “take your breath away” cold. I paddled around some time enjoying the perfect swimming conditions before drying off and starting our hike down. 
*That being said, the water was definitely still COLD. Just not AS COLD as other alpine lakes. It still might not be your cup of tea. 

In summary

Colchuck Lake was one of my top favorite hikes we did. While it was a butt kicker, the scenery along the trail was beautiful and adventurous and the lake at the end was easily the coolest lake I’ve hiked into. Let me know in the comments what you think of this incredible lake and hike! 

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Trail Guide to Heybrook Lookout

If you are driving to the Enchantments area or heading out to chill around the charming town Leavenworth, this little hike to Heybrook lookout is a very worthy stop. It’s short (albeit pretty steep), has incredible views along with a historic lookout to explore, and will break up the drive from Seattle nicely. Bonus is how close it is to river fun so you can hike in the morning and tube or soak by the river in the warmer afternoon. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 2.5 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Time: 1-2 hours
Fees: FREE
Facilities: None at the TH. There is a pit toilet down the ridge from the lookout at the end of the hike. Bring your own TP. Bring your own water.

Trail head directions:

The trail head is right highway 2 just past the small town Gold Bar,WA. If you are heading East, the parking area will be on your left and is a small gravel area just wide enough for cars to park directly in (vs parallel parking on the shoulder). The actual trail start is on the West side of the parking area and is marked with a small trail sign a few feet back into the trees. There are NO facilities at this trail head so plan your pit stop prior. 

About Heybrook lookout

The lookout is one of the last lookouts in WA, (106 remain) and one of the few that can both be entered and reserved for sleeping in! It’s situated on a scenic ridge with outstanding views of the surrounding valleys and nearby Mount Persis and Mount Index. There have actually been a number of lookouts in this location prior to the current Heybrook lookout. Each time the lookouts were built a little taller with the current lookout finished with construction in 1965. The present lookout is around 67 feet tall and is open to the public up to the observation deck- 89 steps up. 

Spend the night in the lookout:

Heybrook lookout is one of the few Washington lookouts you can actually reserve for the night! It was unfortunately booked out for our trip but it looks beautifully renovated and is quite private as the rest of the public hikers can only hike to the deck below the lookout’s rooms. (You get a key from the forest service before you start hiking) The lookout reserves quickly and is released on a rolling 6 month basis. Check here for more information or to check for availability. 

We wish we could’be spent the night or “hungout” longer at the lookout

About our hike:

We started our hike in the late afternoon on a Saturday in August. There were only 5-6 cars parked in the parking area and for a weekend and easy hike, we didn’t think the trail was very busy at all. It parallels the the road for a brief moment before turning sharply and heading up the hill in a series of switchbacks. While you can hear the road for the first 10-15 minutes or so you eventually leave it all behind and find yourself in a mossy forest with little bits of sunlight trickling through.

I learned quick on this, our first hike in WA, the sunscreen I bought was going to go to waste or just coming home with us. (foreshadowing: almost all the hikes we did were in the trees 80% of the way) 

The trail is made up of a couple long switchbacks and overall very well graded. It’s a good workout, but never felt too challenging like you might lose your footing and slip. We had bonus origami cranes to amuse us as well on the climb as someone had hung strands of them every 0.25 mile or so. 

It isn’t too long before you reach your first big break in the trees and get a reward of a nice open view. BUT if you turn and look up you’ll actually see the lookout right above you at that same moment- you made it! While it may have felt challenging on the climb up, you realize just how quick a hike it is and excitement replaces tiredness for up 89 steps you’ll be ready to go. 

At the top

When we got there we waited a couple minutes for a group to come down as the stairs and landings are pretty narrow and small. (Thanks Covid for making it even harder) Once we started climbing, we went straight to the observatory deck in case anyone else was waiting to come up or go down. 
The view from the top is just breath taking and I bet it is even better at sunset or sunrise. As it was in the afternoon, our views were pretty hazy and backlit but I can still appreciate the incredible mountains all around and a unique (tall!!) wooden structure bearing the brunt of weather and time since 1965. It is seriously impressive to stand up there and think about. 

After a couple minutes we actually got the lookout to ourselves for 30+ minutes as the previous occupants all headed out. On our way down we passed another 3 or 4 groups heading up, but again… really not that busy for a Saturday afternoon! 

Stop in Leavenworth for victory meal!

After finishing our hike we carried on our way to the adorable Bavarian modeled town of Leavenworth. This is a great stop for exploring the nearby Alpine Lakes Wilderness, continuing onto other destinations in the Cascades, or enjoying some fine Bavarian cuisine and beer. I highly recommend a stop in Leavenworth (short or long) after your excursion to Heybrook lookout.

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Guide to Snoqualmie Falls

If you’re looking for an easy walk or place to explore close to Seattle that includes an incredible waterfall- look no further. At only 35 minutes drive from downtown and nestled in the cute community of Snoqualmie- this makes for an excellent half day excursion from the city or a quick stop if you are heading out to some of the nearby national parks. 

About Snoqualmie Falls

The falls are named after the Snoqualmie People, who have lived for centuries in the Snoqualmie Valley. They used the area as a traditional burial site and view the falls as “the place where First Woman and First Man were created by Moon the Transformer” and “where prayers were carried up to the Creator by great mists that rise from the powerful flow.”

In addition to being a powerful and beautiful waterfall at 268 feet, the water serves 2 energy plants below the falls that then serve about 1% of the energy sold by Puget Sound Energy who operates the plants. The first plant built in 1899 at the very base of the falls was the world’s first completely underground power plant and is buried 270 below the bottom.

The falls and surrounding park area belong now to the Snoqualmie tribe who have protected from over development. You’ll find 2 viewing decks, walking trails, gift shops, restrooms, and the Salish Lodge/ Restaurant at the falls. 
*Note: Currently due to COVID-19 the lower deck and trails are closed to the public. Only the upper viewing deck and area are open to visitors. 

Getting there:

From Seattle, follow I-90 E and take exit 25 for Snoqualmie Pkwy. Once you are pulling up to the parking lots, you’ll pull under a small pedestrian bridge and see a small parking lot on the left and a driveway to another parking area on the right. The parking lot on the left charges $7- save your money. Turn right into the large and FREE parking lot where there is usually ample parking. (We visited on a Saturday in August in the afternoon and there were loads of places to park a bit further in the back) 

If you park in the parking lot on the right, you will take the pedestrian foot bridge over to the park. The bridge includes interesting facts about the building of the power plants.

Once off the bridge you’ll see turn offs to go to the Salish lodge but if you continue straight ahead and slightly to the right you will come across the falls. (walking time from the upper parking lot is less than 5 minutes) 

Hiking around the Falls:

The falls were really incredible to see and each time we got to a new view point as we headed lower we unveiled more of a view of them. While I can only imagine the power coming off the falls in times of high rain (some of the photos of the falls look like a completely different waterfall due to volume) the falls in a drier August are still definitely worth the trek out. 

We spent some time wandering around the different viewing decks and meandering down the path that leads to the lower park and deck. Since those were closed however, we did not take the trail the whole way down. If you are interested in hiking from the upper park to the lower or vice versa, the trail stats are:

Trail Info: 

Distance: ~0.75 miles each way

Elevation change: 370 feet

We checked out the gift shop ( I have a magnet addiction) and headed on our way with the whole stop at the falls only taking around 40 minutes. We then headed out to check out the nearby cute towns and outlets as we continued our trek East.

Nearby Attractions:

1. Northwest Railway Museum – There’s also numerous fun little train photo ops in between Snoqualmie and North Bend. 

2. Three Forks Natural Area- more great parks to stretch your legs and get water views

3. Outlets in North Bend – Worth a visit if you want to check out a Pendleton store as part of your PNW bucketlist.

Whether you are just going for a short trip from Seattle, or heading out on a roadtrip to the National Parks, Snoqualmie is an excellent spot for as quick a stop as you want! Let me know in the comments if you’ve been or hope to see these falls someday! 

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Top Lord of the Rings filming locations to visit on your own

One of the many reason I and many other choose to visit New Zealand is due to the incredibly epic franchise “The Lord of the Rings” which was filmed there. Not that New Zealand doesn’t have a million other reasons to visit it (and if you look through many of my love note posts about NZ you’ll see I found many of them) that doesn’t diminish any of the insane filming locations they used around both islands to shoot the movies. By filming all 3 movies (and all the Hobbit movies) in New Zealand, the director Peter Jackson really put New Zealand on a lot of travelers’ maps.

These sites are MUST SEES if you’re a big fan and really amazing sites to visit for hiking/ views even if you aren’t. They are all easy to visit on your own (if you have a car) so no tour needed!

1. The forbidden Pools – Tawhai Falls, Tongariro National Park

Up first is a short easy hike to the pools Gollum is seen swimming/ fishing in in the “The Two Towers”- the forbidden pools.

Directions:

TH adress: Manawatu-Wanganui 4691 in Tongariro National Park

The trail is located in Tongariro National Park however there are no fees for entering or hiking on this trail. The parking area will be on the left as you are heading down and can accomodate several cars. The trail starts opposite the driveway and is a flat leisurely trail until you get to the falls.

You can visit the top of the falls where there is an obvious right split off the trail to a viewing platform. This is also where you can jump from the falls into the pools below. (We saw some doing this but I’m not entirely clear on the logistics of rocks/ depth of water below)

The trail continues on to the bottom of the falls with great views of the pool used for filming. All in all the hike will take you less than an hour and is a fantastic foray into secret filming locations on the North Island. It also introduces you into our next major film star: Mount Doom.

2. Mount Doom – Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park

Our next stop is right down the road from Tawhai Falls however it’s best scene from one of the many hiking tracks in the area, including the world famous- Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Mount Ngauruhoe served as the main inspiration for Mount Doom and appears in many of the background Mordor shots that were filmed all over the area. You yourself can even CLIMB Mt. Doom by accessing it from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but be warned- it is a tough slippery slope and you’ll want good shoes and gloves to help you with the climb. We chose to simply view it in all it’s glory from the TAC track which you can read more about in my detailed post here.

3. Hobbiton – Matamata New Zealand

This one goes without saying- it’s a MUST DO for any Lord of the Rings fan. Like pilgrims flocking to a MECCA, there’s really nothing that equates a visit to Hobbiton for a lifelong fan. Unfortunately to visit the Hobbit holes you’ll have to book a tour in Matamata, online, or at the site itself, but you don’t have to book one to get yourself there! (Save some money and book yourself!) Our tour lasted 3 hours and included a fantastic Hobbit themed lunch on the site! There are many options for booking and I highly recommend a visit to see the holes with their incredibly detailed doors and learn so much more about the filming of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. You can read more details about visiting and my experience here.

4. Edoras- Mount Sunday

Hands down the COOLEST place on this entire list to visit (apart from Hobbiton of course) is Mount Sunday (aka Edoras in the Kingdom of Rohan). Holy smokes guys, this place is as epic and insanely gorgeous as the film portrays. No CGI, no tricks here. The valley and hill that Edoras is built on is exactly like in the films and it will TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY. They even built the set on top of Mount Sunday so they could film everything exactly as it was in the area. At only 2.5 hours from Christchurch, it isn’t a bad drive. It’s even easier to hit if you’re already driving south to connect to Queenstown.

This spot was so majestic, and so familiar. It was probably my favorite spot in New Zealand and is absolutely worth the bumpy gravel road to get to it. Bonus: It’s FREE, another easy walk/ hike, and you don’t need anyone to tell you what part in the movies it played, you’ll know. For more information on hiking Mt. Sunday and the general area, visit my post here.

5. The River Anduin- The Kawaru River, Queenstown

The scene at the end of the Fellowship where everything is breaking apart but Sam insists on continuing on with Frodo is iconic- between the filming of the boats floating down the Anduin river between the giant Argonath statues to the semi-traumatic death of Sean Bean, the ending scene on the Anduin river is a memorable one. Which makes visiting the filming location for it that much more special.

While the best way to see this film spot is unarguably by boat, you can opt for the free version by doing a gentle walk along the river’s canyon rim. To see it by boat as the fellowship would’ve done, you’ll want to book a rafting trip on the Kawaru River- I recommend this company. Be warned however that it will have sections of white water so make sure you are comfortable with a little extreme sport thrown in there.

If you’re wanting to save money or not up to white rafting though, check out my detailed post here on walking the trail for some of the ultra-special views of the magical river Anduin.

6. Isengard- Paradise, Glenorchy

Like Mount Sunday, the surrounding valley of Isengard is incredible. Tall snowcapped peaks almost completely surround the area and braided turquoise rivers float right down the middle of it. The best way to experience this area is by horseback on a tour specifically designed to get you close to the movie film location give you the inside scoop of filming in that area. (Not to mention does anything feel more “Lord of the Rings” than riding horses?)

Unfortunately our tour was cancelled due to flooding of the riding tracks so instead we drove out to Glenorchy and Paradise to view from afar. The views are so beautiful along the drive that it’s a worthy half day adventure for sure. Just fill up with gas in Queenstown (it’s MUCH cheaper) and head down to Glenorchy.

Bonus: Weta Workshop- Wellington

While we didn’t have time on our trip to make it to Wellington, for the complete picture of filming of the trilogy in New Zealand, head to Wellington for a tour of the movie workshop where you’ll learn all about the special effects and see some of the crazy make up/ molds they made for the movies. See more details for visiting the Weta Worshop here.

Links to other related posts:

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Trail Guide – Peekaboo & Spooky Slot Canyon

These 2 slots are not only some of the most photogenic non-technical slots you can hike to, but they are also the first slot canyons I ever explored (and my first hikes in Escalante to boot!) While once upon a time they were relatively unknown and less accessible due to the dirt road from hell, now you’ll find a full parking lot by late morning on any weekend. They are a MUST do for anyone wanting to experience scenic slot canyons and visiting the Escalante area.

Trail details:

Distance: 6 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 700 feet throughout the hike (you only really notice it on your hike out to your car)
Time: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Pets?: Allowed but NOT recommended especially for big dogs
Fees: Free

Trailhead Directions:

From HWY 12, turn onto Hole in the Rock Road and drive for 26 miles where you’ll see a left turn onto BLM Rd 252. Drive another mile to where the road ends in a loop parking area with pit toilets and a trail sign.

While this road is definitely not pleasant (read washboard bumps and large gravel for over an hour) any car can make it as long as the road conditions are dry. Just drive slow and take your time if you have lower clearance and DO NOT attempt to drive down Hole in the Rock road if rain is in the forecast or if the road is wet/ snowy.

Tips for the best hiking experience

  1. Start as early as you can- preferably by 8 AM. Not only will this allow you to miss most if not all the crowds but it will help you beat the heat. It gets VERY hot out there.
  2. Pack lots of water… but in as small a bag as you can. These canyons are tight and you don’t want to lug a big pack through them.
  3. Don’t wear your nicest hiking clothes or bring your brand new hiking pack. The sandstone walls are TOUGH on gear and clothes.
  4. Hike up Peekaboo and down Spooky. Not only does this help with the flow of traffic (it is very difficult to pass people in these canyons) but the climbing sections are easiest this direction.
  5. Pre-load the trail map in all trails or download it if you have pro. The loop can be challenging between the 2 canyons so it helps to have the trail map to ensure you are on the right path.

Where to stay nearby:

Primitive camping/ boondocking is allowed anywhere off Hole in the Rock Road and is free. The most popular spot is about 0.5 miles from HWY 12 where there is a lot of flat space to bring trailers/ RVs/ other rigs out to park. There’s also a dumpster for trash at this lot but no restrooms. Otherwise you can camp anywhere there is a pullout big enough for you to get off the road without trampling plants. We camped at the overflow parking for the TH which is a huge area only 0.25 miles from the TH. (You can’t camp AT the TH) Remember pack out what you pack in including all trash, ESPECIALLY TP.

If camping isn’t your thing, there’s a Motel and excellent RV park in Escalante that has cabins at a great price called Canyons of Escalante RV park. I’ve stayed there many times and have always had a fantastic stay.

Our experience on the hike

Since we camped nearby we were on the trail by 8 AM and were the 3rd car/ group to start. (This was on a Saturday morning so timing was important) The beginning of the trail is about 1 mile of flat hiking following the rim below the parking area. The views are expansive of MANY canyons in the area and is beautiful but exposed with no shade. (this is one place I’d hate to hike in the late afternoon)

The steep slickrock climbs in and out. This only shows maybe 1/4 of the total elevation. It gets VERY hot on this section.

After about 1 mile we descended the steep slickrock down to the canyons base. Be careful in your route finding down the slick rock and watch for cairns to guide you.

Once down, we saw the trail to the Dry Fork Narrows on the left but decided to skip for now as our goal was to beat the crowds. Once we passed the dry fork narrows, we immediately saw the 10 ft. climb up into Peekaboo. We found it to be pretty easy with the small steps ground into the climb but it could be challenging for little kids who can’t reach each step.

Peekaboo Canyon

Once up the climb into Peekaboo is the most iconic section of this whole trail with the double arch. We only saw 1 trail runner in this section who passed us otherwise we took our time taking lots of photos in this section.

The Peekaboo slot is very short so after the iconic arches, the trail slots up into a skinny shallow canyon, widens, then slots again for another 10 minute stretch before ending at a tree where the canyon is gone and you’ll see a large wash. We initially missed the turn off to go on the loop here and headed up the wash 5 minutes before I checked the map and realized we’d missed our turn. Back at the tree, there’s come cairns that lead you up and over the hill and cut across sandy dunes. This is the other miserable section in the sun since the sand is soft and hot.

Spooky Canyon

After about 20 minutes we were down and at the top of Spooky ready to descend. Spooky is at least twice the length of Peekaboo and MUCH skinnier with little curvy down climbs where you’ll need to watch your step. For most of Spooky you’ll have to have your pack slung over one shoulder or off to the side.

A couple minutes in there’s another little arch great for taking pictures under and then about 5 minutes later the major obstacle in Spooky. The top makes it look like a series of boulders, but the boulders are all about 10 feet above the canyon floor. Aim left to a 4 foot hop down or chimney down climb. From the top of that boulder, turn around to face “up” canyon and you’ll see a small, dark tunnel cut into the boulders. This is a smaller step down and crawl through that will get you to the canyon bottom the safest.

Sometimes there’s a rope to help people down, but I wouldn’t count on it being there. If you aren’t comfortable with what I just described, bring some webbing or a rope just in case- or skip this hike.

After the boulders it’s a series of shimmying, crawling, and skimming through the rest of the canyon. My absolute favorite parts of Spooky are the ultra textured walls and how sinewy (canyon talk for curvy) the walls are. Other slots like the narrows or Little wild Horse are narrow channels of straight walking- where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel most of the time. In Spooky- you can see maybe 5 feet ahead before the canyon dramatically twists and curves so there’s no end in sight.

*As a side note, this isn’t a good trail for the claustrophobic.

After an hour or so we were out of Spooky. We followed the trail along the wash easily back to where we passed the entrance to Peekaboo completing the loop. From there you hike back up the same trail you hiked in on.

Should you bring your dogs?

*The entrance to Peekaboo around 10:30 AM on that Saturday was INSANE. At least 20 people were waiting to make the climb up and it seemed to mostly be blocked with families bringing very small kids and dogs with them. PLEASE be considerate of other hikers and your furry friends. This trail is NOT good for dogs. The sand is very hot and will burn their paws unless you start at 6AM. Also consider the canyon is NARROWEST at your feet where dogs will be hiking through. Not only will you have to lower/ hoist your dog up these 10+ foot drops but you will have to help your dog over narrow sections of canyon where they WONT fit.

We were back at our car around 11 to find a completely full parking lot but had one of the best mornings we could ask for.

Definitely start early.

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Guide to House on Fire

Memorial day 2020 we decided to make the most of our 3 day weekend and head to a new (to me) explored are of Utah- Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears. With how busy most outdoor spaces have become in the wake of Covid-19, we hoped going a little further from any cities would put some distance between us and the crowds and we were right. We started the trail to House on Fire around 2 in the afternoon and had the trail and ruins mostly to ourselves.

Hiking details:

Distance: 2 miles RT to the House on Fire ruins but continue down canyon as far as 8 miles RT and you’ll spot 6 more ruins along the way.
Elevation: flat, albeit sandy
Time: 1 hour (more if you want to see more ruins in this area)
Fees: Bears Ears day use fees are $5pp/ day or pay $10pp for a week. (increased from $2 Jan 1,2020) Self-serve pay stations, bring cash. (Day hiking fees in this area are not covered by the National Park Pass)
Dogs?: Dog friendly, but on leash

Trailhead Directions: If travelling from hwy 191 through Blanding, take hwy 95 for 25 miles when you’ll see a road marked for Texas Flat Road. Drive down this road 0.3 miles to where a canyon appears on your left. This is the trail.

*Note: the fee box is at the beginning of the right turn off and you’ll want to display the receipt for paying your dues on your dash before hiking. A couple cars along the road had fee reminder notes/ tickets on them.

Park along this road and head down canyon to your left. At the bottom of the small hill you’ll find the trail sign and register.

About the House on Fire:

The House on Fire like the other cliff dwellings in the area were built between 700-2500 years ago by ancestral Puebloan tribes. The House on Fire isn’t actually a house at all and instead consists of five granaries built into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The granaries were used to store mostly corn which was a major food source then. The overhang that forms the ceiling has a unique, streaked pattern that resembles flames. The best time of day to photograph is around 10-11 when the sun is just over the canyon walls and bounces up to reflect off the ceiling.

Our experience with the hike:

We started about 2 and unlike our previous short hike where we didn’t bring water, we learned it was better to bring it as the dogs were getting very hot. While the trailhead was lined with cars, the only people we saw the entire time was an older couple right at the beginning and then a family at the ruins.

The hike only took us 25 minutes to get to the ruins which are on the right side marked by a small trail arrow. It would be easy to miss so I recommend downloading the all trails map or making frequent looks behind you once you’ve gone a mile.

The family that was there before us finished their photos quickly and left us with the ruins all to ourselves. There are many signs indicating not to try to enter the ruins (please listen to these) I put my phone through one of the windows to capture a photo inside instead.

A photo inside one of the granaries taken by putting my phone through the opening. Reminder: It is illegal to enter these dwellings or even touch them.

The area around the ruins is also a bit fun to explore as there is a cave like boulder area and spots where you can scramble up on top. We spent about 15 minutes exploring around and then walked back in another 25 minutes.

All in all this was a great little hike and I imagine there’s many fun ruins further down Mule canyon. If you are worried about finding your way, I recommend alltrails. It lead us straight and true on this one.

What to see nearby:

The Butler Wash Ruins

These are an easy stop on your way to or from Blanding and are only 1 mile RT. They lead to a scenic overlook so you cant get as close as with House on Fire but it is very cool to see the differences in architecture employed between the higher cliff dwellings and the boxier sites like House on Fire.

The Valley of the Gods

While not home to very many hiking adventures the Valley of the Gods is a beautiful scenic drive with lots of little spaces to explore and best of all- to camp. There are so many beautiful pullouts with expansive views that would make amazing camp spots. Just remember to pack out what you pack in (including human waste please) Combine with the Moqui Dugway for one hell of a driving experience. Don’t worry- the roads are gravel/ dirt but any car can make it.

Goosenecks State Park

I visited here way back in 2016 and have always wanted to revisit. It’s a wild place with beauty that rivals views in Canyonlands and beyond and for a very moderate price. Pack your camping gear if you want to sleep in front of the most incredible view but be warned- the winds NEVER die down out there and you WILL have to put rocks in your tent so you dont lose it to the winds and canyon.

Fees: $5/ car day use. $10/ campsite. Likely self-self pay, make sure to have cash

Natural Bridges National Monument

Bonus 1: I haven’t been able to visit yet (although plans are in the works) but within Natural Bridges there are many more ruins to explore alongside 3 huge natural bridges (arches) which combined make for a really fun day. The trails weren’t very dog friendly so I’ve decided to visit here on a trip without my boys.

Fees: $20/ car day pass. Entrance included with an America the Beautiful National Park Pass OR South-Eastern Utah Pass that covers Arches, Canyonlands, and Hovenweep NM.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

This is another bonus as I haven’t been able to stop here yet (not a dog friendly museum) but if you’re interested in seeing how the ancestral Puebloans lived with a fantastic recreation of the dwellings and villages this is for you. They even have a full scale kiva you can climb down in and the largest pottery on display in the Four Corners Region.

Fees: $5/adult. $3/ child. Children 5 and under are free.

Hours: Open Mon-Sat/ 10AM-4 PM. Closed on Sundays and most major holidays.

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