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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.