Skyscraping: A Hiker’s Guide to Four Mount Rainier Fire Lookouts

As Great Outdoors Month winds down, we thought we’d wind up with four fire lookouts from Mount Rainier National Park.

These trails are in a class by themselves. They’re among the most challenging day hikes in the park. But the rewards include serenity and solitude, outrageous wildflower meadows, crystal-clear lakes and streams, and superb mountain vistas that beggar description.

We’ve hiked them all. More than once.

Here in no particular order, is a quick overview of the trails to Mount Rainier’s fire lookouts. Hike any of these and you’ll feel like you’ve just scraped the sky:

  1. Tolmie Peak (Mowich Lake/NW Corner)

With a couple pristine mountain lakes, lush forests, and soaring evergreens hugging shaggy peaks, this trail is scenic and not terribly strenuous. It’s all uphill from Mowich Lake to a rickety fire lookout perched at 5,940. It looks like it’ll collapse in a stiff breeze. The lookout peers over beautiful Eunice Lake and offers some of the best in-your-face views of Mount Rainier in the whole park.

Eunice Lake from the trail to Tolmie Peak.

The trail starts near Mowich Lake – which is a treat for the eyes in itself. The trail hugs the lake initially, then meanders about 1.75 miles to Ipsut Pass, elev. 5,100 feet. There’s a spur trail at this point which offers tremendous canyon views on a clear day. (It was socked in when we were there. We had to use our imaginations.)

From the spur, follow the signs and bear left for about 0.8 miles to Eunice Lake. This is a good place to stop for a snack or swig from your water bottle. You can approach the lake from several trails. Its mirror-like aquamarine waters are worth the stop.

Eunice Lake. Can you spot the fire lookout in the distance?

Continue uphill, sometimes steeply, for about .8 mile until you reach the lookout, which is perched on the spine of a rugged ridge.

Tolmie Peak fire lookout! Worth the climb!

Perhaps the toughest part of this adventure is the “road” to Mowich Lake. Seventeen fun-filled miles of unpaved, rutted, badly wash-boarded road with a drive time of about 45 minutes, one-way. Believe you me, you’ll be as glad as a bear in a honey factory when you finally hit the dirt parking lot at road’s end at Mowich Lake.

Note that this area is rustic. The campground at the lake does not allow campfires. The only water is what you pack in or filter from the lake. Pit toilets only.

Getting there: From Puyallup, drive 13 miles east on State Route 410 to Buckley. Turn right (south) onto SR 165 and proceed through Carbonado. Just beyond the Carbon River Gorge Bridge, bear right onto Mowich Lake Road. Follow the road about 17 miles to its end and find the trailhead on the left (north) side of the road, near Mowich Lake.

2. Shriner Peak (Ohanapecosh Area)

Shriner Peak Trailhead.

The Shriner Peak Fire Lookout Trail is known as “the loneliest trail in the park.” The trail is tough and unforgiving. It’s not recommended for beginners. You better be in decent shape before tackling this adventure. But if your legs are up to it and you remember how to breathe, the rewards at the top are worth every hamstring-yammering step.

One of the reasons this trail is so challenging is because it’s all uphill, without any real breaks – or chances to catch your breath. It’s also at altitude. You begin in the shade and roam through an impressive stand of sword fern. But it doesn’t last long. You are soon out in the open, in shade-less terrain and direct sun. Be sure to wear a hat. Use sunscreen and bring plenty of water. Sturdy footwear is a must.

Don’t forget to look behind you from time to time during your climb. On a clear day, the views of the Nisqually Valley, which are at your back, are awesome.

At roughly two miles up, there’s a rocky outcropping on the left. The panoramic view of Mount Rainier is one of a kind. Stop here to shoot some photos or video or grab a snack. You can also take a gander at Mount Adams and the Tatoosh. Both are visible in the clear blue yonder. This is also a good place to stuff your lungs back into your chest before tackling the next stretch of hamstring-hollering climbing.

See? Told you it was worth the effort (a little further…).

You’ll soon round another rocky ridge, after which you dip slightly into sparsely shaded meadows for about a nano-second. Then you start into switchbacks on up to the top, at 5,846 feet.

From the crest of Shriner Peak. Trail goes to a couple of primitive camp sites.

It was in the upper 80s/low 90s when we hiked this trail in late June. We started early and took it slow, huffing and puffing from shade patch to shade patch. We made the lookout in just under four hours.

Made it!

Yes, Shriner Peak is a tough climb. But oh, the rewards! We had the whole summit to ourselves. (Everyone with brains was at Paradise.) If your legs are up to it once you make the lookout, walk a short stretch down a narrow path to the camp sites. They’re primitive, but you can find a rock or log to rest your howling hoofers while enjoying some of the most beautiful views on God’s green earth. You’ll need the rest for the hike back. Your knees will thank you.

“On a clear day…”

Getting there: From Enumclaw, drive east 47 miles on SR-410 to SR-123 at Cayuse Pass. Stay right to merge onto SR-123 (Cayuse Pass Highway). The parking area is on the right about 7.5 miles south of that junction. The trailhead is on the east side of the road.

If coming from Ohanapecosh/Packwood area, drive north about 11.5 miles on SR-123 to the parking area on the west side and find the trailhead on the east side. It’s not too far past the Stevens Canyon Entrance. There’s room to park on the left, just past the trail head sign. Pass the turnout, park, and walk back to the sign. Cross the road. Hit the trail and start climbing.

3. Gobbler’s Knob (Longmire area)

This is really a hike-within-a-hike. It can be divided into two parts: A four-mile trek from the terminus of the Westside Road on the west side of the park near Longmire, and a two-mile-ish hike to the Knob. It’s a 12 miles RT trek anyway you slice it if you want to take in the sweeping vistas from the lookout atop Gobbler’s Knob.

From the Westside Road closure, continue on a graveled road on foot for about 3.8 miles. It’s uphill, but the incline is gentle and skirts Tahoma Creek and thick forest.

Mount Rainier from Round Pass.

There’s a parking lot (wide space) and a bike rack near the juncture for Round Pass. The trailhead to Lake George is just ahead, on the left. Take it. 

Lake George

The next 0.75 mile climbs about 500 feet to the Lake George basin. This is a great lunch stop. The lake in a beautiful bowl under crisp mountain skies.

A back patrol cabin is a stone’s throw from the water.

Just a little further, a little higher…

Head past the northern tip of Lake George. Bear right at the Goat Lake junction. You may huff and puff, covering an 800-foot elevation gain in less than a mile from the Goat Lake junction to the lookout. Keep your eyes peeled for wildflower meadows.

Small tarn below the Gobbler’s Knob lookout.

Keep climbing past a tannin-rusted tarn on the right. Continue to a rocky outcrop and the lookout. On a clear day, the superb view includes Adams, Hood, and St. Helens to the south and east, the Olympics to the west, and Lake George. There’s a big snowy mountain front and center with choice views of Sunset Amphitheater and the Tahoma Glacier.

We hiked this trail in mid-September. Aside from the two park rangers who were renovating the patrol cabin, we saw just three other hikers the whole day.

View from the front porch of Gobblers Knob lookout.

As is the case with all the fire lookout hikes in the park, you have to work to get to Gobbler’s Knob. But the scenery and serenity are worth it. Allow a full day.

Getting there: From Elbe, head east on State Route 706 for about 14 miles to the Nisqually Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. About 0.9 miles past the entrance, turn left onto unsigned Westside Road and continue to its closure 3.2 miles up.

4. Mount Fremont (Sunrise area)

Starting out of Sunrise, elev. 6,400-ft., this 5.6 miles RT hike winds up Sourdough Ridge trail to Frozen Lake. Head north and pick up the Mount Fremont trail. It skirts Frozen Lake and climbs up the ridge in a long, 1.3 mile straight line – no switchbacks!

Mount Fremont fire lookout.

The trail levels out later and winds through a shale-strewn mine field. Naw. Not really. But with saw-toothed volcanic formations on one shoulder and a sheer drop-off on the on the other, it feels like you’re navigating a mine field.

View from trail to Mount Fremont fire lookout.

Turn around for eye-popping vistas of Burroughs Mountain, Grand Park, Redstone Peak, Skyscraper Mountain, Berkeley Park, Tahoma and Little Tahoma. Mount Adams and cloud-collared Mount Baker may also be visible.

Getting there: From Enumclaw, follow SR 410 east for 43 miles until you reach Sunrise Park Rd/White River Rd. You’ll enter the park at the White River entrance. At the White River Campground entrance, make a slight right. Keep climbing for about 5 miles. The road switchbacks to become Sunrise River Road. Continue about 10 miles to its end at the Sunrise Visitor Center and the parking area.

Now. Which “skyscraper” do you want to hike first?

5 Responses

  1. Noel

    What an awesome trail, area, views…my gosh! I’d love to do my running in a place like that and uphills….what that would do for my training!

    Noel

    • HikerBabe

      It would certainly get you used to running in thin air. ☺ And you can’t beat the scenery.

    • HikerBabe

      That’s awesome Lisa! Hope she can get to “my” Mountain soon! 👍