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High Rock Lookout: The Most Bang-for-your-buck Hike in Washington

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If you’re looking for a hike with one of the best views of Mount Rainier, you’ve gotta add the High Rock Lookout trail to your bucket list. Perched at 5,685 feet, this lookout provides stellar views for hundreds and hundreds of miles, surrounded by the towering peaks of Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the High Rock Lookout trail, one of the most bang-for-your-buck hikes in Washington. 

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woman standing on highrock lookout with mount rainier in the background at sunrise in washington
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About the High Rock Lookout

Length: 3.2 miles roundtrip

Elevation gain: 1365 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Dog-friendly? Yes, but they must be on a leash.

Permit: None! If you don’t want to pay the fee to enter Mount Rainier National Park (although, just pick up an America the Beautiful Pass already- it’s worth it!), this is a great free option with some of the most stunning views of Washington’s tallest mountain.

High Rock Lookout overlooking Mount Rainier

What is the High Rock Lookout?

A number of fire lookouts, including Tolmie Peak, Mount Fremont, and High Rock, were built in the 1920s and 1930s to help rangers spot forest fires around Mount Rainier and the surrounding Nisqually River watershed. In the 1960s, the National Forest Service dismantled most of the fire lookouts in Washington (tragic!), saving but a few, including High Rock.

Over the years, though, the lookout fell into disrepair and it wasn’t until around 2015 that various historical organizations raised funds to restore the lookout to its former glory. Since then, the lookout has been undergoing constant renovations- in fact, when we recently visited, the entire building had been removed from the wooden platform for restoration purposes. 

It’s so cool to see that such a historical building that was once largely forgotten about is now being lovingly cared for!

High Rock Lookout overlooking Mount Rainier

How to Get to the High Rock Lookout

The High Rock Lookout trailhead is near the town of Ashford, Washington on the south side of Mount Rainier National Park, near the entrance to its popular Paradise section. 

To reach the trailhead, you’ll need to drive along National Forest Road 8440 for over 14 miles. While it’s certainly not the worst National Forest road I’ve seen in Washington, it definitely has some gnarly potholes, so drive slowly and carefully, especially if you’re not driving a high clearance vehicle.

Tip: Be sure to head to the Google Maps location I linked above or navigate using the “Directions” option in the Alltrails app. If you just type in “High Rock Lookout” or “High Rock Lookout trailhead” into Google Maps, it will actually take you to the wrong trail, a couple minutes up the road from the real trailhead. 

My husband, Justin, and I woke up at 3:45 AM to see the sunrise at High Rock Lookout and almost missed it by a few seconds, because we had trusted Google and actually started hiking up the wrong trail!

The parking lot is pretty small here, only holding about 20 or so cars and fills up pretty early in the day. While there’s plenty of overflow parking to be found in various spots along the road, you may have to walk a bit to the trailhead, if you get here any later than about 8 AM or so on summer weekends.

Couple watching the sunrise at High Rock Lookout

When to Hike the High Rock Lookout

The trail is usually snow-free from July through October, with gorgeous wildflowers in bloom and huckleberries for your snacking pleasure in July and August.

Outside of this warmer window, not only may the trail be covered with snow, but the road leading to the trailhead often gets totally snowed in. This can add up to 10 miles roundtrip to the hike, depending on how far you can get along the road.

If you attempt this hike in winter, bring snowshoes (I have these and my husband has these), as well as microspikes. You likely won’t be able to see the trail itself, so be sure you know how to use some kind of navigation system to find your way. With drop-offs as high as 600 sheer vertical feet along the trail, this definitely isn’t a hike you want to fall off!

Rocky cliff near the High Rock Lookout trail

What to Expect Along the High Rock Lookout

The trailhead itself is a little tricky to find from the parking area- you’ll find it on the lot’s northwest side, marked by an easy-to-miss, weathered sign. 

From here, the trail is short, but steep, following along the Sawtooth Ridge. Most of the hike is blessedly shaded under a cathedral of hemlock and fir trees, with occasional peekaboo glimpses of the spectacular mountain to your right hand side. 

Man hiking on the High Rock Lookout trail

After 1.3 miles of climbing uphill, you’ll be spit out on a rocky bluff, where you’ll need to make the final (very steep!) push- in some places, more of a scramble- to the lookout. Once you’re at the top, take in the views of Rainier (which are arguably more stunning than from some of the best hikes in Mount Rainier National Park itself!); Cora Lake, glittering some 1800 feet below; and the layers upon layers of the Cascade Mountains unfolding around you.

Tip: Shocker- this trail is extra beautiful at sunrise or sunset. Plan accordingly!
Couple watching the sunrise at the High Rock Lookout trail

Tips for the High Rock Lookout

  • Bring lots of water. There’s absolutely no amenities here, like a bathroom, water, or even a discernible trailhead sign. So come prepared to tackle this steep hike- Justin and I both have these giant Nalgene bottles to stay hydrated on the trail, which help cut down on plastic waste and are easier on our wallets!
  • There’s bugs- lots of ‘em. While the wildflowers and huckleberries will be out in full force come summer, so will the bugs. I just leave a bottle of this bug spray in my hiking backpack at all times, to use when I need an assist combating those little bloodsuckers. 
Woman hiking on the High Rock Lookout trail
Pretty cute backpack, right? If you wanna learn more about it, check out our Osprey Sirrus 24 review!
  • You can’t camp here. Camping isn’t permitted in the fire lookout, due to lack of a lightning protection system, or along the trail itself. Please don’t be that guy and pitch a tent anyway- that’s how nice things are taken away!

    Luckily, there’s tons of great places to stay near the lookout, like the Big Creek Campground or Sahara Creek Camping area, if you’re looking for a campground, or Paradise Village (it has a frickin’ WOOD-BURNING HOT TUB, y’all!) or the Nisqually Lodge, if you’d prefer a hotel.

    Alternatively, if you’re looking for a fire lookout you can stay at, consider checking out the Park Butte Lookout near Mount Baker, which you can stay at for free (if you’re lucky enough to snag it!).
  • Leave No Trace. As always, please be sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles. Pack it in, pack it out; take only memories, leave only footprints- basically, all that good stuff your kindergarten teacher shoulda taught ya! 
Woman hiking on the High Rock Lookout trail

Enjoy the High Rock Lookout trail and its incredible views of Mt. Rainier! Do you have any questions about this hike? Let me know in the comments below!

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