The Park Butte Lookout Trail in Washington state has all the best features of a Pacific Northwest hike—beautiful wildflowers, jaw-dropping views of Mount Baker and the surrounding Cascades, and, of course, a historic fire lookout. And better yet, you can actually even camp in the fire lookout for free! Sound like a dream come true? Here’s everything you need to know about the Park Butte Lookout trail, one of the best hikes near Mount Baker.
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About the Park Butte Lookout Trail
Yes, but please keep your furbaby on a leash.
How to Get to the Park Butte Lookout Trail
The trailhead for the Park Butte Lookout is located here, just north of the small town of Concrete, Washington and about two hours north of Seattle.
The last ten or so miles of the drive to the trailhead is along a deeply potholed National Forest road that looks—and feels—like it was last maintained during World War II. While I’d strongly recommend coming in a high-clearance vehicle, my husband, Justin, and I spotted several sedans in the parking lots when we went on this hike—just go very slow (and be prepared in case you get a flat tire!).
Park Butte Lookout’s parking lot is pretty large, with a decent amount of available overflow parking along the shoulder of the National Forest road. That being said, spots can fill up QUICK, given that several popular trails depart from this lot. So if you’re headed here on a nice summer weekend, I’d definitely suggest getting up bright and early to ensure you snag a spot!
You’ll also find vault toilets in the parking lot near the trailhead.
Pssst… cell service around this area is pretty much non-existent, so I’d suggest downloading offline Google Maps and an AllTrails trail map ahead of time. You’ll need AllTrails+ to download an offline map for hiking, but luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your AllTrails account to the paid version (I know it took me, like, five years to make the jump), we wrote a whole post about whether an AllTrails+ account is worth it).
What to Expect Along the Park Butte Lookout Trail
From the trailhead, you’ll start off by crossing over the rushing waters of Sulphur Creek on a wooden bridge.
At just 0.1 miles in, the trail will fork off to the right to the Scott Paul Trail, but we’re going to keep to the left. There’s actually several junctions along this trail, but they’re thankfully all clearly marked to help you find your way.
You’ll start making your way through the beautiful Schrieber’s Meadow, full of colorful wildflowers, like lupine and heather, in the summer and so many huckleberries and blueberries in the fall (I love me some nature trail snacks!).
At 0.7 miles into the trail, you’ll reach one of the most interesting features along the hike—a crossing of several boulder fields and the rushing, icy waters of Boulder Creek. When my husband, Justin, and I visited in the early fall, there were some logs and a metal bridge, which moves positions throughout the hiking season, depending on the water level, to help hikers cross the stream.
However, during periods when the river is super high, like early spring or late fall, the water level can actually rise above the bridge and you may need to hike into ankle (or even waist) deep glacial water in certain spots. So if you’re visiting during these timeframes, I’d suggest checking out recent hiking reviews on AllTrails so you can prepare accordingly.
Once you make it through the boulder fields, you’ll enter an old-growth forest, with a canopy of hemlock and Douglas fir trees stretching overhead, and start climbing up a series of steep switchbacks.
At 1.9 miles from the trailhead, the trail forks off to the right yet again to the Scott Paul Trail, but we’ll continue to bear left. Soon, you’ll pop out into an open meadow that again will be ablaze with wildflowers and provides you with your first jaw-dropping glimpses of Mount Baker, towering above.
Over the next 0.5 miles, the trail will fork off to the right two times—the first will be for the Railroad Grade Trail, which is used to summit Baker, and the second will be for the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail. But as with the rest of the junctions, stay to the left (the mantra of this hike!).
The landscape will transition from boggy meadows to a rocky terrain as you make the final push to the fire lookout. Keep a lookout on the left- you’ll pass several small tairns (small lakes in mountainous regions) that, on a clear day, can provide perfect reflections of Mount Baker.
Finally, you’ll climb along a rocky outcropping, surrounded by fir and hemlock, to Park Butte Lookout. Carefully climb your way up the rickety ladder and skirt around to the balcony.
If you happen to visit on a clear and sunny day (clearly, we weren’t so lucky!), you’ll have up-close-and-personal views of Mount Baker’s snowy glaciers, Colfax and Lincoln Peaks to the north, and the Twin Sisters to the southwest.
Camping at the Park Butte Lookout Trail
So what’s REALLY cool is, if you play your cards right, you can actually stay overnight at the fire lookout- for free!
The lookout is first come, first serve, so if you’re super keen on staying in it, I’d suggest trying to go early on a weekday for the best opportunity of being the first hiker there.
The lookout, however, also has a sign that indicates that whoever is staying at the fire lookout can’t gatekeep who comes in and out of the lookout (which seems a bit confusing and contradictory, at best), and I’ve read plenty of reports of additional groups showing up and camping overnight at the fire lookout, even if it’s already occupied by strangers. So even if you’re lucky enough to snag the lookout, be prepared to share it with others.
The lookout is pretty rustic but has a few basic amenities, like a bed platform and sleeping pads, blue bags in case you need to poop (which essentially act like dog poop bags, but, well, for humans while you’re at the fire lookout), and chairs. Due to its high elevation, the lookout gets COLD at night, so be sure to bring a good sleeping bag along—I’ve had this REI sleeping bag that’s rated down to 25 degrees for YEARS and love it. Justin also has the men’s equivalent sleeping bag (also for 25 degrees).
If you’re not lucky enough to be the first one at the fire lookout and don’t want to be that guy that squats with whoever was lucky enough to reach it first, I’d be sure to bring along everything you need for a night of backcountry camping (if you’re not sure what to pack, check out our backpacking gear list for beginners).
There’s several designated campsites along the Railroad Grade and Bell Pass trails that make a pretty awesome Plan B. Just be sure not to camp along the meadows around the tairns directly below the fire lookout (there’s a clear sign about half a mile or so before the lookout that camping is not permitted) to protect the fragile vegetation here.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Park Butte Lookout Trail
What’s the history of the Park Butte Lookout?
One of my favorite things about living in Washington is the number of cool, historic fire lookouts that you can hike to, like the Fremont Lookout, High Rock Lookout, Tolmie Peak Fire Lookout, and of course, Park Butte.
This particular lookout was originally built in 1932. Before then, rangers had to literally climb up a tree to scope out for wildfires in the forests surrounding Mount Baker. You can actually still see the gnarled roots of the tree they used today at the base of the ladder into the fire lookout! The lookout served to help rangers spot wildfires until the development of more advanced fire detection systems in 1961.
How high is the Park Butte Lookout?
The Park Butte Lookout sits at 5450 feet of elevation, putting you face to face with the stunning glaciers on Mount Baker’s southwest side.
When’s the best time to visit the Park Butte Lookout?
Because of its high elevation, Park Butte Lookout has a fairly short hiking season, usually from mid-July through mid-October.
If you’re hiking this trail along the beginning or end of this window, I’d suggest bringing along some microspikes and trekking poles—you’ll likely run into some patches of ice and snow along the way. After mid-October, your chances of running into deep snow increases dramatically and before too long, the National Forest roads leading up to the trailhead usually become impassable until the following summer.
Have the best time on the Park Butte Lookout trail—I cannot WAIT to go back this upcoming summer and do this trail again! Do you have any questions about this hike? Let me know in the comments below!