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Beautiful alpine meadows, panoramic mountain vistas, and an overnight stay in a historic fire lookout station—if you’re exploring the backcountry in the Pacific Northwest you definitely want to add hiking to Winchester Mountain Lookout to your bucket list!
We’ve done a lot of great backpacking adventures over the years, but few were as stunning and memorable as our hike to the Winchester Mountain Lookout.
Located in the North Cascades of Washington state, in the Mount Baker Ranger District, this incredible hike offers jaw-dropping panoramic views of the surrounding mountain peaks. While the hike up the mountain is spectacular on its own, the highlight of the trip is getting to stay in the historic fire lookout station.
Perched up high and protected from the weather, we were able to watch the late sunset, enjoy star-filled skies, and awake to the morning alpenglow. It is a unique way to experience the mountains, and believe it or not, was completely free! Donations are welcomed, but the lookout station is operated and maintained by Mount Baker Hiking Club volunteers and is free to stay at for visitors.
If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime backcountry experience in the Pacific Northwest, then you definitely want to add this hike to Winchester Mountain to your list. We’ll share all the details you need to know about how to do this hike for yourself!
The 14’x14’ fire lookout was originally built in 1935 and was used for wildfire spotting until 1966. After its active service as a lookout station, the structure fell into a long period of disuse. Extensively damaged from the harsh winter weather as well as vandalism, it was ultimately slated for demolition, when in 1982, Gary Haufle of the Mount Baker Club spearheaded an effort to restore it.
This effort was done in partnership with the Forest Service department, wherein the Forest Service provided all the materials and the club’s volunteers completed the restoration work. The members of the Mount Baker Club remain the stewards of this iconic piece of Pacific Northwest history, which is now included on the National Register of Historic Places, and have graciously kept the lookout open to the general public.
Does staying in a historic fire lookout for free sounds too good to be true? There must be a catch, right? Well, there are a few unique challenges to staying at Winchester Mountain you should be aware about before your visit.
The Winchester lookout is open seasonally during the summer. The exact open dates will be determined by the weather (you can check here), but generally speaking the season runs from late June into September or October. The lookout is closed entirely from November-May. Be aware that patches of snow and ice can linger on the trail even into the summer months.
Since the lookout is first come first serve, visiting during a weekday might give you a better chance of being the only one looking to stay at the lookout.
The Winchester Mountain Lookout trailhead is located in the Mount Baker Ranger district of Washington state. The nearest town to the trailhead is Glacier, which is located about 25 miles east of Bellingham on the Mount Baker Highway (State Route 542).
To get to the trailhead from Glacier, follow the Mount Baker Highway east for approximately 17 miles until you reach the Twin Lakes Road. Turn right onto Twin Lakes Road and continue for approximately 3.5 miles until you reach the trailhead parking lot.
As mentioned previously, the road conditions to the trailhead are horrible. It’s a narrow, one-lane road with lots of deep ruts that can be unnavigable for low clearance cars. A high clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended.
If you are unable to reach the Twin Lakes trailhead due to road conditions (like us!), you can park at the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead and walk the additional 2¼ miles along the road. This will extend the total round trip mileage up to 8.3 miles.
A Northwest Forest Pass or National Parks Pass is required for parking at the trailhead, which can be purchased at various locations, such as the Glacier Public Service Center, the Mount Baker Ranger station, or online.
While the length of this trail looks easy enough, don’t let it fool you! This hike involves a lot of steep climbing.
To begin, consider whether you will be able to actually drive the road to the trailhead. If you don’t have a high clearance vehicle (ideally AWD), you should park at the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead and walk the road from there. This adds 2¼ miles each way, and an additional 1,850 in elevation gain.
From the Twin Lakes Trailhead (the official start of the trail), you’ll begin with a steep climb up from Twin Lakes, and the incline is pretty relentless the whole way to the summit. You’ll get a short break mid-way through the hike, so catch your breath because the final push to the top will greet you with grades of 30%-40% (this is a short section, though!).
Once you reach the top, you’ll be treated to 360º views of the surrounding peaks, including Mt. Baker to the southwest and Mt. Shuksan to the south. You can even see the US/Canadian border to the north from here!
There are lots of rocky outcroppings on the summit to perch on as you enjoy the view and refuel with your favorite hiking snacks. If you’re planning on staying at the summit overnight, check to see if the lookout tower is available. If not, now is the time to search around the summit for one of the many existing campsites.
If you’re not camping at the top, head back down the way you came up.
Our stay at Winchester Mountain was an absolutely incredible backcountry experience and was unlike anything we had ever done before. Yes, you will need to roll the dice to see if lookout is actually open, but if you can swing it, you’re in store for a backcountry experience you’ll never forget!
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We're Megan and Michael and we love cooking outdoors! We started Fresh Off The Grid as a place to share our favorite camping and backpacking recipes. Our goal is to make it easy for you to enjoy great food in the great outdoors.
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