Hiking to the Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout, which stands near Mount Rainier. The lookout has a wonderful history and one of the most spectacular views in the USA; the approach trail skirted two subalpine lakes and was filled with wildflowers.

View from the deck of Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout toward Mount Rainier

When I was studying forestry in college, a guy who shared a lot of my classes told me kinda, sorta jokingly that he thought I would end up manning a fire lookout tower. Yeah, he was essentially right: I was and will forever be introverted, and I am happy to be alone with my thoughts. Though I never was stationed on a fire tower, I could have been perfectly happy doing so, and would have followed in the tradition of beat writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, both of whom manned lookouts in the North Cascades of Washington State. Alas, spotter planes have replaced fire lookouts in most areas of America, so the option of being a fire lookout has closed in on those of us suited for the job.

Gobblers Knob Lookout sits atop a rocky promontory with terrific views into Mount Rainier National Park, and back toward the clearcut expanses of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

I have known a few fire lookouts, and they conformed to no real stereotypes. The first one I met was an elderly lady (probably about my current age!) who was staffing a lookout about 50 road miles from anywhere in California’s Lassen National Forest. At the time, I was a 19-year-old on a forest fire water tanker crew, and one of our routine jobs was to deliver water to that lookout, which lacked a nearby spring. When the lady lookout greeted us, she was wearing a dress and long white elbow-length dress gloves–which she considered to be the proper way to greet visitors. She certainly made an impression!

Fire lookouts in the past were sometimes the wives of firefighters, back before the US Forest Service routinely employed women on fire crews. Every morning we would hear the four or so lookouts announce that they were starting their workday on the radio that blared across the fire compound where I worked. I recall one lookout from Horse Ridge in California saying that the lady lookouts with the sexiest radio voices were often the most overweight (hey, a little snarky commentary is always fun!).

Several years ago, we encountered a young woman staffing a fire tower in Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. She hadn’t seen many fires that summer and, when I asked her what she really thought her job was, she said “public relations.” She was to put a good face on the Forest Service for all the hikers who came her way, and to establish a sense that someone really was caring for all the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. I envied her lifestyle: immediately after leaving her Forest Service temp job as a fire lookout, she was heading to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station for a long season working in the cold. She was having a series of lifetime adventures!

Fire lookout towers come in various configurations. When I was growing up in the Midwest, fire lookouts had to be tall to rise above the trees; they were set atop spindly steel towers that could rise roughly 100 feet tall. When I was younger, I had a fear of heights, and even on a calm day, I was afraid to climb all the stairs to the top of a tower. One time, when I was about 12 years old, I climbed several levels on the tower at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and was able to see a Black Bear foraging in a meadow below. But I didn’t like seeing the ground through the gridded metal stairsteps … it looked so far below that my boy’s legs wobbled.

Gobblers Knob is no longer staffed during each fire season, and is maintained now for historical reasons rather than fire fighting

When I was in college in 1970, attending a forestry summer session in the Upper Peninsula, my buddies and I drove from camp one evening to visit a nearby fire tower. Two of the guys climbed the tower to smoke marijuana while watching the sunset (as in “Oh wow, man”); the two of us who didn’t like heights stayed on the ground and didn’t toke. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was descend 120 metal steps at twilight after smoking dope! But my friends made it down without incident and appeared to have had one of those hippie spiritual experiences made possible by drugs.

Fortunately, I’ve outgrown my fear of heights and can now lean over cliffs to get a photograph whenever the opportunity arises. In fact, one time at Palouse Falls I almost took a step too far on an extremely steep and loose slope, but I’ll leave that story for another time.

Sunset reflecting in the Gobblers Knob lookout windows, looking toward Mount Rainier

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout is different from those Michigan lookouts. The cabin is about the same size, and they used the same Osborne Fire Finder to pinpoint fires (in combination with other lookouts, the location of a fire was precise). The big difference lies in the location. Gobblers Knob commands a stunning location atop a rocky promontory right in the face of Mount Rainier. It doesn’t have to rise above the trees, because the rock it sits on rises above most of the trees. There is only one short set of stairs to climb–after sweating up over a thousand vertical feet of steep trail.

The Tahoma Glacier starts near the summit, which rises above 14,200′, and continues down the mountain to about the 5,500′ level, which is about the level I’m at while taking this photograph from Gobblers Knob Lookout

Gobblers Knob Lookout was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was among America’s best ideas; it put young men to work during the Great Depression and created much of the best rustic infrastructure of America’s national and state parks. The CCC, with camps run by the US Army, also installed discipline and a work ethic in hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men; some have argued that this training and discipline was a huge asset in winning WWII. Gobblers Knob Lookout was used to spot forest fires until after World War II, when it was largely replaced by spotter planes.

The lookout remains today, and it is considered an historic place by the National Park Service, so it is maintained. In fact, several years ago, the roof was crushed by heavy winter snows, but the lookout was rebuilt in its original form.

To get to the lookout, our group of six took a trail that skirted Lake Christine and led to Goat Lake, where we established our campsite. The day was unseasonably hot for Western Washington State, so we were glad to reach Goat Lake. We changed into swim trunks and went swimming in the subalpine lake that had sported melting ice just two weeks earlier. After swimming, we cooked an early dinner, hung our food to guard against bears, then four of us hiked up the steep trail to Gobblers Knob. Along this trail, we passed from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest into Mount Rainier National Park.

Our plan was to experience sunset at the lookout, then to descend the trail in the dark, by headlamp. We took careful note of landmarks along the trail so that we could follow the path without getting lost in the dark. All went well, but in the heat and steepness, I ran out of steam several hundred yards short of the fire lookout, and had to stop for an energy bar and some water.

The view from the lookout was astounding. It sits right in the face of the mountain, and caught the last light from the western sunset. The sky was clear, but we didn’t get the pink alpenglow we had hoped for, and had to be satisfied with the warm light reflecting beautifully off the peak. Before we knew it, dark descended. Two of our group went down the mountain ahead of Karen and I; by the time we decided to descend, we really did need the headlamps almost immediately. We had recently gotten a powerful new LED headlamp for Karen, and it gave us a sense of wonderful certainty about the trail in complete darkness. Based upon this experience, I suggest that anyone going into the back country should use as powerful a headlamp as possible.

Sunset on Mount Rainier from the lookout; what a wonderful place it would have been to spend the summer!

Subalpine trees silhouetted by the last light of sunset as we started our descent

After dark, we left the lookout and hiked down the trail 1.6 miles back to camp by headlamp; the only spooky moment was seeing the bright green eyeshine of a hiker’s dog looking back at us

On the way down the trail, we saw a light in the woods ahead. It turned out to be a young woman backpacking with her dog. She was resting on a log and had a sheen of sweat from the warm night; her dog was panting heavily. We asked if she had enough water for the dog, and she replied that she did, but that he was getting old and tended to overheat more on the trail. Her plan was to camp near the lookout that night, and she had about a mile to go. We made it back to camp without any problems, and quickly burrowed into our tent, where we lay atop our sleeping bags until we finallly cooled off enough to crawl inside.

The next morning, I took a cold swim in the lake, which refreshed me for the hike out. It was cold enough to encourage me to yelp with a combination of pleasure and pain. We stopped at Lake Christine, which had also recently melted out. Near the lakeshore, there was a meadow with the highest concentration of White Avalanche Lilies I have ever seen. These spectacular lilies start emerging through the melting snow, then quickly bloom with pristine white purity. There were also spectacular shooting stars and Columbia Tiger Lilies in this beautiful lunch spot.

The tranquil view from our campsite along Goat Lake; that is, until I disturbed the peace with my yelps upon entering the cold morning water!

The day grew ever hotter as we descended, but near the trailhead Karen spotted a yellow columbine. It turned out that this was a rare alternate color form of the familiar red-and-yellow columbine we normally see. At the trailhead, cold water in an ice chest was a wonderful pleasure.

Photographs from the trail:

The trail to Gobblers Knob leads past Lake Christine and through subalpine meadows filled with summer wildflowers

White Avalanche Lilies, which melt almost immediately after snowmelt, were the star wildflower attraction here

I have rarely seen wildflowers packed as densely as these spectacular White Avalanche Lilies; avalanche fields forever

Western Hemlocks and Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs are among the big trees in the forest near Goat Lake

The green of Beljica Meadows viewed from Mount Beljica, site of another abandoned lookout that has vanished without a trace into the annals of U.S. Forest Service history

Dark-throated Shooting Star is a spectacular wildflower of these high wet meadows

Magenta Paintbrush blooming along the trail

A close view of White Avalanche Lily

Rare yellow form of the normally red-and-yellow columbine that graces the high forests of Washington State

For more information about Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout and the trail approaching it, go to:

National Park Service trail to Gobblers Knob (Note: this is NOT the route we took; the National Park Service route is longer, and much of it follows the West Side Road, which is now closed to vehicles.

Washington Trails Association Route Description (Note: this is the route we chose, and we added the side trip to Mount Beljica, which also gives a spectacular view of Mount Rainier)

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout (information and history)

There is an excellent recent book, Fire Season, by Philip Connors, that chronicles his life as a fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest during eight fire seasons. I just finished reading it, and enjoyed how he wove National Forest fire policy into the narrative.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

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In Mt. Rainier National Park’s new visitor center, the natural wood and black metal of the interior work beautifully together in the cathedral ceiling, and the craftsman-style copper light fixtures harken back to the time when the original buildings were erected at Paradise.

Mt. Rainier National Park was spectacular on this crisp Indian Summer day, and we enjoyed hiking a trail in the subalpine meadows of Paradise (originally named by a woman who thought the exuberant summer wildflower display looked like paradise).  Our wildlife total included two American Black Bears, who were feeding ravenously on blueberry bushes red with autumn color.  Wisps of clouds rose from the mountain’s summit, which was brilliant white with fresh snow.

Our real purpose in visiting Paradise was to see the new $22 million National Park Service visitor center that opened two days ago.  With my long-ago background in parks and nature centers, I enjoy seeing new visitor centers and evaluating their potential for success, so a visit to this new rustic-style center gave me an impression of what planners now believe is “state of the art.”

The old Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise looked like it was designed by an architect for the Jetsons.  Essentially, it was.  In 1962 Seattle hosted its famous World’s Fair, which featured the iconic new Space Needle.  This monument, still the symbol of Seattle, illustrated what was thought to be the American future–and this closely matched the original prime time showing of the animated sitcom, The Jetsons, which favored the same sorts of futuristic design themes.  The National Park Service, in that design climate, approved a visitor center design that echoed the top of the Space Needle–as if the towering base of the structure lay buried in lava oozed by the great mountain.  That structure opened to the public in 1966, an exciting era of growth within the National Park Service and a time when post-war America was at its most optimistic.

Fast backward nearly a hundred years.  Mt. Rainier National Park was the fifth national park in the nation, and the early design of its roads and structures was sublime.  Roads were designed to curve gently around the mountain, winding through a dark tunnel of ancient forest, then coming around a curve to see the massive mountain suddenly emerging in magnificent splendor.  The experience of driving these roads reminds me of a musical score, with low bass chords followed by a brass crescendo.  In the same era, structures were created with logs and stone and cedar shingles, echoing the materials found naturally on the mountain.  This park helped pioneer this rustic style, and today visitors still love the early Paradise Inn and other buildings that were born in that surprisingly sensitive era.

Fast forward to the new century.  The futuristic spacecraft theme of the original visitor center looks as dated as a console television set from the 1960s.  In contrast, the nearby Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is still elegant after all these years.  It is in this context that the National Park Service planned a completely new visitor center, which would fit in with the original historic architecture but which would be built to contemporary “green” standards.  The old visitor center had physical problems of handicapped accessibility–it doesn’t even have an elevator for its multiple floors.  It also had a complex snow melting system to try and deal with the up to 1,000 inches of snow that Paradise receives each year: the concrete roof has a built-in system of tubes carrying hot water to melt the snow.  These are powered by diesel–burning up to 500 gallons of diesel on a cold day in winter!  The windows use old insulation standards and the center just looks “tired” overall.

The new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, named for a powerful senator representing Washington State when the original visitor center was funded and built, has been planned for several years.  I like the overall look of the Center, though I think the soaring interior is more successful than the exterior.  The natural wood and black metal of the interior work beautifully together in the cathedral ceiling, and the craftsman-style copper light fixtures harken back to the time when the original buildings were erected at Paradise.  The exterior consists of stone and wood and a bank of beautiful windows on each side.  These windows have shutters that are open during the day to let in light and views, but they close when the Visitor Center closes, to conserve energy.  Good idea.

Much of the lobby is open, and visitors can see at a glance the opportunities to see a movie, get information from a desk ranger, visit the exhibits, or browse the bookstore.  The big, multi-paned windows look out in one direction on the great mountain and in the other direction toward the Tatoosh Range.  Circulation patterns for people browsing the center’s features work well.

The exhibits explore the major stories associated with the mountain:  the eruption history, subalpine meadows, volcanic hazards, wildlife, climbing to the summit, and effects of pollution and other outside influences on the plants and wildlife of the park.  Everyone’s favorite exhibit is on the main floor:  this is a scale model orientation map that lights up when a visitor presses a button to show, say, the route of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the mountain.  I once worked as an exhibit designer, and I’ve noticed that every visitor center designed in the last 25 years is described as having “state of the art” exhibits.  This one included.  The exhibits are effective, though probably not as gripping in story or execution as the planners hoped.  I think the problem with exhibits is that even though they have beautiful graphics and some interactive components, they simply can’t compete with today’s everyday interactive gaming and internet computer experiences.  And that’s all right.  Not everything has to dazzle and absorbingly entertain us.  Here the star experience is The Mountain itself, and the trails that lead from the Visitor Center.  Today, for example, the bears feeding on huckleberries are what every visitor is going to remember.  And that’s great!

The most effective part of the Visitor Center was the theater, which featured a spectacular new movie about Mt. Rainier, including stories about climbers, wildlife, and the geologic history and hazards of the great volcano.  It was so beautifully filmed in high-definition video that some visitors stayed in the theater to watch it a second time.  It was as close to perfect as this type of movie can be.

All in all, the National Park Service did a great job on the new Visitor Center; the tax dollars were well spent.  As we left the park, there was a touch of alpenglow on the upper reaches of the massive volcano.  A fitting end to a great day in one of America’s great national parks.

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