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PNT Blog

Lookouts for the Stars

Oct 19, 2015


I could hear Andy stirring.  Sometime around 6:30 AM his quiet but steady snoring was replaced by the rustling of sleeping bag against sleeping pad.  In the span of ten minutes, he was dressed and fitting his camera to his tripod.  I reached up to pet River, ensuring that in the middle of the night she hadn’t rolled off of the lookout balcony.  It was at least 20 feet to the alpine rock and shrub below us and I slept fitfully, worrying about her (as any new dog-mom does).  As the morning sun shone on Mt. Baker, all of my fears disappeared.  It was time to grab my camera.

Sam and River watch the sunset from Park Butte Lookout Photo by Andy PorterThis is how I experience trails – with River, my 1.5-year-old lab shepherd mix, by my side and a camera in front of my face.  I love the joy of visiting new places and challenge of capturing low light conditions – something that always seemed so hard before I met Andy Porter.  He’s a local photographer and friend, and whenever possible we disappear into the backcountry with our cameras and packs.  Living so close to the PNT has given me ample opportunity to explore the trail – section by section.  As the Marketing and Communications Manager, I get many questions on trail conditions, best day hikes and viewing spots.  My learning style dictates that I need to experience something to best learn about it, so this week I took a few days of exploring in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. 

I started with the Baker River and Baker Lake trails (#606 and #610).  Travelling East from Sedro-Woolley, I followed State Route 20 for 16 miles to milepost 82.  I turned left onto Baker Lake Highway (Forest Service Road [FR] 11) and continued for 25.5 miles along pavement and dirt roads until I dead-ended at the Baker River trailhead and parking lot.  From there, the trail is a wide comfortable path through big leaf maple, cedar and douglas fir groves.  After .6 miles the Baker River suspension bridge comes into view, and pup and I detoured to the rocky gravel beds of the river.  As I stood admiring the view and River romped in the cool waters, 3 fisheries employees floated down stream conducting spawning surveys.  They shared the good news of many reds and deposited eggs before allowing the current to take them downstream.  River and I made our way to the east bank of the lake for a few hours before heading back to the trailhead.  We had a schedule to keep.

Within 45 minutes I was at the trailhead, and moments later Andy, River and I were on our way.  Leaving the parking lot, the Park Butte Trail #603 passes through Schriebers Meadow, with hidden volcanic cinder cones and volcanic scoria marking the way.  The area has a fascinating geologic history, and a series of boulder fields and creek crossings ensure that hikers know they aren’t the most powerful force in the area.  The terrain changes drastically after 1 mile, and old growth mountain hemlock and yellow cedar shade the view for a while.  Turning left at the Scott Paul Trail junction brings you to Morovitz Meadow and brilliant views of Mt. Baker (Koma Kulshan).

Mt Baker from Morovitz Meadow Photo by Samantha HaleIt was at this point that Andy and I turned off of the PNT.  We wanted to hike the trail, but our destination was the Park Butte lookout, a historic fire tower built in 1932.  We ignored the signs for Bell Pass Trail and made our way up into the craggy subalpine world.  As the sun set on Mt. Baker and the surrounding mountains, we introduced ourselves to the lookouts night time residents – a young couple from Sedro-Woolley.  They had been at the lookout since noon, but gladly agreed to let us sleep on the balcony.  The night was calm and relatively warm as we made dinner and scanned the lookout register.  When the PNT came up, the couple mentioned that the registers were full of thru-hikers and I soon found the familiar signature of trail names dating back many years.  It seems that Andy and I weren’t the first PNT hikers to detour for the night.  At star rise, we set our cameras up for some shots of the Milky Way.  The evening haze disappeared and various celestial bodies danced above our heads.  Our new friends had never seen nighttime photography in action, so Andy and I happily chatted about the process.  As long as they would stand in for models, we said, we would happily share our photos with them.  I think we all came away as winners.

Park Butte Lookout and the Milky Way Photo by Andy PorterAs the nighttime chill set in, Andy and I set up our sleep systems on the east facing balcony of the lookout and tucked in for the night.  Sunrise would come early, and none of us planned on missing it.  I fell asleep with River breathing softly by my head, stars above and the distant lights of Bellingham twinkling on the horizon.  Moments later, or so it seemed, I was back behind my camera stealing some shots of the brilliant sky as the mountains lit up before me.  A quick breakfast break saw my legs dangling forty feet above the craggy mountainside with River listening to the cacophony of awakening wildlife.  By 10:30 AM we were back at our cars, on our way home.  River was asleep before I backed out of my parking spot and I headed back to my computer screen office.  Until next time PNT, thanks for a great night! 

Day trips and overnight stays at lookout towers are a wonderful way to experience the PNT.  Many maps, including those of the three National Parks, show the preferred and alternate routes of the trail.  The map I used for this trip was Green Trails Maps # 13S showing Mount Baker Wilderness Climbing.  The PNT in Washington is also shown on other Green Trails Maps, National Geographic Maps, Square One Maps and interagency maps.  Whether you’re out for a night, a week, or a month, for your mind, body or soul – explore the PNT on your terms.   

To learn more about hiking the PNT in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, visit the USFS and WTA websites for the Baker LakeBaker RiverPark Butte and Bell Pass trails.  To see more photos from Andy and Sam's overnight stay, visit the PNTA Flickr Page

Many thanks to Andy Porter Photography for the images. 

Morning at the Park Butte Lookout Photo by Andy Porter


Category: Day Hikes

sam_picture.jpgSamantha Hale is the Marketing and Communications Manager for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.  She's trying to visit as many North Cascades lookouts as possible before they become snowed in.   For overnight and day trip ideas, contact PNTA at or (360) 854-9415.
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