Hike the Winchester Mountain Lookout Trail (& Stay Overnight!)

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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!

The Winchester Mountain Lookout Tower with mountain peaks in the distance.

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.

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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 side of Winchester Mountain fire lookout. Distant mountains can be seen passe the building.
The Winchester Mountain fire lookout building perched on a rocky outcropping.

A Brief History of the Winchester Mountain Lookout Tower

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.

The interior of a fire lookout, with a sleeping bag on a cot and windows looking out to a view of mountain peaks.

What to Expect

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.

  • No Reservations: Staying overnight at the lookout tower is first come, first serve—there is no way to reserve it in advance. This means there is a chance you may arrive and somebody else is already there. You should pack your essential backpacking gear in case you need to actually camp. There is no maximum stay, but if you’ve already stayed for one night, then it would be courtesy to offer to vacate if somebody else shows up looking to stay.
  • Getting to the Trailhead: The forest road to the trail head is very rough. We were able to navigate part of it in a 2-wheel drive Ford Focus in 2015, but it was very challenging and we had to stop before we got to Twin Lakes trailhead. We recommend taking a high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle.
  • Amenities: While the location is incredible, the amenities are minimal. There are two “bunks” (one cot and one wooden bench) plus plenty of floor space, but you will need your own sleeping mats and sleeping bags. There are no toilets. There is no trash service. Everything needs to be packed out—including solid human waste. The delicate alpine soil around the lookout is not suitable for burying human waste.
  • Water: There is an snowfield near the lookout can last until late summer which can be used as a water source, however the closest reliable water source are the Twin Lakes. Properly filter or boil all water.
  • No campfires: Being a fragile alpine environment, campfires are not allowed on Winchester Mountain.
  • Permits & Passes: A Northwest Forest Pass or National Parks Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. No permit is required for the hike or for your stay at the lookout station.

When to 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.

Getting There

Directions to the Trailhead

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.

Parking Passes Required

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.

Woman hiking in the Cascade Mountains with fall foliage

Trail Description

  • Trail Distance: 3.5 miles round trip from Twin Lakes Trailhead (8.3 miles from Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead)
  • Total Elevation Change: 1,300 ft
  • Trail Difficulty: Moderately challenging
  • See recent trip reports here

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.

A trail cuts along the steep flank of a mountain. Low red and yellow foliage grow on either side of the trail.

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!).

Michael sitting on rocks, looking at a mountain peak in the distance.

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.

A tent set up in a clearing on a mountain top.
There are a handful of campsites on the summit.

If you’re not camping at the top, head back down the way you came up.

What to Bring

  • Map/GPS: AllTrails+ lets you download maps to your phone for offline use AND print the map so you have a physical copy on hand.
  • Water: A general rule of thumb is to drink 1 liter (32oz) of water for every two hours of hiking. However, if it’s a hot day, you will likely want to pack more to avoid dehydration as this trail is very exposed.
  • Sun protection
  • Sturdy hiking shoes or boots
  • Hiking poles: These will really help you out on the uphill and downhill, given the steep nature of this trail!
  • Warm layers/rain jacket: Weather in the North Cascades can change rapidly, so be prepared for shifts in temperature and the potential for rain.
  • Headlamp
  • Potty kit: Wag Bag to pack out waste, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
  • Backpacking gear, if you’re planning on staying at the summit overnight.
Stars above the Winchester Mountain lookout tower

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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