Backcountry Sights

Photos and stories from the outdoors

Overnight at Three Fingers Lookout

After summiting Glacier Peak, Craig J., Craig B., Andrew R., Dagmar, and I popped into town. We stop at a pizza parlor with a lunch deal on an all-you-can-eat salad bar and then visit a coffee shop to recharge devices. After a quick trip to the grocery store, we drive back into the mountains to visit the Three Fingers Lookout.

Trip Planning

Specs: 31.6 mi | +/- 6900 ft | 2+ days, 2 nights

Difficulty: Class 1 [learn more]

Location: Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington | Home of the Stillaguamish, Upper Skagit, Tulalip, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla-Walla peoples | View on Map

Route: The hike to the peak begins miles before “the trail” where the road has washed out. We took the long way around on the road to the Goat Flats Trail, but a shorter path over Meadow Mountain also exists. Follow the Goat Flats Trail up to the namesake meadow and then continue on the obvious trail. Early in the season, snow and ice may cover the trail and you may need technical climbing skills and gear. We encountered very little snow, however, and only put on traction devices for a short walk just below the outlook.

Permits & Regulations: No permits are required and there is no fee or wilderness pass for parking. Be aware that the start of the route is a popular spot for people to shoot their guns and is pretty well trashed.

Resources: The Washington Trails Association website includes an excellent description of the trail as well as trip reports, but I think the glaciers have receded significantly since they last updated their route description.

Escaping Gunfire

27 Aug 2023 | 4.0 mi | +800 / -100 ft | View on Map

Our plan for the night is to camp near the end of the road that leads to the Three Fingers Lookout. The road used to go quite a bit further but part of it has washed out (and there is apparently no plan to repair it). It’s not a long drive from town and we arrive in the late afternoon. It’s nothing like what I expected though. Unlike the North Fork Sauk River trailhead, which had a pit latrine and was blissfully quiet, this “trailhead” is apparently a favorite spot for target practice. Gunfire splits the air repeatedly as we look around for a spot to camp. There’s nothing remotely appealing; all the open areas are littered with garbage and broken glass. Craig J. and I wander across the bridge to check a little further from the gun enthusiasts but don’t find anything promising. We ask an outbound hiker about camping spots and she tells us the closest camping is three or four miles up the trail.

As we’re discussing our options (hike in, try to stay here, drive back toward town?), another group pulls up. They begin pulling guns and bottles of alcohol out of their cars and waste no time emptying a few magazines into a fallen tree. That pretty much makes the decision for us; we’re getting out of here! We’ll hike up the trail and camp… somewhere. It takes us a little time to repack but we’re hurrying as fast as we can; the gunfire is so loud. When we’re ready to go we ask the group that’s shooting in the direction of the trail to hold their fire (or point their guns elsewhere) for ten or fifteen minutes so that we can get out without being shot.

We hike as fast as we can away from the shooting and search for a campsite along the overgrown road. We find a few spots and eventually settle for one about four miles in. It’s nothing special, just a grassy pull-out near a tiny creek, but it’ll do. We squeeze our tents onto the grass and relax. I picked up an avocado and pepperjack cheese this afternoon to accompany a tortilla and tuna; it makes a delicious wrap! The bugs are out in force tonight and it’s already pretty late – we didn’t expect to hike for a couple hours – so we all retreat into our tents after dinner and go to sleep as darkness falls.

The Berry Trail

28 Aug 2023 | 11.8 mi | +5200 / -800 ft | View on Map

I wake up feeling congested, an unpleasant way to start the day in the wilderness. I feel a bit better once I get up and going. The others waste no time on the fire road; they speed ahead and I’m soon alone at the back of the group. It’s a relatively nice walk with some pretty flowers growing beside the route, but it gets a little monotonous. The road just keeps going…

It takes me about two hours to hike the 4.7 miles to the start of the actual trail. I find the rest of the group resting and snacking when I arrive. We read the signs at the trailhead and laugh at a collection of machetes beside a note asking hikers to help clear brush on the trail. Once everyone’s rested, we begin up the trail. It’s an incredibly rugged path and is suffering from a lack of maintenance; more than machetes are needed to clean this up! Still, it’s a path, and that’s a significant achievement given the density of the brush. We’re walking through a jungle! One perk of the thick brush is plentiful berries – Craig J. identifies blackberries, salmonberries, and thimbleberries, all ripe and ready for eating (which we happily do).

The humidity feels oppressive today. I’m sweating much more than I should be for the amount of effort I’m exerting. The difficult trail is a bit tedious too. We don’t have very much farther to go though. Our plan for the day is to hike to Saddle Lake and set up camp so that we can do an out-and-back to the summit tomorrow and hike out the day after. We pass several outbound backpackers who give us some valuable information: there’s nobody in front of us heading for the lookout, so we could very well have it to ourselves.

Just before reaching Saddle Lake I catch a glimpse of Three Fingers Peak and am absolutely amazed. That’s where we’re going?! The three peaks tower in the distance with glaciers and snowfields between them. I catch up to the Craigs at the lake and gush to them about the peak. It’s not even noon, we can easily make it up there tonight! And we could camp in the lookout! When Andrew R. and Dagmar arrive we have to talk them into the extra miles, but it’s not too difficult given the early hour. Also, the weather forecast for tomorrow is calling for lots of rain so today may be our only opportunity to enjoy or even see the scenery.

We rest at the lake for a little while, feasting on wild blueberries, and then continue on. During the next stretch of hiking we gain a fair bit of altitude, but the trail is better maintained and much easier to walk on. Blueberries continue to line the path for miles and I enjoy reaching down and picking them as I go. Water is pretty scarce except for a series of small, terraced meadows about half a mile up from Saddle Lake. I’m running low on water and refill a bottle from the little creek before continuing along.

We’re spread out again, now with Craig B. up front, Craig J. behind me, and Andrew R. and Dagmar a little further back. We reconvene up on Goat Flat, a gorgeous alpine meadow with lots of campsites (and allegedly a toilet!) Craig B. and I are the only ones with water left, so we share what we have with the others and then press on; according to the hikers we met this morning, there should be plenty of water flowing off the snowfields higher up.

I’m having a fantastic time now that we’re out of the trees! A light breeze helps dispel the humidity and the scenery and views just keep getting better and better. The trail climbs up the ridge and then cuts across the south face of a steep canyon for about a mile.

It’s difficult to do the next mile of trail justice with words… it’s incredible! We follow the trail along cliffs overlooking the Queest Alb Glacier, wind around towering pinnacles, and watch clouds literally cascade over ridges. We do find fresh water, small rivulets trickling down from the ice, and refill our bottles there. The water is ice-cold and tastes amazing… entirely worth the wait.

There are two slightly technical sections along the ridge. The first is a short class 2 – 3 gully that drops from the top of the ridge to a saddle overlooking the glacier. There’s a fixed line tied to a tree that I don’t trust enough to use, but the scrambling isn’t bad. It’s dirty and loose, but there are plenty of solid rocks to hold on to.

The second bit of technical terrain is just below the lookout. We hike up a permanent snowfield without traction devices but it’s icier than it looks and we quickly make our way over to the solid rock. The rock isn’t particularly easy either, I’d give it a class 3 difficulty rating. Above the snowfield we follow a few small cairns out onto a slabby face and continue climbing class 3 rock until we reach the ladders. Three beefy wooden ladders wedged into the rocks (and secured with rebar and steel wire) provide access up to the top. They’re very secure but the exposure makes the climbing feel tenuous.

And then we’re up! We scramble up a shallow slab to the lookout and get to work opening the shutters. Inside the lookout we find all sorts of supplies, from sleeping bags and pads to spare stove fuel and a small library. There’s no way around the lookout – two sides are flush with sheer cliffs – but the back shutter doubles as an entrance/exit and we’re able to clamber through to see the other side of the mountain.

I can’t get enough of the views from the Three Fingers Lookout. The cascading clouds really capture my attention! It’s so cool to watch them flow from one valley, over a ridge, and down into another valley. I stand outside for a long time, taking in the scenery. Eventually, we cook up some dinner and spend the evening stepping in and out of the lookout. No other hikers arrive to crowd up the lookout; maybe tomorrow’s rainy forecast is keeping them away. The clouds outside continue to flow over the ridges and slowly drift higher until only the tallest peaks protrude from the sea of white. I’ve been hoping for a spectacular sunset, but clouds on the western horizon block the best of the light. Still, the subtle pastel colors are beautiful!

Through the Mist

29 Aug 2023| 15.8 mi | +900 / -6000 ft | View on Map

I wake up at 2:30 to thunder, rain, and wind whistling through the lookout. By my count, the lighting is a couple miles away (10 – 15 seconds sound travel time), which is a bit close for comfort. The lookout is equipped with lightning rods though, so we should be pretty safe. Right? Thankfully, the storms don’t escalate beyond moderate wind and light rain, and the lightning keeps its distance. Later in the morning, I step outside to pee. A flash of lightning goes off in the distance and I immediately hear the grounding cables sizzle as they discharge into the ground, which gives me a jump scare. I hurry back inside and stay there until the storms have abated.

We begin the hike back at 7:00. The lookout is still above the clouds, but we soon drop down into them. Yesterday’s phenomenal views are now entirely invisible; all we can see is a wall of mist in every direction. Although there’s no rain falling, every leaf and stem is covered in dew and my pants and shoes are soon soaking wet. I’ve got a hard shell jacket, which keeps my upper half dry, but I didn’t bother bringing rain pants. They would have been a welcome addition.

We agree to meet up at the same places as we did yesterday: Goat Flat, Saddle Lake, the trailhead, and the car. Everyone settles into their own paces and trudges through the mist. With very little to distract me from the trail, I walk as quickly as I can. I’m able to use my trekking poles to knock water off of plants in front of me, but it’s a futile task; I’m still very wet. We reconvene for the last time at 11:30 where the Goat Flats Trail meets the old road. The 9-mile road walk is by far the longest stretch of hiking, but it’s a welcome break from the trail since it’s wider and we don’t have to brush against the wet plants. We speed through those nine miles; Craig J. and I are the last to arrive at the car at 14:00. Everyone is wet and uncomfortable so we just pile into the car and head into town for hot food.

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