Total Ascent: 600ft
Highest Point: 5280ft
Total Distance: 1.2 miles
Location: N 47° 2.4540, W 121° 35.7900
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
Last week we headed back out on Highway 410 to check out one of the most popular and easily accessible fire lookouts in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Sun Top Lookout. During high summer, anyone willing to spend sometime on some dirt roads can drive to the summit; during the rest of the year, reaching the lookout cabin is more of a challenge. With snow still on the ground, we headed out to see how close we could get.
So is it Suntop or Sun Top? If you ask the US Geological Survey and the National Register of Geographical Place Names, it is officially Sun Top. The US Forest Service seems on the fence, using both Suntop and Sun Top interchangeably, but ultimately seems to have decided on Suntop, as that’s what is carved into the signs along the trail and nailed to the side of the lookout. And because no one – including the folks over at the Historic American Buildings Survey – seems to know how the mountain and lookout got its name, it’s not clear which one is more correct.
The exact details of the construction of the lookout are somewhat hazy, but it was most likely built in 1933, given that its pyramidal roof indicates it was built to specifications developed in 1932. The L-4 Lookout House, as it was called, was designed to be hauled up a mountainside by a train of mules and easily assembled by crews as small as one or two people. From 1942-43, the lookout was staffed by volunteers as part of the US Army Aircraft Warning System, which kept an eye out for possible enemy aircraft. Until 1956, access was via a 6-mile trail from the White River. After that, the road was completed to the summit, allowing everyone easy access to the big views at the top. Over the years the lookout fell into disrepair. It was rescued and restored in the 1980s, entering the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
There are many ways to reach Sun Top Lookout. One could take the Suntop Trail #1183, which, depending on who you ask, is a 14 or 16 mile day and begins near the Ranger Creek Airstrip. During the winter months, one can snowshoe the nearly 6 mile long FR 7515 up to the summit. Others prefer to combine two short hikes, driving out to nearby the Huckleberry Creek Trail to take a forested stroll along a creek, then driving up to Sun Top. Finally, if all the gates are open, you can just drive to the top. We’ve never been fans of hiking on a forest road if we didn’t have to, so we recommend finding a nearby hike to combine with Sun Top.
From any approach, the views from the lookout are well worth the effort. In the distance are big views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Stuart along with Mt. Baker and the Olympic Mountains. Far below, the mountain is surrounded by water, with Huckleberry Creek to the west and the larger White River to the east. Find a picnic table or a comfortable patch of grass and enjoy the views.
If you’ve never had the chance to get up to Sun Top, we recommend you find some time this summer to check it out. It is a fantastic opportunity to share iconic and stunning landscapes with anyone. Of course, with such access comes quite a bit of traffic. If you’re looking to enjoy the views with less company, you’ll need to come when the snows melt just enough to reach the parking lot a half-mile below the lookout, but before the lookout gates open making it easy to drive to the top. For our part, we came a little early and were stopped by snow about a mile from the lower lot, and slogged up the logging road to the lookout.
To get there, take I-5 south to Highway 18, Exit 142A. Follow Highway 18 into Auburn and take the SR 164 exit. Head left on SR 164 through Enumclaw to SR 410. Head left onto SR 410 for 25 miles to Huckleberry Creek Road (FR 73). Take a right and follow FR 73 for 1.3 miles to the gated 7315, which is closed during the winter. Parking is available here. Veer left up 7315 for 4.8 miles to the Doe Falls Trailhead. If the gate is open, you can continue up another mile to the summit parking lot just below the lookout. Otherwise park here and find the trail a short ways up the road. -Nathan
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Total Ascent: 300ft
Highest Point: 2300ft
Total Distance: 4.0 miles
Location: N 48° 1.6020, W 121° 26.6340
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
Last fall, just before the snows closed the Mountain Loop Highway for the winter, we headed out to Barlow Pass to hike up to Barlow Point, the site of a former fire lookout. While we were there, we also rounded out our exploration of the area by trekking down the Old Government Trail #733.
The Everett and Monte Cristo Railroad reached Barlow Pass in late 1893, largely following the rough roads and trails blazed by prospectors and explorers to bring supplies out to Monte Cristo. As workers neared the Pass, they ran into a rocky outcropping blocking the route. Undeterred, they blasted a gap through the rock wide enough to lay track and moved on. That gap is now known as the Barlow Cut. With Monte Cristo’s burgeoning mining operations now connected to the smelters in Everett, a steady stream of trains kept the tracks busy. All that increased traffic led to predictable results. In 1905, as so often happened in that era, a spark from a locomotive started a forest fire near the tracks, which quickly spread, eventually climbing up the mountainsides of nearby Mt. Dickerman. Today, you can still find burnt stumps along the Old Government Trail as lingering evidence of that fire.
Starting from the parking lot at Barlow Pass, the trail begins under a heavy canopy of fir and hemlock. After a third of a mile, the nearly flat trail encounters a junction with the Barlow Point Trail. Veer left, heading downhill and following the sign pointing toward the Old Government Trail. The fern-lined trail quickly descends down toward the railroad grade. The trail parallels the highway, which is partially obscured by foliage in the spring and summer but a fairly constant companion in the fall, and wanders past moss-covered cliffs and boggy marshes as it travels across talus fields. Rocks from these fields were used to build foundations that supported locomotives filled with coal and ore. Continue onward until you reach a set of small waterfalls near the end of the trail.
At this point, you can continue on the trail down to the Mountain Loop Highway, and walk it back to the parking lot for a loop, or just stop for lunch and head back along the trail. If you’re up for it, there is some extra exploring that is possible along this hike – you can leave the trail at certain points and connect with sections of the railbed. Here you will find the Barlow Cut and a small interpretive sign outlining some of the area’s history.
This is a very short hike, and it is probably best combined with a short trek up to Barlow Point, as they make for a full day of hiking if taken together. An easy hike for all ages, Old Government Trail isn’t spectacular, but it’s very accessible and together with Barlow Point gives hikers a taste of more challenging hikes in the nearby Monte Cristo area. Next time you’re out at Barlow Pass, consider adding a short side trip down the Old Government Trail #733.
To get there, take I-5 North to Exit 194. Follow Highway 2 for about two miles. Stay in the left lane and merge onto Lake Stevens Highway 204. Follow for two miles to Highway 9. Take the left onto Highway 9 toward Lake Stevens. In just under two miles, you’ll reach Highway 92 to Granite Falls. Take a right and follow for about nine miles to the Mountain Loop Highway. Take the MLH for 31 miles to Barlow Pass. Find the trailhead parking lot on your left. -Nathan
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