Fire lookouts are a favorite destination of many hikers, and the Granite Mountain lookout near Snoqualmie Pass is no exception. You'll have company, so be prepared to share the pleasure and the pain of one of the steepest trails in the Interstate 90 corridor.
There should be no mystery as to how Granite Mountain got its name, judging by the boulders strewn about the lookout on its summit.
Even getting an early start is no guarantee you'll find parking at this trailhead on a weekend. In summer, cars frequently spill out onto the access road, so don't take up more parking space than you need. This trailhead is one of the busiest in the region and with good reason: Granite Mountain is just one of many popular hikes that start here.
This wasn't my first visit to Granite Mountain, but enough time had passed that I had forgotten the steepness of the trail. I also had forgotten the small, reflective tarns where the trail levels off and the lookout swings into view. From those tarns the lookout appears deceptively close, but that is an illusion. It's farther than it looks unless you are willing and able to scramble the jumble of boulders along the summit ridge to the top.
The hike begins on Pratt Lake Trail No. 1007 at 1,880 feet and the trail doesn't give you the chance to warm up your muscles before it begins to climb. Thankfully, the first steep stint is in deep forest with plenty of shade. Enjoy the forest while you can because you'll be out in the open soon enough.
In about a half-mile you'll come to the turnoff (2,600 feet) for Granite Mountain Trail No. 1016 -- it is to the right and is well signed. The Pratt Lake Trail continues left toward a multitude of lakes, some more remote than others. This junction may be your last opportunity for water late in the season.
You thought that first stretch was steep? The next stretch is even worse as it alternates between vegetation and rocky avalanche chutes, though there are growing views to reward your efforts. Pockets of forest offer occasional relief and the trail soon enters the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Earlier in the season this is a good flower hike and you can tell this has been an exceptionally good year for beargrass in the Snoqualmie Pass region. The trail is bordered with the plant's dark skeletal stalks and the yellow-orange hues of mountain ash that are just beginning to turn color.
At about 3,800 feet the trail levels off slightly and crosses a steep gully that can be dangerous when there is snow on the trail or above. There have been fatalities when hikers set out too early in the year or were unprepared for avalanche conditions and hiking in snow. However, this time of year snow is not yet a concern.
As the trail switchbacks through blueberry shrubs and glowing meadows, it finally levels off near tarns (right) and the first view of the lookout. Here, I caught up to a group of hikers and played leapfrog with them. I'd get ahead of them for a while and then they'd get ahead of me -- this is kind of thing that frequently happens on a popular trail.
From the tarns the trail is relatively gentle, but just about the time I got my breath back the trail hiccupped and began to climb even more steeply through small meadows and boulder fields toward the summit ridge, about 5,200 feet. The lookout now was hidden from view and I was beginning to think it had been a mirage -- how could it appear so close from the tarns and yet still be so far away?
There is another option for savvy scramblers who prefer to avoid the trail -- they can scramble the summit ridge (west) to the lookout. Most hikers will opt for the trail; by the time I got to that point my legs were getting tired and I was content to stay on the path.
The trail crossed small meadows and rock gardens in a basin below the summit ridge. As it approaches the western end of the summit ridge, the trail climbs in a series of short, steep switchbacks to reach the lookout at 5,629 feet. On a warm day in late August the lookout provides shade for weary hikers, and on a cold day a hiker can seek hidden nooks and crannies in the boulders and hunker down out of the breeze.
The first lookout on Granite Mountain was a cedar cabin built before 1920, according to old records. The lookout in place today is the third and was built in 1956. At times the lookout is manned and open to visitors. This day there were several hikers checking out the lookout and basking on the summit rocks. The lookout was too crowded for very many visitors because a jovial group of volunteers were painting the structure.
Be sure to bring the map to identify all the peaks and lakes you can view from the summit. Actually, naming the lakes may be more of a challenge than naming the surrounding peaks. To the south is Mount Rainier and closer by, to the north and east, are Kaleetan Peak and the Tooth. A little farther off are Mount Thompson and Mount Stuart. With the map, you'll identify even more.
There are other options for experienced hikers. Rumors of forgotten trails and hidden tarns may lure experienced hikers with energy to burn to explore the meadows below the lookout. Or, if you just don't feel like hiking as far as the lookout, you can run the ridge above the tarns to several high points with good views of the Snoqualmie Pass-area peaks, hidden lakes and more.
To do so, instead of continuing on the Granite Mountain Trail from the tarns (on the right), turn right and climb 150 feet or so on easy cross-country terrain. Once you gain the ridge, explore in either direction. This is not recommended for beginning hikers or those who do not have off-trail hiking abilities.
If you do venture off the path, watch where you step and stay on the rocks as much as possible to protect the vegetation. It can take a meadow several decades to recover from overuse.
If you go
- Getting there -- From Seattle, take Interstate 90 east and before you reach Snoqualmie Pass get off at Exit 47, turn left. Go over I-90 to a stop sign, turn left and continue to trailhead parking and facilities, about a half mile. (If you turn right at the stop sign, you'll be at the Denny Creek recreation area.) A Northwest Forest Pass is required, and permits for the Alpine Lakes Wilderness are near the trailhead.
- Trail data -- It is about 3,800 feet elevation gain and about eight miles round-trip to the lookout (per the Green Trails map). The map is Green Trails No. 207 Snoqualmie Pass.
- Information -- Refer to "100 Hikes in Washington's Alpine Lakes" by Ira Spring, Vicky Spring and Harvey Manning (Mountaineers, 252 pages, $16.95) or contact the Snoqualmie Ranger District office in North Bend at 425-888-1421.
Karen Sykes is a Queen Anne resident and avid hiker who has been traveling Northwest trails for 20 years. She is the author of "Hidden Hikes in Western Washington."