Short Stops

A Remote Fire Lookout That Can Be Reached by Car

Deep in the forest between three volcanoes, a piece of history sits right off an unpaved road.

By Allison Williams July 15, 2022

Burley Mountain Lookout has stood guard for nearly a century.

Undeniable logic dictates the placement of fire lookouts. When one wants to spot a fire deep in the forest, one must view from the highest vantage point possible. That means that most are on tops of mountains, feats of engineering more than simple buildings. In south central Washington, however, Burley Mountain Lookout stands as the exception: a fire lookout that's also a road trip.

Though climbing website counts 93 remaining fire lookouts in Washington state, few still stand in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This stretch of green takes up most of the triangle formed by Mounts Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams. In 1964 there were 37 such outposts in more than a million acres; today there are three. Burley Mountain Lookout sits about eight miles (as the crow flies) or 22 miles (as the car drives, on winding forest roads) from the town of Randle.

Like so many of the state's fire lookouts, this one, built in 1934, is a square structure with windows on every side. Due to the nature of the thing, the views are tremendous, overlooking the undulating forests of the Cascades, with volcanos in the distance. Four-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicles are recommended to tackle the rough, potholed forest roads. A mid-size SUV can usually make the trek (though as with every rough road in Washington, somehow some bold driver in a Prius has probably managed it).

For much of the state's history, these lookouts—and an eagle-eyed worker also known as a "lookout"—were the only way to know if destructive flames were tearing up the forest or heading toward towns. Today, cameras, both on the ground and on satellites, do the job. Burley survived because it was repurposed as a radio repeater station, and the building remains open as a historic landmark, empty of equipment.

In late summer these bumpy dirt roads are full of berry pickers who gather gallons of wild huckleberries and bring them to buyers working out of tents in a Randle parking lot. Just south of the lookout, the Pole Patch area is unique in that it doesn't allow commercial pickers, just personal ones; many who come here are Indigenous locals whose families return to these traditional spots.

Winter snows mean that summer and early fall are the easiest time to visit. On the hunt for more drivable fire lookouts? A few more exist, like Sun Top Lookout north of Mount Rainier.

Burley Mountain Lookout

Forest Road 7605, Gifford Pinchot National Forest 
Travel time from Seattle: 3 hours 

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