Thoughts from the Summit at Green Mountain Lookout

Posted on: August 10th, 2012 by Brian Turner 5 Comments

Upon first gaping at the precarious perch of the historic fire lookout on the summit of Green Mountain, my backpacking companion captured the sentiment exactly:

“Yep, those old timers were crazy.”

The precarious perch of the lookout above a steep ledge.

The Green Mountain lookout stands on the crest of a volcanic ridgeline more than seven grueling miles and 5,000 feet higher than its nearest trailhead in the Cascades of Washington State. It was built in 1933 by a hardy work crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps who first carted its heavy wood windows, planks, and support beams on the steep climb up the mountain. Today, it remains a marvel of human ingenuity and backcountry engineering.

Since a federal court ordered the lookout removed from the mountaintop last April (background on the situation here), its future has been in limbo. Legislation was recently introduced to save it from demolition, but its passage is far from certain. So I decided to set out to see the site in its original setting, to see if the debate -- whether all traces of human influence should be removed from designated wilderness areas -- held up.

I began in Darrington, an old logging town two hours northeast of Seattle. Scott Morris, a volunteer with the local Darrington Historical Society, graciously offered to accompany me. It was not an easy hike. Road closures have made what was once a popular day trip to the lookout now require at least one night of camping on the journey.



We began on an old, unmaintained path at the confluence of the Suiattle River and Downey Creek and scrambled for three hours with our backpacks over downed logs, frequently losing and re-finding the trail. By early afternoon we reached the maintained trail that leads to the summit of the mountain with another 4+ miles of uphill ahead.

As we climbed higher, the rewards were tremendous. Near the wilderness boundary we spotted a black bear foraging on young huckleberries. A golden eagle sailed the ridge, hunting for unsuspecting marmots sun-bathing on the rocks. Fields of brilliant wildflowers greeted us in the high country, freshly emerged from the melting snow drifts.



At the summit of Green Mountain, we were in a cloud, the surrounding world barely visible. We found the lookout in its winter dormancy; the heavy wooden shutters that protected its paned glass windows were strapped down with an oversized belt. We opened them to the elements -- a seasonal ritual -- propping up the shutters with iron bars and inspecting damage to the catwalk caused by heavy snow loads. After setting up camp inside, we ate a warm meal and tried to forget about how terrifyingly close to the ledge we actually were.

Tufts of wildflowers and Glacier Peak visible from the lookout entrance.

By dawn the clouds had sunk below us and the tops of the high peaks of the Cascades appeared as islands in the sky. By the time we closed the lookout, the clouds had dispersed entirely, revealing expansive forests in every direction. During the entire trip we saw not another soul. I found it no wonder that some of America’s most influential environmental thinkers were inspired by their solitary summers in the lookouts of the Northwest: Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few.


In some cases, a competing public policy may offer a compelling reason against keeping a historic place in wilderness -- when a historic dam threatens a rare species, for example. But the only thing at risk with the Green Mountain Lookout is an ideology, the mistaken notion the land must be clear cut of any tangible remain of human influence, regardless of how small of an impact it has on natural values.

In contrast, the relatively small amount of historic sites in our America’s wilderness are irreplaceable assets with potential to foster even greater environmental awareness -- to appreciate how land was used (and misused) over time. While some may see these places as an expression of ego, others are likely to be humbled by how small mankind really is in comparison to the vastness of the wilderness beyond.

In a mere flash of geologic time, natural forces will erode the Green Mountain Lookout from its perch, as they have already for many of its kind. Until then, it is a great privilege (for those who can bear the hike) to see those forces in action. In my view, keeping the lookout intact and accessible not only honors the hardy individuals who labored for it, but sustains a popular part of the American identity that takes pride in the careful stewardship of the spectacular land we inherit.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Brian Turner is an attorney in the National Trust's San Francisco Field Office. He is an enthusiastic advocate for the protection of the nation's cultural and natural heritage.

General, Landscapes, Reflections, Travel

5 Responses

  1. warner blake

    August 12, 2012

    “In a mere flash of geologic time, natural forces will erode the Green Mountain Lookout from its perch…”

    As the forces were doing before man stepped in with his big opposable thumbs to “preserve” it —

  2. Carla Anderson

    August 16, 2012

    Thank you for the wonderful article. In 1915 my family homesteaded a small island in Lake Superior which my great grand parents and grand parents used as the base of their commercial fishing operation until the late 1950’s. The island is part of an archipelago known as Isle Royale, which later became a a national park. Prior to the establishment of the park, Isle Royale had a vibrant community of Scandinavian immigrant fishing families and summer cottagers, many of whom were 19th century industrialists, writers, and church leaders. Today, the descendants of these families continue to repair and maintain the small cabins and camps built by their ancestors. What remains of the community and these buildings occupies less than 1percent of of the entire park. This community and these structures represent a very unique place in American history. Isle Royale and Lake Superior have sunk many ships and taken many lives. The settlers of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s on Isle Royale had to form bonds and friendships that crossed vastly different socio-economic lines in order to survive there. This community and these structures tell a part of our story as Americans. I often hike in the Cascades and Olympics and come across crumbling old remains and wonder about the person who built it, why they built it, what happened. Tearing down and eradicating all signs of human history to create a “wilderness” denies the visitor a chance to connect with the our American history and those who came before them which is senseless to me when one considers the how few remain.

  3. Eric

    August 17, 2012

    Important article, and discussion. I was linked here from The heritage inherited by America’s historic places, whether pristine or ruins, is the door to our cultural identity, as much as the natural geography they sit on. The practice of “leave no trace,” as with the Appalachian Trail, plays an important role. However, I suggest we put priority on removing the far more intrusive “human influence” of our closed and heavy-footed big box ghost stores, and increase wilderness and understanding in our urban areas. These obstructive structures are dead weight, having outlived their singular, short term purpose. The Green Mountain fire lookout remains symbiotic to the environs. It is, in fact, as your pictures illustrate, a window to the wilderness. That lookout, available to the public, like wilderness should be, is a symbol of our nature-loving identity that will motivate us to save more wilderness.

  4. Kim Brown

    August 30, 2012

    Thanks for the nice article and great pictures. There are old porcelain insulators and some telephone wire dotted here and there on the old trail you took (rather than the road walk to the current trailhead). I love seeing those while hiking on trails to old lookout summits.

    A lookout is not imposing on a landscape, especially the Green Mtn Lookout. There are no summits nearby that the lookout can be seen without using binoculars, so the drama about how imposing it is must be a sentiment by people who haven’t been there and it is being repeated by others who haven’t been there, but assume the information is correct.

    Americans should not throw away their heritage and history. There’s no point in wiping these old lookouts off the landscape. They’re more than buildings; they’re the heart & soul of a community, they’re a place for people to wonder and marvel about how those before us lived and worked.

    In short, I really hope the lookout remains.

  5. Terry

    August 30, 2012

    Brian, you are spot on here! Those places are historic treasures and there are so few left standing now.