Twenty years ago, the Heybrook Lookout Tower was a mess. Tucked into Washington’s Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the fire lookout’s eight-story-high cabin—offering panoramic views of needle-nosed Mt Index and Bridal Veil Falls—was wildly popular with heights-tolerant overnight guests.
But the tower, located just north of Highway 2 some 55 miles east of Seattle, also proved irresistible to vandals—several waves of whom, by 1996, had ransacked the place. They cut through the catwalk that led to the top-level cabin. They smashed and tagged it, thoroughly. And they stripped the whole tower of the copper wiring that provided a protective shield against lightning strike.
Being inside the highest structure for miles—72 feet up in the air—isn’t exactly the safest place during a weather event. So the Forest Service walled off the tippy-top level until funding could be found for a new lightning arrestor system—not exactly a budget priority of the higher-ups, as it turned out. For 10 years and change, as day hikers continue to access the observation deck on the seventh level, the Heybrook Tower’s top-floor cabin, and its uninterrupted 360-degree views, have been achingly just out of reach.
Now the 92-year-old Heybrook Tower is once again fully open, from top platform to ground-level pit toilet, thanks to support from a number of quarters. Seattle outdoor outfitter Filson led a few work parties to clean up graffiti and spruce up trails; it also chipped in, big-time, for a new (aluminum) lightening arrestor installation. The National Forest Foundation facilitated that Filson partnership. And the Forest Fire Lookout Association (yes, this exists!) took on much of the structural fixes: broken doors, a damaged propane system.
Want to book a stay at what is now Washington’s second rentable fire lookout? You’re not alone. The lookout officially became available to the public on September 1, when the Forest Service’s third party booker, Recreation.gov, opened the supremely 'grammable cabin for overnight stays at $75 a night. (“We want everyone to be able to get in there, so we try not to keep the rates too high,” said Forest Service spokesperson Colton Whitworth.) Within days of listing, the site’s six-months-out reservation window was fully booked.
Turns out that Pacific Northwest fire lookout fans are masters of the Forest Service's reservation system. They know, says Whitworth, that Recreation.gov is set to Eastern Standard Time—that nabbing reservation dates as they come online, exactly six months prior, means being the first to hit the “Book these dates” button at 9 p.m. Pacific Time sharp (in other words, the stroke of midnight EST).
But Whitworth assures starry-eyed campers there are a few other longshot options for booking the lookout. One is pretty much the Forest Service equivalent of gambling: making a visit to the Skykomish Ranger station in person on the off-chance that dates have opened up within a two-week window of your visit. The second option, says Whitworth, is still in formation. The ranger district hopes to enlist a volunteer team of stewards willing to work a bit—checking on the facilities, doing trail maintenance, and, most importantly, watching for would-be vandals—in exchange for a free stay at Heybrook.
“It’s easy to get to, and there are people who are up there quite a bit," says Whitworth. "The thing that’s going to be hard for us is making sure that we have someone in there all the time. The nice thing is it’s one of the lower elevation lookouts—only 1,700 feet up—so there are years when we can have it open year-round.”
For those lucky enough to book a stay at Heybrook, here’s what’s to know:
- Distance from Portland: 222 miles
- Closest town: Index, Washington
- Hike-in distance from Highway 2: approximately 1 mile (elevation gain of 900 feet)
- Rental fee per night: $75
- Per week: $525
- Maximum stay: 7 nights
- Maximum capacity: 4
- Facilities: Pit toilet at trail terminus
- Amenities: pots, pans, stove-top burner, one full-size bed with mattress, board games, picnic table at trail terminus
- Bring: Cooking utensils, bedding, pads, food, water