Red Top Lookout — Saturday, May. 30, 2015
Since I got to pick the last hike this was my husband's pick. He wanted to do some rock hounding and a friend of ours suggested Red Top Mountain. We did some research on the agate beds and were looking forward to hiking in a higher elevation. FR 9738 which became FR 9702 is a dirt road that winds it's way up Red Top Mountain. According to various maps these service roads wind and join an assortment of other service roads that meander all over the back country. In the right vehicle driving and exploring these back roads could make for a another great day trip. We were tempted but stayed the course up the mountain. The drive up to Red Top Lookout is in fairly good condition, a few ruts, but nothing the family sedan can't handle. We were in 4x4 mode and my husband was a little disappointed there wasn't more mud. We passed a meadow on the downhill side and saw a handful of people picking berries. I'm guessing raspberries but didn't stop to verify. You'll see the lookout as you drive up the mountain. It looks deceptively close. You'll drive and wind, first uphill, then downhill and think you've missed it. There is a sign at the end pointing into the parking area. As we pulled in there were only a few cars in the parking area. There is an outhouse with no running water. No trash cans either, and the Forest Service has posted a sign reminding everyone to please pack out your trash. The first thing we noticed when we got out of the Jeep was that it was noticeably cooler at this elevation. A welcome respite as it was quite warm back home. We even grabbed our hoodies and I wondered if wearing shorts was such a good idea. A few minutes into the hike the hoodies came off. As advertised the hike from the trailhead is short but steep. An unexpected bonus - there are spots on the trail where it smells like Christmas trees. That delicious fragrance was such a delight! The trail will fork and if you want to go to the lookout first, turn left and head on up. We were focused on buried treasure and took the right fork to the Agate Beds. For the most part the trail is in good condition but there are areas of loose rock and steep drops. It is also narrow in parts but we didn't see a soul on our hike so no worries about passing on the trail. When the trail cuts through a meadow this is where the agate hunting begins. Go to the next meadow and you'll see the rock piles and pits where others have already dug. As I understand it the agate beds have been dug up and the Forest Service has periodically filled in the holes. So you don't really know if you are digging in a previously picked through area. But what the heck - it's better than a day at work! We had also heard that the agate beds are pretty well picked over so our expectations were not very high. We were just looking forward to being outdoors. My husband chose to dig under a tree. Bonus for him, no sunburn. On the minus side he missed out on the breeze and had a few buggy visitors. I dug in out in the sun and Mother Nature provided a steady breeze. No bugs for me! The agate beds are in a meadow full of loose rock so those hiking out with small children and maybe even a four legged friend might need to be more cautious. I don't know that rattlers are an issue in that area but still practice caution when looking under rocks. We stayed for more than 5 hours and during that entire time shared the agate beds with one couple and saw only one family hiking through. The Ellensburg Blue eluded my husband but we did find a few tiny agates. On the hike back we hiked up the trail to Red Top Lookout. Now there are two ways to get to the lookout, either take the left on the way in from the parking area or on the way back take the right fork. If you are hiking with small children I would not recommend the hike from the agate beds to the lookout, take the hike from the parking area. There is a section from the agate beds up to the lookout that is very narrow and hugs the rock face. In any case the trip to the lookout is so worth it! As we crested up off the trail the views were spectacular! To the north you'll see snow capped mountains (Mt. Stuart?) to the west majestic Mt. Rainier, and southwest Mt. Hood. The lookout was closed so we didn't get to go up. There is a tiny outhouse downhill from the lookout, again no running water. We would have stayed to watch the sunset but since we didn't know the trail made the wise decision to hike down in the daylight. The winds had picked up and the air was cooling quickly. Other than the chipmunk that greeted us in the parking area we were the last ones off the mountain and that was pretty cool in itself.