Head in the Clouds: A Weekend Volunteering at Green Mountain Lookout
This season, the popular Green Mountain Lookout is open on select days. Here's what it was like for the first round of volunteers who recently staffed it.
"You're about 100 feet away!"
I looked up. The lone hiker who'd called out seemed to have materialized out of grey cloud, which was about all I'd seen for the four miles I'd been hiking from the car. The lookout we were headed for certainly wasn't visible.
"Really?" I asked, skeptical.
"Yep, it's right above you."
Despite being so close to the top, my hiking partner, Cory, and I stopped and chatted with this guy, the sixth person we'd seen that morning. It was misty and drizzling, and the popular views that so many people endure merciless elevation gain to achieve were nowhere in sight. He said he was disappointed to miss the view, but had made good time up from the trailhead.
We said goodbye to the hiker, who was thinking about returning on Sunday for the views, and completed the last 100 feet to the summit. I fished out the keys to the padlocks that keep Green Mountain Lookout sealed up for most of the year. Cory held a shutter panel open while I unlocked the door. Inside, hundreds of ladybugs and a handful of crickets greeted us.
We were home for the weekend.
Camping in the sky
The Green Mountain Lookout has been (mostly) on the summit of Green Mountain since 1933. The structure that stands there today is 75 percent original material -- fir that has seen more than eighty seasons of snow and fire, rain and shine.
But for years, hikers who have trekked to the top of Green Mountain have been unable to peek inside the building, and few know the history of it. That curiosity can be satisfied this summer, thanks to a pilot program made possible through a partnership between Washington Trails Association and the Darrington Ranger District.
Volunteer stewards will be stationed in the lookout periodically throughout the 2016 hiking season in order to offer hikers an open lookout and education about the stunning surroundings and the history of the structure.
My fellow volunteer, Cory, and I were the very first of that group to staff the lookout.
On Friday evening, after sweeping out the ladybugs and settling in, we looked through the lookout to see what was up there. Along with some cleaning supplies and an extra radio, Cory found an old lookout log from Doug Newman, who spent at least one summer up there in the sixties. The log offered us a glimpse into the past, when the structure functioned as a fire watch tower, and paid lookouts stayed in the 100 square-foot building for a full season.
Newman logged the few visitors he saw during his summer (137 between July and early September) and how fast he got at retrieving water from the lakes below (his best time lake-to-lookout was 30 minutes). He also recorded 'Lookout Hour' conversations, a time each evening when all lookouts stationed in the district chatted with each other over the radio about their days -- who they'd seen, what they'd done, and what they were planning for their days off.
Cory and I turned in after we finished reading this account, getting ready for our important (though admittedly different from Doug's) assignment to begin the next day. While Newman had looked out for fires, we were there to talk with, and listen to, hikers. To learn where they had traveled from, and how their experience had been.
Giving hikers a warm welcome
Saturday morning we rose to more clouds. We'd heard they were expected to burn off by afternoon, and apparently that's what 112 other hikers (and five dogs) were hoping for as well.
Our first group arrived at 9:00 a.m., and people just kept coming, hoping for a view. A church group from Arlington, a MeetUp group based out of Bellevue, and even a few friends I was expecting all trekked to the top on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the views never materialized, but almost everyone was pleased and surprised the lookout was open.
Some hopeful hikers asked, "You're the ranger, when's the weather going to clear?"
But mostly, visitors were happy they could come in and look around. Some asked about the history of the lookout, others just wanted to know what it took to stay up there. (If you're one of the latter, look for the application period next spring, which will be publicized by WTA.)
As the day wore on, one group after another left the summit. By 5:00 p.m., we realized we hadn't seen anyone in an hour. By 6:30 p.m., it was very quiet -- our only company was the local marmot who lives under the lookout, and the occasional squeak from a pika in the valley below.
Then we noticed something we hadn't seen all day -- a ridgeline to the west. The clouds were lifting slightly, and the setting sun lit up the mist and rocks with a rosy glow. Snowfields we hadn't realized were below us emerged, and we went to sleep hopeful for a clear day.
A rare experience
At 2:00 a.m., Cory woke me up and we stepped onto the catwalk with a thick sea of clouds below us, and mountain tops peeking out, like dark islands in the sky. The moon was just past full, and it lit up the snow on the peaks. We could see Glacier Peak to the south, and Baker and Shuksan faintly.
Even the stars were bright, though they competed with the moonlight, and we thought we saw a couple of planets hovering close to the horizon. After about 15 minutes of gazing (and one happy-dance by me), we went back to sleep, excited for the morning.
We weren't disappointed.
The morning was clear, and we enjoyed the silence and the expansive vista before our Sunday visitors arrived.
Sunday was far quieter than Saturday, with only about seven hikers before 11:00 a.m. More visitors came after noon, and Cory and I talked with the new crop of hikers, including a painter, an aspiring architect, two WTA trip reporters, and the Wilderness and Trails Program Coordinator for the Darrington Ranger District. We even saw one couple who had been up the day before. They were happy they finally got the views they were hoping for.
We lingered at the summit, reluctant to go down even after the lookout had been locked up for the weekend. But we knew we needed to drop off some items for the volunteers headed up after us, so we finally left at about 3:30 p.m., happy to have been able to spend the time we did at the top, and happy to have been able to share it with so many other eager hikers.
As we hiked down, one quote from Doug's lookout log echoed in my head.
"In a life now being auto-mated beyond belief -- the Lookout Experience is Unique + one of the few opportunities left for a look back towards days gone by."
It was true in 1969. It's true now. And I feel lucky to have experienced it for even one weekend.
If you go:
- The lookout isn't staffed regularly. There may be volunteer rangers up there, or there may not. Regardless, please respect federal property and be nice to the people staffing the lookout. They're volunteers!
- Share the summit. According to our count for the weekend the lookout summit sees more visitors in one summer weekend than it did all season in 1969. Take turns, step lightly, and pack out all your crumbs and trash to keep the experience positive for everyone.
- Parking can be tight. If you must park on the road, please do so that departing cars can safely leave the trailhead.
- There's no privy at the trailhead. Bring a bag for your toilet paper, and take care of business in town if possible.