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years in the making | three fingers lookout overnight

21 miles . 6100 ft gain . 6780 ft high 

Boulder River Wilderness

I was first intrigued with Three Fingers Mountain when I drove past Darrington from a short day hike. Looking up, White Horse Mountain caught my attention, but I actually got it confused with Three Fingers on a map. Looking up both later, they were such aesthetic peaks. I noticed that the road closure added about 8 miles each way, which at the time, made the hike much longer than I could imagine doing. A few years past and my friend went up one spring, sharing with me the shortcut method. And a year after, I attempted it with skis but we got a bit side tracked. You can read more of that here. Another friend went up during the winter season finding the route quite spicy when icy. So I made it a goal to get up during the summer season. 

Between all our varying schedules, Preeta and I finally figured out a time to adventure together and we agreed on Three Fingers because we both wanted to stay in a lookout and do something that was not too easy but still straightforward. Three Fingers Lookout is generally not crowded, especially on a weekday because of its remoteness. The broken bridge adds 8 miles to the trailhead, which most people bike to save time. The total stats using the standard trail is about 15 miles each way plus 5000 some feet of gain. That is quite a lot for the average backpacker. And depending on the season, you’ll have to deal with moats and snow covering the trail. The final couple hundred feet consists of a permanent snowfield, some scrambling, and climbing up the famous set of ladders. To put it simply, this lookout has a high entrance fee.

Three Fingers Lookout

The shortcut, however, cuts off about 10 miles of trail and is more direct, leading up to Goat Flats, a very nice camping area. From my last trip, I knew that if the flags were still there, it would be a fairly straightforward way up. But little did I know how bad the path would get during mid-summer when all the bushes are grown. From the get-go, my legs got beat up by the bramble over the mile walk on an old logging road. Note to self, wear pants next time. We finally got a break from the prickly plants and began our ascent up the ridge. Sometimes the flags would be hard to spot, but they never failed us. I think one of the mountain rescue groups set up this route and it is decently traveled such that there is a light path through the woods.

Emerging from the steep forest

Occasionally, there would be a nice hand line to help us up the steep slopes. We both felt them unnecessary considering the rest of the route was a similar steepness without a rope. Anyway, the route is generally brush free in the lower section and then starts to weave in and out of blueberry bushes as you approach some meadows. Eventually, it leads you all the way to Goat Flats and boy were we happier than ever to be out of the scratchy bushes. But with every good thing comes the not-so-good. Mosquitos.

I thought we’d get a nice break at the flats, since it’s supposed to be a beautiful campground. Which it was. But we opted to continue further before stopping to filter water. Just one basin away on the trail, the bugs weren’t as pesky. We soaked in the views of the Mountain Loop Highway scene. Preeta commented that this was her first real Cascade trip of the year after her long trip overseas. It truly felt like the epitome of summer backpacking. Blooming wildflowers, green lined hills, peaks as far as the eye can see.

From the basin, we could see Tin Can Gap, the end of official hiking trail and the start of the more “technical” portion of the route. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when they built the lookout in the 1930s. We met a few people coming down and they warned us about the moat and getting in a sticky situation. We were confident in our technical skills on snow and rock, and would be cautious about risks we decide to take. 

At the gap, we started taking a path up the ridge until it popped us back towards the moat. Into the moat we went. Another friend had gone the previous week, with beta to take the moat as far as you can. We should have heeded the advice, but were doubtful, so we found a way to hop onto the snow, which was much steeper than either of us wanted. In risk assessment, I always look at the worst case scenario. For snow, it’s how the runout looks like. This one did not look great. It was steep and it went far without a pause. Definitely a no-fall zone. One foot in front of the other and take it easy. It was mentally tough enough I neglected to take pictures through this portion. We found the trail on the other side of the 50 foot crossing and happily skipped around another snow patch.

The trail was melting out decently, but we reached our third snow section. This was my favorite because you had to decide to go left or right of the finger. We took the left side (there’s a fixed rope too) and it takes you under the snow bridge! Again no pictures of this cool spot because there was much deliberation of where to go. Our fourth snow section was well boot packed and we followed it up a little bit, but quickly got back onto the rocks because it felt more secure. We picked up the trail the rest of the way and got to enjoy the largest patch of lupine I’ve ever seen in person.

From here, the views become even more spectacular, looking back at our route and down at the Queest-alb Glacier. I could feel our pace slow down as fatigue settled in. But we were finally at our last snow section. This was by far the least steep snow we’d been on, which was a nice change. An easy scramble later, we were finally at the base of the lookout. The famous set of 3 ladders awaited us.

I anticipated the ladders to be creaky, but it actually felt very secure and looked like volunteers had recently tied down the ladders. There was zero shaking (other than potentially my legs ha). There were plenty of ropes for hand lines all the way to the lookout. At last, we made it after a few moments of doubt along the way. 

We opened all the shutters that we could. Some were broken and in the process of repair. So although I couldn’t get the classic views with the shutters all open, the back side was still accessible so it was decently easy to get an equivalent of 360 degree views. As we started to make dinner, thinking we’d be the only ones in the lookout, 2 more people showed up and we shared the space with them. 

Rainier

Stitched pano of labeled mountains (scroll horizontally)

After dinner, we chilled for a short while before the light show began. It lasts all but 20 minutes and happens so fast. It was incredible watching the colors change and various layers of mountains pop out in contrast. Preeta worked on her painting until dark and the rest of us enjoyed the vibrant red after glow of the sunset. I think we all fell asleep while the horizon was still burning red. 

The best thing about sleeping in a lookout (other than having a great shelter) is that you can just wake up and look out the window for sunrise views. But of course, I got out and ran between the front and back porch. Preeta, however, stayed cozy in her sleeping bag to finish her painting. It was actually kind of nice having 2 other people at the lookout. We closed up together and headed down at the same time. They claimed they found a decent enough scramble to get in/out of the moat. To me, that seemed much nicer than crossing the sketch steep snow with my bad traction. I didn’t want to seem like a mooch or incapable. But sometimes you just have to take advantage of other people’s knowledge for efficiency sake.

Dakobed
Our shadow

They quickly left us in the dust as we finished the last bit of moat and taking our sweet time. It’s not every day you get to explore a moat. Usually, you avoid moats because they can run deep and suck you in far. Here, it was just a fun playground, stemming between rock and ice. One hand was too warm and the other too cold. 

We decided to take a mental break for the downhill and go the long way around instead of the steep shortcut with the mile of bushwhacking. Surprisingly, the last 2 miles to the trailhead were quite overgrown and we even found a few machetes that hikers can borrow to maintain the trail. On our way out, we met several parties going up. Most of them seemed like they were going to try to stay in the lookout. I hope it wasn’t the case for all of them because it would get quite cozy or some people would have to head back down. Needless to say, despite the high entrance fee for this lookout, it’s still decently popular that you might have to share the lookout or fend off others as it gets too crowded. 

The 8 miles of road walk were both long and quick. Getting in the zone was key for making time pass. As was good conversation with a good friend! Next time, I’m taking a bike once my knee heals up better!

Preeta’s painting

Notes

  • There are 3 ways to get up. We did a inverted lollipop loop. Short cut up and long way down.
    • 8 miles of road (bike or walk) and the standard trail. This is the best and most efficient method for most, especially if you take a bike up the forest road.
    • Meadow Mountain Trail (much less maintained) that connects to the standard trail by Saddle Lake. This is not typically used, so the trail can be much harder to follow/more overgrown than the main trail. Probably not worth taking this. 
    • Steep climber’s trail that meets to the standard trail at Goat Flats. This is a great trail if you don’t mind bushwhacking. Route finding isn’t too difficult with flags that mark the whole ascent. There might be a faint trail to follow for the first mile of flat. This is probably best done early season when bushes are less of an issue.
  • Water: This time of year, water was plentiful from Goat Flats all the way up to the lookout. Worst case, melt snow.
  • Terrain: We were able to hop into the moat and take it quite far before either getting back on the snow or scrambling up and around. It can be a little tricky figuring out the best route, so give yourself time. Late season (before first snowfall) is best time to go for minimal technical terrain. There is a permanent snowfield and the ladders isn’t for the faint of heart. Ladders can be slightly tricky for height-challenged people and with big packs.
  • Lookout: There are emergency sleeping bags/pads and lots of tools for fixing up the lookout. We didn’t bring backup tent, but it might be wise to in case you don’t get the lookout. 
  • Road: Well leveled road with a few pot holes, but nothing a low clearance couldn’t handle
  • Leave No Trace: Be kind to the lookout. Volunteers come up to help maintain this place, so it goes without saying, pack it in and pack it out.

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV

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