On Park Butte, hike to an historic fire lookout and come face-to-face with Koma Kulshan. Along with unobstructed panoramic views of Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters, and the rest of the North Cascades, the route to Park Butte offers dedicated campsites, wildflower-filled alpine meadows, rushing waterfalls, and a stunning variety of mushroom species.
Park Butte is one of the most popular Mount Baker area hikes for a variety of reasons: unobstructed mountain views, a moderately steep trail with access to campsites, and an open, maintained historic fire lookout built in 1932. The Forest Service now uses other technology to search for fires, but decades ago fire lookouts proliferated on the peaks of the Cascades. One of the few remaining intact lookouts is on Park Butte; it is maintained through the volunteer efforts of the Skagit Alpine Club.
The trail leaves the parking area at 3250 feet of elevation and heads west, crossing a bridge over Sulphur Creek and passing through Schrieber’s Meadow. At 0.1 mile, on the right, is the first intersection with the Scott Paul Trail. Continue left through the meadow, enjoying wildflower overload in the summer and a berry bonanza in the autumn; species that grow here include heather, salmonberry, blueberry, huckleberry, fireweed, lupine, and pearly everlasting. As you ascend with rushing Sulphur Creek and its waterfalls on your right, see how many mushrooms you can identify; a partial list includes yellow cracked bolete, peppery bolete, blackfoot paxillus, northern Russula, sharp-scaled lepiota, deadly lepiota, and fly amanita.
WTA has performed trailwork here, building puncheon to maintain a trail through myriad rivulets of the boggy meadow. Continue left through the meadow, enjoying wildflower overload in the summer and a berry bonanza in the autumn; species that grow here include heather, salmonberry, blueberry, huckleberry, fireweed, lupine, and pearly everlasting.
After 0.7 miles, leave the meadow to cross Rocky Creek and the boulder fields through which it passes. Sometimes a ladder bridge is necessary to cross the main “channel,” which frequently changes position. Note that cairns may mark the locations where you should enter and leave the boulder fields. Once across Rocky Creek, the terrain changes as you enter old-growth forest, and the grade stiffens a bit. Take in the mountain hemlocks and yellow cedar that surround you as you switchback up and to the northwest. At two miles, you reach the second junction with the Scott Paul Trail, at 4400 feet. Continue left, and enter Morovitz Meadow, where Koma Kulshan presides over fields of heather, mountain ash, wildflower, and vaccinia berry bushes that blaze flaming red in fall.
In 0.4 miles come to the junction with the Railroad Grade Trail, which leads to the Easton Glacier and is a frequently-used route for summiting Baker. Stay left and ascend to Bell Pass Junction, passing through boggy meadows. After 0.6 miles keep left and ascend again for 0.7 miles over rocky tread to Park Butte, which now dominates the view opposite Koma Kulshan. Skirt boulder fields as pika brashly squeak “eep!” at passersby. On your left, pass—or visit—a series of tarns that reflect the summit block of Baker on clear days. Please do not camp at these tarns as they are not designated campsites and doing so will harm a fragile ecosystem. Just before you make the final push to the lookout, take in Pocket Lake below you and to the southeast.
When you reach the lookout, at 5450 feet elevation, take care as you climb the ladder. Sign the lookout register, or even pen an entry in the poetry register. Gnarled mountain hemlocks, subalpine fir, and noble fir surround the lookout. Directly north are the Black Buttes, Lincoln and Colfax. To the southwest are the Twin Sisters, and the Nooksack River valley heads west to the horizon. And if the fates favor you with a sunny day, bask in the views of the sheer white glaciers of Koma Kulshan.
Notes on camping at Park Butte
Camping at Park Butte is a popular activity; always check with a ranger or consult a map before heading out on an overnight trip. Campfires are not allowed in this environment. Camps are dry after the snow melts.
First-come, first-served camping is available in the fire lookout, but you'll need to be at the lookout early to snag this perk! Those who do manage to secure the lookout should expect to share it with the many visitors who arrive during the day.
If the lookout doesn't work out, there is camping available on the Railroad Grade and Bell Pass trails, but not at the tarns along Park Butte Trail.