Words by Andy Cochrane and Johnie Gall

There's something ironic about sleeping in a retired fire lookout while surrounded by the smoke from nearby wildfires. But even the potential lung damage couldn't keep us away from a night in Washington's Hidden Lake Lookout

Perched on the top of a granite peak just beyond the perimeter of North Cascades National Park, surrounded by 360-degree views of jagged mountain rangers and steep glaciers, there are very few places like Hidden Lake Lookout in the world, let alone just a few hours from a major U.S. metro area.

The Hidden Lake Lookout was built in 1932 and actively manned until it was decommissioned in 1953. It has been maintained by volunteers since, primarily by a group that calls itself "Friends of Hidden Lake Lookout." Hikers willing to take on the four-mile, 3,200-foot climb (and what looks like an unattainable final push up the backside of a mountain) will be rewarded with a self-guided tour of the hut, a historical monument stashed with an archive of time-worn guest books dating as far back as the early '60s.

Here's the best part: An overnight stay in the hut is free on a first-come, first-serve basis. On a clear day, that means waking up to a sunrise stretching from Mt. Rainier, and over a good portion of the North Cascades. And if you don't make it to the hut first, camping among wildflowers in an alpine meadow isn't exactly the worst consolation prize.

Here, Andy Cochrane and Johnie Gall share dispatches from the heart of the Cascades.

The hike begins in a lush forest and immediately heads uphill, climbing over roots and up long sets of wooden stairs.

 

After about a mile, you break through the trees and reach the alpine, hiking seemingly endless switchbacks through fields of wildflowers. Despite climbing over 1,500 feet in elevation, this hike through wildflowers can feel sublime.

The last 1,000 vertical feet to the summit get more rocky, and in early season, the trail is often covered in snow. It's a steep climb, but cooling off is pretty easy if you're creative.

The hut itself is first come, first serve, so getting an early start is necessary. Capacity in the hut is roughly seven people, so during busy summer weekends be open to sharing the space. Either way, if you're not planning on doing the trek in a day, be prepared with a tent and sleeping bags. There are a few campsites 500 feet below the hut near the saddle. We decided to try our luck on a weekday, hoping for fewer people (we got the place to ourselves).

Don't worry about being bored once you get to the summit. The retired lookout is stocked with guide books, binoculars, games and books (we suggest "The Fellowship of the Rings").

If you're lucky enough stay a night at the lookout, make sure to stay up for sunset and get up early for sunrise. The light dances off nearby mountains and glaciers, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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