Don’t assume that every good hiking trail at Mount Rainier National Park is inside the park. If you want to experience this view of the mountain, you have to exit the park, and find your way up a bumpy dirt road through National Forest land. But there’s a big payoff for the extra effort: the chance to stand at the edge of a dramatic cliff, visit a historic fire tower, and gaze out at beautiful Mount Rainier and its surroundings.
The hike to High Rock Lookout is about 1.6 miles (or 2.5 kilometers, one way). Although it is uphill all the way, I didn’t find it to be an especially difficult slog. For most of the way, you’ll be passing through a dense forest, with only a couple of opportunities for a view, until you get near the end, climb to the top of the rock, and everything opens up. This is certainly a hike you’ll want to do on a clear day — without a nice view at the end, there wouldn’t be much of a payoff.
Getting to the trailhead may be your biggest challenge:
The trailhead is here, on the inside of this hairpin curve. Look closely at the upper-right corner of the photo, and you can see the end of the trail. The tiny dot is the lookout building. This should make it fairly obvious where the trail goes, and how much uphill climbing is required to get there.
The trailhead is located along National Forest Road 8440. This Google Map shows how to get here from Ashford (just outside the Nisqually entrance to Mount Rainier National Park). Whether you’re coming from Ashford or Packwood, you’ll take Skate Creek Road to Forest Road 84 (the turnoff is about 4.7 miles from the Skate Creek Road/706 intersection). There is a sign that marks the turnoff for traffic coming from Packwood, but not from Ashford. It’s fairly obvious which way to go, until you get to the 84/8440 split. My guide book told me to bear left at this Y — and that was wrong!. FRS 84 goes left, 8440 goes right, so stay to the right at the Y. I’d suggest you watch the Drivelapse video at the bottom of this page, or program the destination into your GPS, to make the trip much easier. There are no other signs along the way.
The trail is a nice walk through the woods, but all you’ll see are trees. When you’re getting near the end of the trail, you’ll come across a clearing (not the one pictured here), and if you look up to your right, you’ll see the lookout building. Keep hiking, just a few more minutes…
… and the trail will lead you to this partially-collapsed shack. The path more-or-less ends here, so make a mental note that, on the return trip, you’ll need to find the shack to find the trail.
Just above the shack, the bare rock face begins. Find your own path up the rock. I thought it was a lot like walking on the roof of my house — difficult at first, but within a few minutes I was accustomed to the steep pitch, and no longer felt unbalanced.
The lookout building is perched in an impossible place, right on the knife-edge of the mountaintop. The only thing between the building and the drop…
… is this often-photographed outcropping of rock.
I would imagine that, at some point during the fall months, the lookout is sealed up for winter. During my visit in late September, the windows were still open.
Can you imagine having an office with this kind of a view?
Remarkably, I discovered that the door was unlocked. I went inside, and found a few notebooks for visitors to sign in (every page was filled with names, I’m assuming, from the entire summer). A few people had left some odd items — I think there was a can of peas, or some other vegetable. There are also a lot of singed pieces of paper, and notes and graffiti that suggest that the altitude isn’t the only way some visitors are getting high.
Back outside, I took the obligatory shot of my feet, then walked around for a while to enjoy the rest of the view.
Cora Lake is almost directly below. There is a campground somewhere near the lake.
High Rock’s knife-edge continues along the ridge for miles, although this looks like the highest spot along the Sawtooth Ridge.
Rainier looks simply beautiful from here…
… as does Mt. Adams, to the southeast…
… and the blown-apart peak of Mount St. Helens, looking almost directly south.
I also spotted another volcanic mountain, very far off. Is this Mount Hood?
Even though there were a couple of other cars parked at the trailhead, I never saw anyone else at the top of High Rock. The solitude made the visit even more remarkable. After a while, I finally convinced myself to head back downhill, and away from this great view.
Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from High Rock Lookout Trailhead to Paradise: