High Rock Lookout, in the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District southeast of Ashford, is considered to be one of the most spectacular fire lookouts in the United States. It is perched on the very edge of a 600-foot cliff that juts into the sky.
From the lookout cabin, at 5,685 feet in elevation, the views are astounding. On a clear day, the immenseness of Mount Rainier dominates the scene to the north, appearing so big and close that it seems like you could reach out and touch it. There may be no better view of Rainier from any location.
The rugged Tatoosh Range stretches along the eastern skyline with the Goat Rocks and Mount Adams punctuating the panorama in that direction. The jagged rocky teeth that form Sawtooth Ridge stretch away to the west with Alder Lake in the distance. To the south, Mount St. Helens stands above the many ridges that are lined up one after another between High Rock and the famous volcano. On a very clear day the pointy shape of Mt. Hood can be seen beyond St. Helens.
Trail 266 leading to High Rock is about 1.5 miles long, but it climbs incessantly from the trailhead which is located at about 4,300 feet in elevation. Most of the trail is within the timber but off the end of the last switchback before reaching the lookout is a hint at the adventure that awaits the hiker in the last quarter-mile.
A few feet beyond the end of that switchback is a rock outcrop bearing a small bronze plaque commemorating Johnnie Peters, a Forest Service packer during the 1920s and 1930s. Peters' horses and mules carried the materials for High Rock and several other lookouts in the area to the tops of the mountains where they were constructed. If you step close enough to the plaque to read it you become instantly aware that you are standing on the edge of dizzyingly high cliff.
The last 200 feet of the climb to High Rock requires scrambling up a rock slope. Although it is not too steep or difficult and there is a guardrail with a cable to hang on to for the last 100 feet to the building, the sense of there being tremendous drop-offs at the top and both sides makes many people weak in the knees. Some folks with height issues are likely to freeze on the way up and may not be able to continue.
Once you make it into the lookout cabin, which is open during the summer, you will probably feel pretty safe. After a little time to adjust to your surroundings, you might even consider venturing out onto the narrow catwalk that is along three sides of the building. If you decide to crawl out onto the last few feet of rock on the north side of the lookout for a peak at Cora Lake below, you should exercise great caution. The same goes for venturing near any of the edges in the vicinity of the lookout.
On any clear day during the summer, you can expect to have plenty of company on your trek to High Rock. On weekends, it can be downright crowded. If the weather is rainy or overcast, the absence of a view will be a great disappointment. If you are unable to see the lookout from the trailhead, it might be worth waiting for a better day before making this hike.
The High Rock Trail 266 begins on Forest Road 8440. To get to there from the north take State Route 706 from Elbe to Ashford. Proceed east past Ashford for about two miles and turn south on Forest Road 52 (Skate Creek Road), then continue for about five miles to Road 84. Go south on Road 84 for about seven miles to Road 8440. Turn right and drive for about two and a half miles to the trailhead on the right.
From the south, take Road 52 north from Packwood and go about 4.5 miles to Road 47. Turn left and continue for about 7.5 miles to Road 84. Turn right and proceed for about 7.5 miles to Road 8440. Turn left and go two and a half miles to the trailhead.
Road 84 can also be reached from Randle via Road 47, which begins just east of the White Pass High School on Silverbrook Road. The junction with Road 84 is about 14 miles from Randle. From there, proceed as if driving from Packwood, described above.
All of the forest roads listed can probably be driven using most passenger cars, but they are rough in places and a high clearance vehicle is a better choice if you have that option.
The drive and hike to High Rock on a clear, summer day is one that you will not forget. It is, without a doubt, one of the magnificent highlights of our area.