two lakes are with mountains peaks surrounding them

Expert Guide to Hiking Winchester Mountain Lookout in Washington

There are only a select few hikes in Washington state that offer utter brilliance and low crowds. Winchester Mountain Lookout, in the North Cascades, is one of those. With towering, jagged peaks for as far as the eye can see, Mt. Baker’s glaciated slopes glistening, and alpine lakes, this hike has it all.

I remember the first time I completed this hike, it blew my mind! I realized so many of the photos I had seen from Washington photographers were from here and it felt great to check those shots off my bucket list.

Inside, I dive into everything you need to know to visit and hike up to Winchester Mountain. You’re in for a real treat and one of the best hikes the PNW has to offer.

Hiking and backpacking to Winchester Mountain Lookout

Here’s a quick breakdown of the trail in case you’re in a hurry! Keep reading, or come back later to see photos and learn more about the hike. 

Quick Hiking Stats for Winchester Mountain

  • Distance: 3.5 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,300 feet
  • Estimated Time on Trail: 3-4 hours (half for scenic reasons)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Good for families? Yes
  • Road Quality: Terrible, 4×4 with Clearance Mandatory
a trail with wildflowers on each side with mountains in the distance
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
A hiker heads up the trail to winchester mountain near mt baker surrounded by flowers
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Trail Report for Winchester Fire Lookout

A few friends invited me on a sunset mission from Seattle to Winchester Mountain Lookout in early August. I had known of the area but only because of the retched road up. We piled into my buddies Subaru Cross Trek and headed up, having no idea how bad the road would actually be.

From the backseat, it was incredibly bumpy and nerve-wracking. Later on, my friend would say he’s never driving it again. (I recently got a 4Runner and I think it’ll handle the road much better.)

Once at Twin Lakes, it was stunning. There were two other cars, which for a Washington hike is basically complete solitude.

We grabbed our packs and headed up. The first mile of the trail is a series of switchbacks. It was nearly snow-free for our August hike, save for a 20-30-foot span, but it was easily navigable. Once the snow was behind us, the trail turns to the right and you have another five switchbacks before reaching Winchester Fire Lookout. As you climb, you’ll have a view of Mt. Baker. Talk about gorgeous!

After less than an hour (we were speedy), we reached the top, dropped our bags and set out to photograph the area. The only downside was the mosquitoes were horrendous. They swarmed like they had never seen a human before!

hikers head down the trail after sunset with mountains in the background
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Your Guide to Hiking to Winchester Mountain Lookout near Artist Point

Let’s dive into everything you need to know about hiking here. 

Where is Winchester Mountain Lookout Located

Winchester Mountain Lookout is in the North Cascades, just a handful of miles south of the Canadian border. Once on top, you’ll actually be able to see into Canada. You’ll take Mt. Baker Highway (Highway 542) towards Artist Point but will turn off of it before you begin to gain any notable elevation. 

The fire lookout is in one of the most beautiful places America has to offer and is also quite remote. There are no other buildings in the area and not that many people visit here. 

jagged peaks across the canadian border viewed from winchester fire lookout
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Getting to the Winchester Mountain Trailhead

There’s a reason why such a beautiful place doesn’t get a lot of visitors. 

The Forest Service Road 3065, which takes you to Twin Lakes, is one of the worst roads in Washington. It is also the same road if you want to hike Yellow Aster Butte. (It’s a great hike.)

You’ll leave Mt. Baker Highway and turn left onto 3065 (right next to the WSDOT Shukson Maintenance Shed (it sorta looks like a fire station). There’s a big divot right at the beginning, so be careful driving over it. 

From here until the Yellow Aster Butte Trailhead (where you have a switchback), it’s bumpy, but any car can make it. 

views above twin lake on the winchester mountain lookout trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Past it, though, for the next two miles, is crude road conditions. There are bumps, divots, and sandy spots, and it is narrow as you wind up the side of the mountain towards Twin Lakes and the Winchester Lookout Mountain trail. 

In all, it is 6.5 miles driving on a dirt road to teach the trailhead. 

You should only try it in an AWD/4×4 with plenty of clearance because certain divots could bottom you out. Lastly, take it slow and be extremely careful of oncoming traffic. 

Tips for visiting Winchester Mountain

What Pass do I need?

This trail is on federal lands, and you need to have an America the Beautiful Pass or a Northwest Forest Service Pass. Simply display it on your car’s windshield, and you’ll be golden. 

How Hard is the hike to Winchester Lookout?

This isn’t a hard hike. But it is a consistently uphill hike. 

At only 1.8 miles up, you’ll be tired, nearing the top, but it won’t be anything overwhelming. If you do this early in the summer, there will be some snow you have to hike through. Bringing micro-spikes might be overcautious, but could make your life easier. 

Otherwise, this is a pretty standard trail that is in great condition. 

fiery clouds at sunset from winchester fire lookout
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What is the hiking time to the top

It’s less than two miles to the top, though it has a steady elevation gain that will have you breathing harder. I would estimate this will take you about an hour if you’re in decent shape. But the views are pretty damn good, so odds are you’ll want to take photos and soak it all in.

Coming down will be super fast, and you’ll crush it in 35-40 minutes. 

Are dogs allowed on the Winchester Lookout Trail?

Bring your best friend! Yes, dogs are allowed to hike up to Winchester Lookout Mountain, but they need to be kept on a leash. If you’re hoping to see some wildlife, having your dog there will likely decrease the chances of seeing animals. 

a mountain goat eats grass near the lookout in the north cascades
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Best time of year to visit the area?

Two seasons are ideal for visiting Winchester Fire Lookout and the North Cascades: Summer and Fall. The weather here is about as perfect as anyone could ask for, and you will have long days stretching until almost 10pm. 

I love summer and fall in the PNW, and it offers unlimited exploration potential. 

Then, in the fall, this area has some amazing fall colors, with the slopes a dark red and everything glowing. It’s truly worth the trip out.

For those curious, this area sees some of the highest snowfall totals in the US. So, during winter and spring, this road is inaccessible.

Can I drone from Winchester Fire Lookout?

No, drones are prohibited from taking off or landing at the top of the mountain due to Federal Wilderness Regulations. However, there’s a loophole. You are able to fly your drone from the parking lot where you parked because that is not a wilderness area. 

More Photos of the North Cascades

You can take some AMAZING photos on the Winchester Mountain Lookout trail.

Backpacking to Winchester Mountain

If you don’t want to stay in the fire lookout itself, you are more than welcome to backpack to the top of the mountain. There are ample flat areas to pitch your tent on. While this is not a super popular area due to the road up, it still sees daily visitors. 

This means that you probably won’t have a ton of privacy during daylight hours. Still, this is one of the most beautiful areas to go backpacking and is also one of the easiest spots to reach. 

a tent with a hiker looking out at the sunset. Winchester Mountain lookout is behind the tent
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Staying in the Winchester Mountain Fire Lookout

Hikes and tourists are allowed to stay in the Winchester Mountain Lookout during the summer months. Parties of more than two will need to bring sleeping pads. There is also a propane stove at Winchester Lookout. 

In 2017, they started locking it from November through May, which is when hardly anyone ever visits due to snow depth in the area.

But during the summer months, weather permitting, it should be open for people to check out. The last time I was there, they were fixing the window panels, so you couldn’t actually see out of it. 

You are also able to camp at Twin Lakes if you don’t want to carry your gear to the top of the mountain. There are picnic tables and plenty of places to either car sleep or pitch a tent!

What other hikes are in the area? 

Yellow Aster Butte

An epic trail just down the road from the fire lookout and twin lakes. It offers surreal views and fall colors. Highly recommend it to anyone!

8 -10 miles, 2,800 feet of gain

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

High Pass Trail

You start at the same Twin Lakes Trailhead, but at a third of a mile, follow the trail to the right. This will take you north of Winchester Mountain and to the feet of Mount Larrabee. I haven’t been, but I’ve heard it offers even better views of the area. 

6 miles, 2,100 feet of gain

Silesia Creek Trail

This also starts from the trailhead and takes you east past Twin Lakes. This trail goes for a while and goes to where the West Fork Silesia Creek and Selesia Creek merge.

9 miles, 3,100 feet of gain (drops initially, then you have to hike up on the way back)

Lone Jack Trail

This is a loop you can do which cuts off from the Silesia Creek Trail near Skagway Pass. Just pass the furthest lake, head right, and up the slope. It’ll bring you to a summit, and you can either complete the loop or come back the way you came. 

This will lead you to a mine. Do not go in. Distance 4 miles.

Artist Point

If you have time, drive up to Artist Point and explore all the great hiking around Mt. Baker.

A hiker walks on the trail with a large mountain behind him.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Respect Nature

This area is very fragile and a high alpine terrain which means it has a short growing season. Please do everything you can to stay on the trail, not trample any vegetation, and to pack out what you pack in. 

FAQ: Hiking to Winchester Mountain Lookout

Where should I stay around the area?

This area is remote, so there are only a few campgrounds and dispersed camping spots. However, you must drive about 30 minutes west until you find other lodging options.

You’ll have your best options in Maple Falls or Glacier.

When was the Winchester Fire Lookout built? 

It was built in 1935 and has been maintained by Mt. Baker Hiking Club volunteers. I thank them for their service!  

Are there any bathrooms?

There are no bathrooms at the lookout. But at Twin Lakes, there is a vault toilet that you can use before and after your hike. 

Can I have a campfire near the Winchester Fire Lookout?

No. All campfires are prohibited.

Amazing sunset colors over the north cascades from Winchester fire lookout
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Will I have cell service? 

Do not bank on having cell service at Winchester Mountain Lookout. There is cell service at Artist Point, but I’m not sure if it’ll carry far enough. I would download your maps, just in case. (Though it is hard to get lost here.)

Unless it’s an emergency, it’ll be nice to be disconnected from technology and allow you to focus on nature!

Water sources on your hike?

The trailhead at Twin Lakes has drinkable water if you bring a filter. However, there are no other consistent water sources in the area. If you go earlier in the season, you might find snow. But, this is such a short hike, you should be fine. 

Do I need a permit to hike or camp to the lookout?

You are free to camp at Twin Lakes or outside of the fire lookout on Winchester Mountain without a permit. It is a first come, first serve area. Just be respectful of others who also wish to share the mountain with you. 

Are there bears in the area?

There are most definitely bears in the area. This means you should do your best to store food appropriately so it does not attract animals. That being said, you are more likely to see mountain goats at Winchester fire lookout. 

jagged peaks of the north cascades visible from winchester mountain lookout
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What gear to pack for your hike

Bring your standard hiking gear

What Camera Gear Do I use to photograph Winchester Fire Lookout?

  • Canon R5 – Any camera body works, but mirrorless is lighter and this one is a beast
  • Canon RF 24-105 f/4 – a great all-around lens that gets you a wide angle and some zoom. Considering that most of your photos will not be in low light, this is a wonderful option.
  • Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8 – perfect for nailing the wide angles. If you’re bringing a GoPro, not sure if you need this.
  • Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8 – Second most versatile option behind the 24-105.
  • Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 – Perfect for wildlife if you don’t want a huge camera.
  • GoPro Hero9 – Lightweight and easy to document your trip on. Maybe consider a chest mount.
  • Peak Design Clip – The best way to carry your camera on this hike.
highly zoomed in photo of mt baker above the clouds from winchester mountain lookout
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Wrapping Up the Winchester Mountain Lookout Trail

The Winchester Mountain Lookout hike is a truly exhilarating and awe-inspiring adventure that offers hikers a chance to immerse themselves in the breathtaking beauty of North Cascades National Park. 

From its stunning panoramic views and vibrant wildflowers to its rich historical significance, this trail provides an unforgettable experience for outdoor enthusiasts of all levels.

I promise that you will love this hike and adore it for years and years to come. (Unless the drive-up scars you.)

Until next time, adventurers, take care and be safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside