|Mount Rainier from High Rock|
Difficulty: Moderate; walk up the rock at the end may be challenging for some
Access: Bumpy gravel road to trailhead
High Rock is a lofty viewpoint in Washington State's Gifford Pinchot National Forest that delivers an outstanding view of Mount Rainier and the Cascade volcanoes near the Columbia River. Crowned with an old fire lookout, High Rock rises above the nearby forested ridges, making it one of the best viewpoints of Mount Rainier's southern aspect. The price of admission is a short but steep hike up from Towhead Gap and- perhaps more limiting- a very bumpy drive down a pothole-littered road to reach the trailhead. This is a fairly popular hike but still sees just a fraction of the crowds that pack the nearby national park on nice weekends.
I hiked this trail on a July Sunday with two friends; due to a forecast of cloudy morning weather clearing in the afternoon, we got a late start, waiting until almost noon to head out, a decision that was vindicated when the clouds burned off during our hike. From Seattle, we took State Route 167 and then SR 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto SR 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with SR 7; we turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Just past Ashford, we made a right turn onto Forest Service Road 52 and followed it across the Nisqually River for five miles until reaching Forest Service Road 84, which was poorly marked. We turned right onto NF-84 and followed it for 9 miles on gravel to the trailhead, turning off onto NF-8440 about two miles before the trailhead. Signage after turning onto NF-84 is extremely poor; I found that the best rule of thumb for reaching the trailhead was staying on the more major road at all junctions when there is a clear difference in road quality, and then taking the left fork the first two times and the right fork the last time at the three junctions where the two forks are of similar road quality. Make sure you figure out directions before you make the drive. While for the most part the gravel roads were pretty smooth, there was one section halfway through the drive where the road was filled with large potholes, some potentially capable of axle-busting if you don't slow down. Most cars should be able to handle these potholes as long as they go slow.
The trailhead was at Towhead Gap, a sharp bend in the road. Parking was alongside the road at the bend; there were perhaps 20 cars at the trailhead when we arrived. The lookout itself was visible from the trailhead. We hopped onto the main trail, which was indicated by a sign stating "High Rock Lookout 1.6 miles." The trail began an immediate ascent through the forest, generally following the top of the ridge.
|Trail through the trees|
|Wildflowers on the trail|
|First view of Mount Adams and Goat Rocks|
|Approaching the lookout|
The 360-degree more than made up for the poor shape of the lookout. Mount Rainier towered to the north, with the extraordinary Tahoma Glacier pouring down between Liberty Cap and Point Success and Little Tahoma barely poking above the right side of the mountain. The forested Kautz Creek and Nisqually River valleys led outward from the mountain. Cora Lake lay nearly directly below us at the foot of massive cliffs.
|The crater of Mount St. Helens is clearly visible from High Rock|