Sunday, January 12, 2020

Red Mountain Lookout and Mushroom Extravaganza

(I'm going to the "way-back machine" and recapping some of my favorite hikes of 2019.)

In mid-September, the stress and excitement of my daughter's wedding over, I was ready for some wilderness therapy.  So I asked my friend Catherine if she'd be willing to join me for an exploratory hike on a "new to me" trail.  One thing I love about Catherine, she's always up for an adventure!

Off to another adventure!

Today's trail of choice was a jaunt on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) into Washington's Indian Heaven Wilderness.  After a couple of miles, we'd leave the PCT for a side trail leading to an alpine meadow known as "Indian Racetrack."  From there, the plan was to climb up the side of Red Mountain to see the views and fire lookout tower on top. 

Old PCT Trail marker

It was a humid, unseasonably warm day that found my friend, her daughter, and I at the PCT trailhead on Forest Service Road 60.  Traveling a mere few hundred feet down the trail we met our first PCT through-hiker, a man from Georgia.  Fascinated by his journey we detained the poor guy, peppering him with questions.  The man explained he'd started from the Mexican border in March and was averaging over 30 miles a day, trying to reach Canada before the winter snows hit.  Although I mentioned he was going to be hiking through the incredibly beautiful Indian Heaven wilderness, the man didn't seem interested at all.  So focused on getting miles in, the Georgia guy wasn't paying attention to the spectacular places he was hiking though.

Finally bidding him goodbye, despite hauling a huge backpack, the man took off like a rocket and was quickly gone.

A PCT hiker left this along the trail

Catherine and I had a discussion about why someone would hike all those miles so focused on covering ground that you didn't make time to stop and enjoy the scenery.  We both agreed it kind of defeated the purpose.  But never having never tackled such a huge undertaking, I'm not one to judge.  Maybe after covering so many miles, I'd feel that way too.

A bit further along the trail, we came upon some sticks arranged in a "2200" pattern, which we assumed meant this was mile 2200 of the PCT.

Tiny lake

My hiking buddies and I then passed by a lovely alpine pond, reflecting the surrounding trees so nicely I just had to stop for photographs.

Beginnings of fall color

About that time Catherine, who loves to harvest wild mushrooms and knows quite a bit about the subject, began to notice the forest floor was full of different types of fungi.  The recent unseasonable wet weather had brought them out in great numbers.

Autumn hues light up the forest

Catherine found one rather large tan-colored mushroom, a little bigger than my hand, that she said was good to eat.  Rummaging through her pack she found a plastic grocery bag to hold her find.

Colorful huckleberry leaves

We passed by another tiny pond, really more of a swamp, that was surrounded by the beginnings of autumn color.  Some huckleberry leaves were already turning crimson.  My favorite season, I was thrilled to see the leaves starting their transition.

Catherine shows off her chanterelle stash!

Between Catherine foraging for mushrooms and me taking photos, progress to the Indian Racetrack trail junction was slow.  Passing by one particularly fungi-rich area, Catherine was thrilled to find a patch of chanterelles, which I learned were really good to eat.  These golden, fluted-shaped 'shrooms were awfully pretty too.

Another PCT trail marker

Despite the distractions, my friends and I finally reached the junction of the PCT and Indian Racetrack shortcut Trail.  This was the path would take us to the foot of Red Mountain, our day's destination.

Leaving the PCT for Indian Racetrack

Of course this track was also lined with hundreds of mushrooms. Fungi of every shape and color poked their heads out of the rich forest soil.  Catherine's mushroom bag began to fill.

Catherine finds some large mushrooms

Catherine found a couple of big 'shrooms that looked like little loaves of bread.  Apparently these were also good eating.  (Note to readers - please consult a guide before picking and eating wild mushrooms!  Don't rely on these photos.)

Here's a photo compilation featuring some of the many mushroom varieties we saw dotting the forest floor.  Lots of unusual colors, shapes, and sizes (I liked the speckled ones best!)

Photo collage of the mushrooms we saw

Soon the wide open meadows of Indian Racetrack came into view.  This area was so named for the Native American tribes who gathered here to harvest late summer berries and race horses. 

Broad meadows of Indian Racetrack

After a little searching, we located the trail up Red Mountain at the edge of one meadow and began the steep climb to its top.  Gaining 800 feet in 0.8 of a mile it was a steep trudge.  About halfway up we hit a hillside covered in red volcanic rock (giving Red Mountain it's name).  The final quarter mile followed a rocky road.  This was the longest section - it was a hot, muggy slog.  I thought we'd never see that darn fire tower.

Finally Red Mountain Lookout!

But of course after much toiling and grumbling (mostly by me) the forest opened up and my friends and I glimpsed the gray outbuilding downhill from the fire lookout itself.  A bit more effort to climb the final pitch and we were on top of Red Mountain!

Lookout cab through the trees

Although the day was cloudy, we lucked out when the ceiling lifted just enough for a good look at a barren Mt Adams (the Cascade peaks all look so naked without snow).

Mt Adams view

There was a man sitting on the lookout tower deck when we arrived.  He invited us to come up, but warned it was cold and windy.  Not wanting to disturb him, my friends and I settled into a sheltered area behind some low-growing bushes and enjoyed a late lunch.

Checking out the tower

Once the man left, however, I was the first one up the ladder.  Despite cloudy skies, the views were still spectacular.  I could only imagine how much better it would be on a sunny day.

Fine views from on high

Online research revealed the Red Mountain lookout was constructed in 1913.  In the next several years it underwent a couple of reconstructions.  During World War II the lookout was used as an aircraft warning service station, and was staffed 24 hours a day for 12 months.  An outbuilding was erected below the tower to house the relief staffer.   

Not bad for a cloudy day

The present lookout cab was built in 1959.  In December 2006 a storm blew the roof off the tower and collapsed the cabin walls.  The following summer volunteers from four states spent two weeks restoring the lookout tower and outbuilding.  Red Mountain lookout is maintained to be "service ready" but today is only used in times of emergencies.  It is considered the last remaining active fire lookout in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Looking towards the south

Cold, windy conditions kept my friends and I from spending much time up on the lookout tower.  Driven back to the shelter of the base, we finished our lunch, rested, and soaked in the views.

Chipmunk entertainment

And much to our delight, a trio of cute chipmunks provided some entertainment as they tried to sneak up and grab our crumbs.

Watching for spilled food

My online research determined there were two return routes for this hike - we could either follow the fire tower's closed gravel road and make a loop, or we could return the way we came.  Since I like loop hikes, the decision was made to follow the road.

Gigantic mushroom!

Although I'm usually not a huge fan of road hiking, the downhill trek was steep, but pleasant.  We passed the largest mushroom of all - and it was sitting right in the middle of the road!  The thing was bigger than my foot.  Other than a few patches of vibrant vine maple starting to exhibit fall finery, the miles passed by quickly and before we knew it we'd arrived back at Forest Service Road 60.  A quick half mile trek brought everyone back to my car.

Vine maple beginning to turn colors

This lovely 6-mile loop had it all - lush forests, PCT through-hikers, fall colors, a cool lookout tower with views, and plentiful mushrooms of all shapes and sizes.  A new trail that was definitely a winner!


  1. ...beautiful views from the top of the world!

  2. Hello, I love all the colorful mushrooms. The views are beautiful, looks like another great place to hike. I agree, why not enjoy the scenery of the great outdoors during your hikes. I remember meeting some of the PCT trail hikers while we visited Stehekin and the Cascades. I can not imagine hiking from Mexico to Canada, that is some serious hiking. Love the photos and post. Enjoy your day, wishing you a happy new week!

  3. Quiet a trail that and worth going on form the view at the top. From what I can see of the mushroom collage you took photos of most of the ones you should not eat.
    Can't see the reason fro hiking all that way and not lookg at what is around you, a waste of time doing it to my way of thinking with nothing to show for the effort you put in

  4. How cool that Catherine knows about mushrooms, very cool finds!

  5. Those mushrooms are amazing. I wish I knew which ones were edible as I see quite a few as I'm walking around.

  6. LOvely views even on an overcast day. I always find funghi fascinating! We sometimes see them growing near the pine trees along our main walking path after heavy rains. I'd be hesitant to eat any, but your friend Catherine must be an expert and you can trust she knows which ones are not poisonous. Did you ever think of hiking the Colorado Trail one day? It's very high altitude in some parts. I've visited at some of the trail locations.

  7. So pretty! I agree on the thru-hikers, I think they have to focus so much on making the miles that they miss virtually everything around them. Different goals for different folks I guess. I'm about the journey and won't hike with people only focused on getting from A to B in X amount of time.

  8. Wow, gorgeous! I really enjoyed seeing all the greenery; something I'm missing terribly this time of year!

  9. Interesting that they allow picking mushrooms. The parks here are pretty strict, although I think you can pick berries as long as you eat them on the trail.

    Thru-hikers always impress me. We are near the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail and we see rugged looking hikers on their way to Maine.

  10. I think it's quite an accomplishment to be a through hiker, but I bet they do miss lots of scenery just covering miles. Those spotted mushrooms are poisonous, I think - we also have them growing when we have a lot of moisture. I think they're supposed to cause hallucinations! What fabulous, varied scenery - a great hike.

  11. A wonderful day. I love the colour and varieties of the mushrooms.

  12. Awesome mushrooms, I never know which ones are safe to eat! :)

  13. You went to a lookout! Looks like an interesting one.

  14. I bet your friend Catherine will be back, next time with a larger bag!


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