On the Edge: High Rock Lookout Undergoes Emergency Restoration


PACKWOOD – When High Rock Lookout was constructed in 1929, it required a full day’s ride from Mineral by horseback and a team of mules in order to get assorted supplies close to their destination more than a mile above sea level. Now, nearly a century later the U.S. Forest Service and local volunteers are again trekking up to High Rock Lookout with toolboxes and raw materials in order to undo the unrelenting ravages of both time and vandals.

These days the trek to the trailhead is considerably more manageable thanks to Forest Service roads that lead to the area, but that final ascent, fully loaded with lumber and hardware, remains a daunting task.

The retired, and staggering, fire lookout structure is located on top of High Rock at an elevation of 5,685 feet. From that vantage there are panoramic views of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and even Mount Hood on clear days, along with the surrounding evergreen valleys and alpine lakes. While Forest Service roads will get you to the trailhead, the final 1.6 miles to the lookout perch must be undertaken by foot, with 1,365 feet of vertical gain to boot.

Work crews from the Forest Service are becoming all too familiar with those tricky logistics thanks to a newly rekindled effort to repair, and ultimately refurbish, the historic structure. The first round of that work began early last week and was slated to be completed by the end of the weekend. However, those initial repairs are considered emergency safety work and the Forest Service in conjunction with the White Pass Historical Museum, hopes that within roughly five years the nearly 90-year-old structure will be fully returned to its former glory.

High Rock Lookout was used as an active fire lookout from its inception through the 1990s when Packwood native Bud Panco held down the fort. Panco put in a total of 17 summers at High Rock. Even after the Forest Service cut funding to staff the lookout Panco stayed on as a volunteer interpreter so that he could keep an eye on things, make regular repairs and share his passion for the forest with visitors. Eventually though, the trek up the trail became too much for Panco and health concerns forced him to abandon his former station for good around 2004. He died 10 years later at 82.

In Panco’s absence the remote lookout gradually began to fall into disrepair. Located on a fully exposed slab of rock more than a mile above sea level, the structure never gets a break from the full brunt of Mother Nature’s forces. Sun bakes the wood and makes old paint chip in the summer, snow weighs heavy on the roof in the winter and fierce winds pummel the walls and test the foundation in all four seasons. As those elements continued to take their toll on the structure, unsupervised visitors also began to contribute to the quickening deterioration through misguided acts of graffiti, and even malicious destruction.

The Forest Service and the White Pass Historical Museum are the two groups responsible for spearheading the ongoing High Rock Lookout rehabilitation project. Representatives from those groups drew comparisons to the broken window theory used to explain instances of urban decay. That theory says that people are more likely to be destructive when then they see infrastructure that is already in disrepair, and the proof is readily apparent all over High Rock. 

Over the years, the interior of the lookout shack, including the few remaining window panes that have not been broken out, has been covered in the sloppy black ink of personal tags, including a recent rash of hashtags begging for social media follows. A lightning rod that used to sit on top of the shack was stolen, or chucked over the precipice, and a set of safety guide wires that served to prevent visitors from taking a fatal 600-foot header over the edge of the rock were torn down. 

In recent years, some visitors have even gone so far beyond the pale that they’ve repeatedly removed wooden planks from the catwalk and other areas of the structure in order to fuel fleeting evening campfires. One of those fires, set in recent months, was sparked so close to the actual structure that substantial char marks can be seen on a treated support beam just below the lookout’s access door.

“It’s just that thing where if you drop a piece of paper people will drop 10 more,” theorized Jan Grose from the White Pass Historical Museum. “Hopefully people will see that we are working up there and the Forest Service will see that we are serious about protecting this asset.”

According to Matt Mawhirter, resource manager for the Forest Service, last week’s repair work was primarily focused on shoring up the structural integrity of the building. On July 17, the south wall of the structure was completely removed due to failures caused by rotting wood and mounting abuses by visitors. Mawhirter said the wall likely would have completely collapsed next winter if the work wasn’t completed now. He also pointed out that guardrails that ring the observation deck are teetering on the point of failure and provide only a false sense of security as crowds squeeze by each other for better views on busy days. Mawhirter added that work crews are hoped to fix the heavy winter window shutters soon in order to keep the snow from piling up inside the lookout during the long untended, winters.

“Make it safe. That’s what this work is all about,” explained Mawhirter.

Exactly how much of the lengthy to-do list will be accomplished this summer is unclear at this juncture, primarily due to the unique nature of the work.

“These things are supposed to be standardized but what you find is that these guys either modified them along the way or they just did what they had to do to get by,” said Mawhirter of the various lookout personalities, like Panco, who tended the station over the years. He said those inconsistencies make it difficult to match parts and workers often make it all the way to the top of High Rock only to discover that they have the wrong drill bit, or that their new lumber is a bit too short.

The maintenance crew working on High Rock Lookout last week, Dean Robertson and Damon Little, typically work in the Mount Adams District of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The duo garnered previous rehabilitation experience by rebuilding the Red Mountain fire lookout as well as several guard stations within the sprawling GPNF, but they said that High Rock Lookout poses a unique set of obstacles.

“It’s a lot harder access. It’s a little bit of a bear to get up here,” Robertson said, as he took measurements for the new south wall last Tuesday. 

“It’s the best view of Rainier I’ve ever had. That’s for sure,” added Robertson.

During the planning phase of the project officials considered using teams of mules to pack the supplies uphill, just as the pioneers had done in the early years. However, it was determined that bare patches of rock along the trail would pose too much risk to live animals, so instead the materials were brought up hill using a walk-behind Honda toter (sled). Robertson and Little then hand packed the supplies over the last few hundred yards of bare rock to the lookout.

Robertson said his initial focus was reserved entirely for shoring up the south wall in order to provide support for the roof. Looking around, he added that he’d also like to begin work on the foundation sooner than later by pouring peer pads and securing the structure with bolts to the rock. He noted that the support beams underneath the structure are rotting away in places and that guide wires on the corners of the structure, intended to hold it tightly in place, now hang loose due to apparent settling. 

“It’s not really secured that well. I’m surprised it’s stayed this long,” said Robertson.

While the structure is not technically off limits while work is in progress, the Forest Service requests that visitors be considerate of the workers’ space and take reasonable safety precautions. After all, it’s a 600 foot fall off the steep side of the rock.

According to the Forest Service the repairs being undertaken at High Rock Lookout would not be possible without the funding being provided by the White Pass Historical Museum through their “Save the Rock” campaign. 

“Without them, probably none of this would be happening. It’s a great partnership,” said Mawhirter. “A lot of the time it’s just little efforts like this that keep these things from falling right into the ground. That’s usually the death knell for things like this, when the local community stops caring about it.”

According to Grose, this round of work at High Rock will serve to kick off what will likely be a five-year project to bring the lookout back to its former glory. In order to attain that goal Grose said that the greater Lewis County community will be counted on to do their part by chipping in financially, and helping to keep a watchful eye on the lookout itself.

“We definitely need money and resources and ultimately the goal is that it will be a fully functioning fire detection lookout and that we will have volunteer stewards manning it. People were excited about that when I was up there on Monday talking about the possibility of helping us out,” said Grose. “I have great hopes for it. It’s a historical icon.”

High Rock Lookout is located in between Packwood and Ashford off of Skate Creek Road. From Packwood it is a 23-mile drive to the trailhead.

Donations to the “Save the Rock” campaign can be made online through PayPal at www.paypal.me/HighRockRestoration. 

Additional information on the project can be obtained by contacting the Forest Service, or by calling the White Pass Historical Museum at 360-494-4422.