South Washington Cascades | Mount Rainier Area
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Location: 46.570584, -121.987207
Summit Elevation: 4,800′
Lookout Type: DNR 42′ tower with 14’x14′ cab
Site Established: 1933
Current Structure Built: 1963
Date Visited: 9/04/18
There are only a handful of fire lookouts in Washington that make for a great biking outing and Watch Mountain just north of Randle is easily the best one! Though the lookout is easily visible from Randle, access is tricky and requires a long circuitous route.
Photos from 2018.
There have been two distinct lookout sites on Watch Mountain as well as a D-6 cupola built in 1917 on nearby Kiona Peak to the west. The first lookout on Watch was an L-4 ground house built in 1933 on the far east ridge, approximately two miles from the existing lookout. A cab was added in 1940, then the site was replaced in 1963 with the current 20′ tower with DNR cab, which was built on the western side of the ridge, approximately halfway between Kiona Peak and the original Watch Mountain site. Watch is now used primarily as an electronics and communication facility with a rather un-flattering pepto bismol colored interior. An old helipad still sits on the summit.
The Daily Chronicle reported that Watch Mountain was staffed in 1967 by Miss Kenna Lagerquist of Randle, then Erika Ujbazi in 1969.
The original Watch Mountain lookout on the eastern ridge was staffed in 1938 by Charles Boyer and Irma Huntington during their first year of marriage. Charles worked for the Forest Service and was a lookout on several area peaks.
Distance (RT): 26.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,435′
Access to Watch is a bit tricky and it’s one of the longer routes to a lookout in Washington. Steep cliffs and terrain block access from Watch Lake and shorter more direct routes off Highway 12 cross private land with gates and no trespassing signs. Someone have gone that way but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The recommended route with the least conflict is on logging roads starting from the south that wrap around to the west. These roads are private timber lands but are signed for non-motorized use. Great news? You can bike to Watch! There are only a few fire lookouts in Washington with good bicycle access so I took full advantage and road my mountain bike for my visit in 2018. Let me tell ya, if you can handle the nearly 5,000′ of climbing all the way up it’s a bomber super-D descent on the way back down!
Starting from the road gate on NF-1243 just west of Randle off Highway 12, continue north on NF-1243 about 1.75 to a Y. Continue northerly onto NF-060/061 until it eventually bends to the east. Around 9 miles cross Kiona Creek and look for a road traveling south towards NF-040. Continue south, eventually bending again to the east to the lookout. Many roads are not signed so a map and/or GPS is highly recommended. Generally speaking the most traveled road goes to the summit.
From the gate around 1,100′, the road climbs steadily to near 3,900′ in the first 8 miles. The road then dips slightly down and traverses for the next 2 miles until the final climb from around 3,600′ to the summit at 4,800′.
During my visit, the logging road was in good condition. Some of the steeper pitches may require a little hike-a-bike but if you have a granny geared mountain bike it’s quite easy to get most of the way to the lookout. The last half mile is pretty steep and rocky, so consider leaving your bike and hiking the remainder to the summit.
It took me roughly 3 hours to climb leisurely to the summit on my mountain bike and just over 30 minutes to bomb back down! I used to do some mountain bike super-D racing and it was a blast! Along the way I did cross paths with some logging trucks so definitely pay attention up if you ride the road. They aren’t used to seeing road traffic and they drive fast. The loggers were friendly though, stopping to say hi and I received no trouble for riding the road.
Definitely a consider a trip to the Kiona Peak former fire lookout location if you’re in the area. It’s not far off the road to Watch.
From Randle, drive west on Highway 12 and turn right onto NF-1243 (Pepper Ridge Road) just past Kiona Creek. The road is gated shortly off the highway with a few spots for parking.