Since 1929, it’s stood watch from Gifford Pinchot’s Sawtooth Ridge. Now it needs saving

The High Rock Lookout displays the effects of years of wear and tear.
The High Rock Lookout displays the effects of years of wear and tear. courtesy

A major effort is underway to save the historic High Rock Lookout from the unrelenting ravages of time.

Located deep in the heart of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the High Rock Lookout is considered an iconic surviving example of the fire lookouts that once dotted the sprawling landscape of Southwest Washington’s greatest forest. Over the years though, the wear and tear of weather and public use have taken an extreme toll on the structure. In recent years, vandalism has also become a nagging problem working against the longevity of the historic structure.

The “Save the Rock” High Rock Lookout restoration project, spearheaded by the White Pass Country Historical Society, hopes to reverse those trends and preserve the structure for enjoyment by future generations.

”We are working to get money together to fix that lookout. It is in sad shape,” said Martha Garoutte, from the White Pass Country Historical Society. “Most of the windows have been broken by vandals and at least two of the catwalk boards have been pulled up.”

The White Pass Country Historical Society, which is registered as a 501(c)3 organization, has started the daunting task of raising funds in order to pay for the extensive repair work. Not only will supplies need to be purchased, but they will also need to be hiked to the lookout, and wages will likely need to be paid for some skilled labor.

“We are the financial part of the program and coordinating it with the Forest Service because the Forest Service, as a government agency, cannot accept donations from the public,” explained Garoutte.

The High Rock Lookout was built in 1929 and is located 5,685 feet at the crest of Sawtooth Ridge, which acts as the watershed divide for the Cowlitz and Nisqually river watersheds within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The trailhead can be accessed off of Skate Creek Road from either Packwood or Ashford and has proven to be a popular hiking destination largely thanks to the incredible 360-degree views found at the lookout.

High Rock Lookout was once part of an extensive network of fire lookouts built and staffed on Forest Services lands. It was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, and its last officially sanctioned use was in 2003 when Lawrence “Bud” Panco “retired” after 17 seasons serving as the volunteer fire observer at High Rock. Panco was also a founding member of the White Pass Country Historical Society.

A press release from the White Pass Country Historical Society noted that the long-term goal of the restoration project is to bring the lookout back to its original condition so that it may be staffed by volunteers during the summer months when visitation typically peaks.

On Feb. 27, the historical society hosted a meeting at their museum in Packwood in order to rouse support for the project and begin the planning process for restoration and rehabilitation work. That meeting was attended by representatives of the Forest Service, the historical society, supporters from the local community and the Portland, Oregon-based Sand Mountain Society, a 501(c)3 non-profit volunteer organization specializing in fire lookout restoration. A release noted that Dean Durant, of the Lewis County Juvenile Program, was also in attendance. In past years, his juvenile work crews have helped with maintenance work at the lookout.

Janice Grose, president of the White Pass Country Historical Society, noted in the release that a PayPal account has been set up by the museum in order to collect funds for the “Save the Rock” project, and the historical society has received a small grant from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation in order to conduct immediate emergency repairs. Additionally, the historical society has partnered with the Washington Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association in an effort to obtain much needed grant and donation funding for the project.

The original plans for restoration at High Rock Lookout were drafted by the Sand Mountain Society in 2015. At that time, the lookout was considered to be on the verge of collapse, and the Sand Mountain Society took emergency measures in order to stabilize the structure. Sand Mountain Society President Don Allen has pledged to provide skills and expertise in the planning and execution of the lookout restoration going forward.

Donations can made online at www.PayPal.me/HighRockRestoration, or sent by mail to White Pass Country Historical Society, P.O. Box 958 Packwood, WA, 98361. Checks must be made payable to White Pass Country Historical Society.