Change your altitude at Washington state parks

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The Vista House on the summit of Mount Spokane sits at nearly 5,900 feet above sea level and makes an excellent destination, by foot or by car.

May 23, 2018

The lowdown on parks in high places

Whether you’re training to climb Mount Rainier, or you simply enjoy the crisp morning air at 5,000 feet, you’ll be delighted by several high-elevation state parks.


Mount Spokane State Park  

High point: Mount Spokane - 5,867 feet 

Are you an experienced hiker with great navigation skills? Test your mettle on Mount Spokane’s 12.6-mile Three Peak Loop through the Selkirk Mountains. The hike gains and loses 2,850 feet of elevation and includes views as far as Canada.

You can also grab one of the park’s eight first-come, first-served campsites and go for the 25-mile, eight-peak loop! Six of the park’s eight summits sit above 5,000 feet.

If that sounds like a suffer fest, try a mellow hike from 2 to 7 miles long. Enjoy modest elevation gains through pine forests and wildflower meadows, and stroll past several historic structures — Vista House, Civilian Conservation Corps cabin and Quartz Mountain fire lookout.

With advance reservations, you can even sleep in the Quartz Mountain fire lookout at 5,129 feet. For reservations, call: (888) 226-7688

Learn more about the park!

Mount Pilchuck State Park 

High point: Mount Pilchuck fire lookout - 5,327 feet

Eat your Wheaties or preferred breakfast of champions, because the only way to the top of 5,327-foot Mount Pilchuck is by foot.

The trail starts at 3,000 feet on U.S. Forest Service land and gains 2,300 feet over 2.7 miles. If you love to scramble, this trail is for you. The final 200 feet to the historic fire lookout involves hopping up and around car-sized boulders.

The reward: 360-degree views of the jagged North Cascades, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains (on a clear day).

After getting an eyeful from the lookout’s wraparound balcony, breathe in the clean, mile-high air, have a snack indoors (if the tower is open) and prepare to descend.

Learn more about the park!

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A hiker takes a break near the summit of Mount Pilchuck, with the North Cascades in the background.

Fields Spring State Park 

High point: Puffer Butte  - 4,500 feet

Fields Spring is the place to just be in the subalpine forest and meadows. Take a 2-mile walk up to Puffer Butte. The panoramic views of the Blue Mountains and Grande Ronde River Valley are more likely to take your breath away than the altitude.

The park is carpeted with wildflowers in spring, amber grasses in summer and fall, and twinkling white powder in winter (when snowshoes or skis become necessary).

Stop at the historic Wohelo and Puffer Butte Lodge retreat centers and the Tamarack cabin, which can be rented for up to four people. Reserve a campsite, or one of two teepees, which sleep up to eight.

Learn more about the park!

Steptoe Butte State Park Heritage Site

High point: Top of Steptoe Butte – 3,612 feet

Not feeling the hike? Still desiring a commanding view from on high? How about an easy drive up to the top of Steptoe Butte? This park is worth a detour on your eastern Washington road trip. 

Craving even more adventure? With proper gear, training and expertise you can also paraglide off the butte. Check out one man’s adventure hang-gliding off Steptoe.

You may wonder about the butte’s golden hue, which contrasts with the surrounding mauve, brown and green Palouse Hills. The yellow quartzite that formed Steptoe Butte is some of the oldest rock in the Northwest, and the butte marks the border of the original North American Continent. 

Learn more about the park!

The Basics

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Views of the Palouse Hills from Steptoe Butte provide a different perspective on a dramatic landscape.

Altitude safety 

If you’ve driven from sea level to Mount Spokane, you may find yourself winded after the short walk to the Vista House.

The effects of altitude can start as low as 5,000 feet, so don’t be surprised if you feel a bit woozy on your first hike at elevation.

Here are some tips to keep hikers happy and healthy at altitude:

  • Hydration is more critical at elevation than on lowland hikes; bring extra water.
  • Loss of appetite is common. That bag of cookies you can’t put down at sea level may be the only thing you can stomach up high.
  • Mint and ginger are known to cut nausea and indigestion at elevation.
  • Consumption of alcohol is believed to exacerbate symptoms of altitude sickness.  
  • Still not feeling better? If nausea, dizziness or shortness of breath worsen, descend, hike a lower trail and try another day.

Did you train for a high-altitude adventure in Washington State Parks? 
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