Our Hiking Time: 4h 20m
Total Ascent: 2200ft
Highest Point: 5324ft
Total Distance: 5.2 miles
Location: N 48° 3.4740, W 121° 47.8680
Required Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
This week we topped off a month of Mountain Loop Highway destinations with a classic, Mt. Pilchuck. For years, readers have been telling us about the views from Mt. Pilchuck’s popular summit. Despite the deepening snow, the first sunny morning in weeks found us heading toward Mt. Pilchuck State Park.
First climbed by a US Geological Survey crew in 1897, Mt. Pilchuck has been a destination ever since. “Pilchuck” means “red water” in Chinook Jargon, a name that has been given to a number of streams and rivers in Washington State, including the Pilchuck River that runs under the south slopes of the mountain. In 1918, the Forest Service built a fire tower on the summit. Built and re-built over the years, today a lookout house offers shelter to hikers.
However, Mt. Pilchuck wasn’t always the exclusive domain of hikers and snowshoers. From 1951-1980, The Mt. Pilchuck Ski Area drew skiers from all over the state. Although ownership changed a few times over the years, the Ski Area eventually sported a lodge, ski rental building, two ski lifts and four rope tows hauling skiers up the mountainside. Snow levels were unpredictable, however, with some years yielding only enough snow for a single day of skiing and others so much that the lifts couldn’t operate for weeks on end. Some blame the conditions, others contend that it was government ineptitude that didn't allow renewal of the lease – whatever the cause, by 1980 the Ski Area was shuttered. The lodge fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished. All that remains on the mountain are a few cement ski lift foundations and rusting metal.
The trail begins at the end of the seven-mile long Mt. Pilchuck Road, following the service road once used to access the Ski Area. From the parking lot, a nice little view of the Stillaguamish Valley and Green Mountain hints at the kind of vistas that wait at the summit. The route briefly wanders through young forest, which quickly thins to yield ever-larger views of the valley below. A little over a mile into the trail the former ski slopes come into view and the trail flattens into a basin below a rocky prominence known as Little Pilchuck. During the summer, the route curves around the cliffs and follows the ridgeline up to a saddle between the summit and Little Pilchuck. During the winter, most folks opt to head directly up the snow covered talus field to the saddle. From here, it's less than a mile to the lookout along the main trail. A marked scramble route to the top that cuts out some of the distance offers a summer alternative for the more experienced and adventurous.
Once you arrive at the summit, find a comfortable spot for lunch and drink up the 360-degree views. Mt. Rainer looms to the south, rising above the miniaturized cities of Seattle and Everett huddled next to Puget Sound. As you pan west over the Olympics and swing north, you can pick out Three Fingers, Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak and Green Mountain. To the east lies Big Four Mountain and Mt. Dickerman, along with Mt. Index and Mt. Baring. Peer below to find Lake Twentytwo and Heather Lake.
In the summer, hikers flock to Pilchuck – with such stunning views at the end of a fairly short trail, it’s easy to see why. We had some company on our snowshoe to the top, but this was nothing compared the crowds you’ll navigate on a July weekend. We highly recommend trying this in the early winter, when the snow is clean and powdery, and the wind has sculpted the trees to look like something out of a children’s book. However, use caution in the winter months. The route is marked, but it occasionally skirts avalanche chutes, and the mountain has plenty of abrupt cliffs that can sneak up on the unwitting snowshoer. Snow also makes parking at the trailhead nearly impossible – simply go as far along Mt. Pilchuck Road as your vehicle can, and hike the remaining miles to the trailhead.
To get there, take I-5 North to Exit 194. Follow Highway 2 for about two miles. Stay in the left lane and merge onto Lake Stevens Highway 204. Follow for two miles to Highway 9. Take the left onto Highway 9 toward Lake Stevens. In just under two miles, reach Highway 92 to Granite Falls. Take a right and follow for about nine miles to the Mountain Loop Highway (MLH). Follow the MLH for 12 miles to Mount Pilchuck Road, just over the bridge crossing the South Fork Stillaguamish River. Follow the forest road seven miles to the trailhead. - Nathan
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