You could say Mount Pilchuck is set apart.
No, it’s not one of the more magnificent peaks in Washington. At just a little more than 5,300 feet high, Pilchuck is a mere shrimp among the giants farther inland.
It’s just that few hikes are more rewarding than the relatively short 2,300-foot ascent to this iconic mountain that sits all by itself on the western edge of the Cascades.
Perched atop Pilchuck’s historic, restored fire lookout, on the clearest of days, one can see north to Mount Baker, east to Glacier Peak, south to Mount Rainier and west to the Olympics, the Seattle skyline, Everett and Whidbey and Camano islands.
Of course, this is not breaking news to the hiking enthusiast. That’s why the 2.7-mile trail to the top is one of the more popular day hikes in the area.
Kevin Lease, a ranger with Washington State Parks who oversees operations on Mount Pilchuck, estimates the trail this summer is attracting between 500 and 700 hikers per week. Those numbers, he said, would likely be higher if not for poor conditions on Forest Road 42 leading to the trailhead.
“It’s in rough shape to the say the least,” said Lease. “There are many potholes to crawl through, especially early on.”
The last 1.5 miles of the 6.8-mile road from the Mountain Loop Highway are paved, but still treacherous, said Lease.
“It’s recommended to use a vehicle with clearance, and to drive slow,” he said.
Even so, the rough ride to the trailhead will be worth it. First of all, you’re beginning the hike at 3,000 feet, a relatively high-elevation trailhead that you can thank the ski industry for.
The road once provided access to the Mount Pilchuck ski area, which enjoyed a 27-year run beginning in 1951. With its mixture of cliffs and ravines, Pilchuck drew comparisons to Alpental at Snoqualmie Pass. Lights were added to the upper ski runs in the early ’70s, giving Pilchuck an impressive 1,800 feet of vertical night skiing. Some of us are old enough to remember seeing those lights while driving on Interstate 5 through Snohomish County.
However, the low elevation — the upper chairlift topped out at just 4,300 feet — eventually doomed the ski area. Skiers often brought their rain gear to the mountain, and more times than not, they needed it. The 1977-78 season would be the last. The lifts sat idle until 1980, when they were taken out and sold to Crystal Mountain.
Little remnants of the ski resort remain. There’s a large concrete footing that was used for a rope tow a little more than a half-mile up the trail. All other buildings and structures are gone. If you look hard enough, you’ll find some remnants left, such as old pipes, cables and rotting boards.
As you begin the hike, you’ll soon discover the trail to the top is no bunny hill. It’s a workout. After winding through an old-growth forest dominated by hemlock, silver fir and cedar, at the 1-mile mark, the trail turns into a rock scramble. You will encounter loose rock on a good portion of this trail. It’s best you wear sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support.
At the 1.5-mile mark, the trail opens up to a large boulder field, and you get your first glimpse of the lookout shelter. The trail snakes around the peak through mostly subalpine, mountain hemlock and heather before a steep boulder scramble and final climb up a ladder to the shelter.
The original fire lookout shelter built in 1921 featured a cupola. It’s long gone now; the lookout underwent a remodel in 1938.
A more extensive overhaul in 1989 as a part of the state’s centennial is representative of what it looks like today. The upgrades, done by volunteers from the Everett Mountaineers, include interpretive and historical displays, and bench seating.
Step inside and take your time reading about this historic lookout. Then step outside on the 30-inch-wide catwalk that wraps around the building and take in the grand, 360-degree, unobstructed views of the Central Cascades and Puget Sound.
Truly, a mountain peak set apart.
Mount Pilchuck trail
Round-trip distance: 5.4 miles
Elevation gain: 2,300 feet
Highest point: 5,327 feet
Parking/entry fee: Northwest Forest Pass