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Meet Mount Pilchuck

It’s not the biggest mountain in the Cascades, nor is it the most difficult to climb. And let’s be honest — its small size is the main appeal of charming Mount Pilchuck, as well as its relative proximity to urban Seattle and accessibility for average hikers.

Don’t despair over that term — “average hiker”. Not all of us are born to become rugged mountaineers. Sometimes you want a solid trek that offers a beautiful panoramic vista. Pilchuck is your destination for a satisfying, full day’s hike.

Climb the whole thing to dig the old fire lookout on the top of the mountain. The “L-4”-style cabin is perched on the very apex of the 5,341-foot summit. You climb to the small wooden structure via a ladder.

Or, if you don’t want to master the mountain summit, try Heather Lake at the base of Pilchuck. It can be accessed by the same road that takes you to the Pilchuck Trail. It’s a truly scenic alpine lake in which can be glimpsed the inverted peak of Pilchuck.


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Hiking Pilchuck - what to expect

Parking, roads, trail notes

The road to the Mount Pilchuck trailhead is heavily potholed. It’s advisable to not bring a small vehicle, or a car with low suspension. You need a Federal Recreation Pass to legally park at the trailhead parking lot.

Start by climbing up gentle scree in the woods and crossing small creeks. Ascend through alpine forest to where the treeline opens up. Next, the trail takes you through a talus slope of large boulders. Small furry pikas inhabit these boulders and you can often hear their squeaky cries and glimpse them as they pop out of their rocky abodes.

Continue up switchbacks as you climb to the ridge on the northwest corner of the mountain. You’ll want to stop regularly for water breaks and to snap incredible views with your phone. On a clear day you can see the peaks on horizon to the north and below them the green wooded regions of the Stillaguamish River Valley.

The lookout at the top is the apex of the climb. Inside you’ll find a guestbook signed by people from all around the nation and the world, indicating that this is a popular destination for outdoor recreationists everywhere.

Any given time of year the mountaintop is full of hikers, taking photos and selfies of their foggy summit experiences.


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A few notes

It’s true that the hike up Pilchuck isn’t that long, but it does have a significant gain in elevation. That could be why this hike is listed as everything from "easy" to "difficult" in online hike listings. The truth is that it’s probably a solid intermediate hike.

The mountain’s weather can be temperamental and there are long sections of the route that are exposed to the elements. I’ve hiked it in deep snow and I’ve hiked it in late August when there was fog. I’ve heard that snow can fall unexpectedly in late summer, and that rain squalls can crop up suddenly.

As such, it pays to pack wisely, bringing a collapsible rain poncho and shoes with thick traction. The smart PNW hiker knows to pack breathable wool socks (“cotton kills” as the old saying goes).


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Make it a weekend

Yes, the magic of Mount Pilchuck is its feeling of remoteness, yet its proximity to urban civilization. After your hike, it’s about a forty-five minute drive back down into “modern civilization.” So, within a couple hours of your mountaintop experience, you can be in artsy Downtown Everett, dining on a from-scratch dinner or relaxing in a hotel.

Pilchuck is a relatively easy destination to cross of your PNW bucket list — especially if you’d love to experience a quintessential Northwest mountain trek, but don’t want to kill yourself with exertion while doing it.

Mount Pilchuck’s the pizza of hiking — it’s got something for everyone’s tastes. And it leaves you feeling satisfied.

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Managing Editor
Richard Porter