Hiking Mount Pilchuck
Mount Pilchuck National Park, Washington, USA
Anyone with hiking experience who is ready to step up their game and take on bigger trails
Northwest Forest Pass or $5 per car
With sweeping vistas of Mount Ranier, Mount Baker and the Olympics, this trail had been on my list for a year. I kept putting it off because I think I was scared of it. I had completed longer trails and bigger elevation already, but this one just loomed over me for some reason. It’s 2,300ft of elevation in 2.7(ish) miles up, so it’s work but definitely not the hardest trail out there by any means.
So naturally I decided to conquer this trail (by myself) on a whim after not hiking for 2 months. I had been on vacation and taking long weekends and partying a little too much, which is not exactly the ideal way to prep for a trail. The thing is, I’ve never really been one to do things as expected anyways.
The weather was clearing up for only 2 days, so I took that Friday off and set the alarm clock. It is off Mountain Loop Highway, about 1.5 hours north of Seattle in the North Cascades. Shortly after you turn on to the forest road, you’ll pass the Heather Lake trailhead [a hike I have also done before]. There is an open gate at the far side of the parking area that will allow you to drive up a few more miles to the Mount Pilchuck area. I made it to the trailhead by about 9am, strapped on my pack and headed out.
During the first mile and a half or so I thought I was doing really well. I was keeping pretty good pace [considering I had been replacing my workouts with happy hours] and started thinking, “Ok, this might not be too bad”.
As you can imagine, I was wrong.
I have never in my life taken so many breaks. I’m talking sit down-disgustingly sweaty-catch my breath breaks. You gain a significant portion of the elevation on the back half of the trail, and it’s a killer. Fellow hikers cheered me on as they made their descent, letting me know I was getting close and that it would be worth it. I thanked them and wiped the sweat from my face, knowing giving up was never going to be an option. I was making to that summit even if it took me all damn day.
You cross several rock fields during the final stretch, and be sure to keep an eye out for the orange markers, they will help keep you on the trail and away from false summits. You will get a beautiful view of the mountains and you make your way up. Once you reach the summit you’ll make your final scramble to the fire lookout. This was my first real scramble, and I don’t love heights, but there was NO WAY I was doing that much work to just skip the grand finale.
The wind was howling and it was freezing, but as I climbed to the top of the ladder, pulled myself up to the walkway and took my first look around, nothing else mattered.
The old fire lookout provides a sweeping panoramic view of the mountain range and the Puget Sound. Can you say gorgeous? The peaks were jagged and some of them snowcapped, but all of the ridgelines were shades of deep blue, and seemed to overlap. Walking the full perimeter of the lookout feels like you are on top of the world.
Everyone who made it to the top high fived each other and no one could stop smiling. There were even a few very brave souls who made the daring scramble out to the overlook boulders for a handstand photo opp. I could barely even watch as I death gripped the railing. Pro Tip? Don’t try this.
If it hadn’t been for the wind, I would have spent an hour or two up there just taking it all in. However, my fingers and nose were turning to ice very quickly, so I spent 15-20 min getting a few photos and patting myself on the back. You can also camp out in the lookout overnight, but it’s usually a first come first served basis. It gets boarded up as the weather turns and the wind picks up, but it is still accessible for overnight stays.
Once you decide to scramble back down from the lookout, there are still plenty of spots to hike around. Most people won’t take their dogs to the lookout, so there are plenty of pups anchored there who don’t mind the company. I mulled around for a bit before heading back down.
It was challenging. It was exhausting. And I cannot wait to do it again.
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To read more from Alexis Snell check her out on Directions Optional
Feature photo credit: Peakbagger.com
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