Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mount Pilchuck

The jagged peaks of the North Cascades
6 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Bumpy gravel road, Northwest Forest Pass required

Mount Pilchuck was one of the first hikes I did after arriving in Washington state and even two years later, it still sits near the top of the list of my favorite hikes in the state. Check with the Washington Trails Association for detailed directions and updates on this hike. I liked enough to revisit in the low-snow winter of 2015.

There are few grander views so easily accessible from Seattle than that from the summit of Mount Pilchuck. It's less than an hour and a half to the trailhead for Pilchuck off the Mountain Loop Highway from Seattle and just 3 miles to the summit; in return for this minor investment of time and energy, the summit rewards with a 360-degree panorama of the wild, jagged Cascades, three great volcanoes, countless glaciers, the cities of Seattle and Everett, the Olympic Mountains, and the Puget Sound. By Washington state standards, this is a easy to moderate hike (more of a moderate by Virginia standards), with no real obstacles except a very short bit of scrambling just below the lookout. Be sure to visit on a clear day!

Mt. Pilchuck was a special hike for me: it was only my second hike after my move to Washington. I had spent much time indoors or in the city until I was finally able to get away by renting a car. The forecast looked good and Pilchuck was the featured hike on the WTA website, so I figured why not? I headed out from Seattle an hour before dawn, driving north on I-5 to Everett; then east on US 2 briefly, following the signs onto Washington Route 204 north, which then merged quickly ended at Washington Route 9. I followed Route 9 north to Route 92, the turnoff for Granite Falls. As I drove this stretch of road, I finally caught views of the Cascades, with the sun lighting up the sky behind Three Fingers and Pilchuck. I stayed on Route 92 into Granite Falls, passing through the town before turning left to head north on the Mountain Loop Highway. I stayed on the Mountain Loop until passing the Verlot Ranger Station and a bridge shortly afterward; immediately after the bridge, I turned onto Mt. Pilchuck Rd, a lengthy and bumpy gravel road that I followed to its terminus.

The trailhead for Pilchuck is already beautiful: it is situated on the northern slope of the mountain, high above the valley of Stillaguimish, with Anacortes and the San Juan Islands visible in the distance. The trail heads up from the near end of the parking lot, quickly delving into second-growth forest. The beginning of the hike is relatively uneventful, climbing gently through a mossy forest and entering Mount Pilchuck State Forest. As the climb continues, the trail grows rockier, until it finally comes to a talus slope with a view of Mt. Rainier. From here, the trail turns sharply left and continues climbing.

The forests on Pilchuck
The forest begins to thin out as the terrain to the north of the trail grows progressively steeper. Soon, I came to a view of the Stillaguimish Valley, with Pilchuck's shadow stretching toward the Puget Sound. Just a little further on, I turned a corner and saw for the first time the icy summit of Mt. Baker.

Pilchuck's shadow
First views of Baker
The next half-mile was spectacular. The trail came out into a rocky slope beneath the steep north face of Pilchuck. The summit was visible from this point, but it looked terribly far away (luckily, it wasn't!). As I ascended through the rocky and open field, I enjoyed views of Baker, Shuksan, Three Fingers, and many of the other peaks ringing the north end of the Stillaguimish Valley.

Three Fingers
After climbing around a tiny false summit, the trail ventured onto the broader south slope of the mountain. The ascent was steady and moderately steep, but views of the Puget Sound and the Olympics in the distance rewarded the necessary effort well. At points, Rainier and even Seattle were visible in the distance.

View towards Puget Sound
Finally, after some brief switchbacks, the trail gained the top of the ridge, providing a jaw-dropping view down the rocky north face of Pilchuck to the great peaks of the North Cascades. White Chuck, Sloan, Pugh- all the big Mountain Loop peaks were clearly visible. Behind it all, Glacier Peak reigned, held aloft on a throne of great granite peaks. Far below, the Stillaguimish River flowed through a deep valley hemmed in by steep forested peaks such as Dickerman and Big Four.

View towards Glacier Peak
The lookout was now visible just to the west, perched atop the sheer north face. I made my way up the final stretch of trail and scrambled across a pile of large boulders, then pulled myself up the short ladder at the base of the lookout to reach the summit of Pilchuck. The inside of the lookout was open and had panels describing the lookout's history and detailing the views. The outside of the lookout was the reason to hike all the way up though: endless, endless views.

Pilchuck Lookout

Looking east from the lookout, every inch of the horizon featured yet another craggy granite spire or tumbling glacier. To the west, the Olympics, the Puget Sound, and even Vancouver Island were visible. To the north, the ground dropped off precipitously from the side of the lookout to the lakes scattered under Pilchuck's north face. I could see Mt. Baker, the great white-capped volcano; to its left, the Twin Sisters and the Pacific Ranges north of Vancouver, Canada; to its right (east), Mt. Shuksan, a sharp pinnacle that is the tallest non-volcanic peak of the North Cascades. Further to the right (east): the closer peaks of Whitehorse Mountain and snow-capped Three Fingers, which from here displayed just two summits; the endless maze of frigid North Cascades summits in the distance; and the great summit of Glacier Peak towering above it all. The summit ridge of Pilchuck pointed directly east into the ferocious, jagged peaks of the Monte Cristo group; heading to the south, the distant but commanding summit of Mt. Stuart was in the same direction of sight as the closer Spada Lake and the dramatic Route 2 peaks of Baring, Merchant, Gunn, and Index rose above their surrounding foothills. Far to the south was Rainier itself and even farther to the south I could see the gaping crater of Mt. St. Helens, over 130 miles away.

The North Cascades
View from the lookout
Glacier Peak from Pilchuck
Since I arrived at the summit so early in the morning, I had this glorious vista to myself for an hour before I heard the second group of the day approaching the summit. Reluctant to share the summit, I started on my way down through the October foliage on the mountain and returned to Seattle.

Fall color on Pilchuck

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