Experiencing Snohomish County From the Summit of Mount Pilchuck
BY ERIC COLEMAN
For Snohomish County visitors looking for a birds-eye view of the region, the Mount Pilchuck Trail is a challenging half-day hike that delivers stunning rewards.
The trailhead is only an hour east of Paine Field and offers diverse alpine scenery, varied hiking conditions, and a 1942 fire lookout tower that boasts 360-degree panoramic views.
From the trailhead, it’s a 2.7-mile hike to the summit. But don’t write-off Pilchuck as a bunny hill due to the low mileage. You’ll be ascending 2,300 feet in under two hours, making this a solidly intermediate-to-difficult trek — pack a lunch.
The trail begins in an old-growth forest filled with moss, streams, and the whisper of trees gossiping in the wind. After winding through the woods for one mile, you will encounter a large scree slope surrounded by trees. Don’t attempt to scramble across. Follow the orange trail markers to find your way through the maze of boulders.
Within a few minutes of leaving the scree slope, you will taste your first view of the valley and a distant Mount Rainier. Energy renewed, push on until you break out of the forest into fields of shale and alpine heather. From here on, the trail alternates between dirt and boulders and can be easy to lose if you aren’t careful. So take your time, follow the orange trail markers, and if you’re lucky, you might see a few pikas run across the trail or have a face-to-face encounter with a screaming marmot.
As you enter the last mile of trail, the trees get smaller and the vistas grow in intensity. Come prepared for tight switchbacks and extreme elevation gain, and watch your step — the trail passes a series of steep cliffs during its final stretch.
Once you reach the historic fire lookout, you’ll quickly realize why the Mount Pilchuck Trail is one of Washington State’s most popular hikes. This relatively short trek allows you to summit a mountain in under three hours and rewards you with the best seat in Snohomish County. From your perch, you’ll be able to see Mount Rainer, Mount Baker, the Olympics, the cities of Snohomish County, and far off in the distance, a hint of the Seattle skyline.
Enjoy the view and your lunch, feet swinging over the edge of the historic lookout.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Cascade mountain range (aptly called the “American Alps”), helpful panels on the inside of the fire lookout will tell you which mountains you’re looking at.
Not ready for the adventure to end? If you’re in the mood for an overnight hike, Mount Pilchuck State Park allows hikers to sleep inside the lookout. Reservations are not required and floor space is distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.
When to Go
If you hit the trail in the spring or early summer, come prepared to contend with a little snow. Check the AllTrails app for reviews of the current trail conditions and pack appropriately.
This is a popular hike, so avoid hiking on the weekend if you prefer solitude.
Things to Know
A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead.
Dogs must be kept on leash.
Water is not available at the trailhead and locations for filtering water along the trail are scarce, so make sure to pack your own water.
Google the “10 Essentials” and pack them. Even though Mount Pilchuck is a short hike, search and rescue teams are called to the mountain every year to rescue lost or stranded hikers. Go prepared.