Mount Pilchuck is probably the most fun I’ve had on a trail in quite some time. The last snowy mile is epic and the views from the fire lookout at the summit are stunning if you can catch the mountain on a clear day. If you haven’t had a chance to make it out to Pilchuck yet, I would highly recommend it.
I headed up the mountain on Tuesday with some friends from work. When we arrived, the trailhead was already shrouded in mist. Although most of the peripheral scenery was obscured for the first mile, it was still a pleasant stroll through that tranquil stretch of woodlands. Watching the fog roll down the hills always reminds me a bit of hiking in Appalachia.
At the one mile marker our party made it to the scree slope and encountered snow soon after. We threw on traction devices and pushed on, breaking through the low-level cloud cover about a quarter mile later. Traction devices and hiking poles are recommended, but I would not say they are a necessity. I saw plenty of people get by just kick stepping or using the always controversial ‘slipping every three feet in tennis shoes’ technique.
There is still a considerable amount of snow on the last mile and a half of Pilchuck, and it’s in the process of melting, so the trail is wet, slushy and muddy. This unfortunately means that postholing is common, especially on the return trip down the mountain. Heading down, the impact of your steps on the snow is always going to be greater and each step on the path you once considered stable has the ability to transform into a treacherous foot consuming void, so please exercise caution. Those attempting an intermediate trail like Pilchuck already know this bit of hiking common sense, but it never hurts to brush up on ‘why I unwillingly ended up in a crevice 101’, especially if you have dinner plans or are trying to make it back in time for Game of Thrones.
I’ve heard some people lose the trail when they hit the exposed snowfield, bushwhacking toward false summits or wandering aimlessly out into the expanse, but footprints should guide you up the steep slope toward the last bit of signage on the trail, a brown parking area sign on an evergreen pointing returning hikers back down the way you came. This will let you know that you’re on the right track. Scramble your way along the rocky and root heavy homestretch and you’ll be at the fire lookout in no time, where lunch and great views await. It’s so pretty at the top that I often lose track of time and have to be coerced back down by my hiking partners.
When you do decide to head back down, you’ll discover another reason to like Pilchuck this time of year, as it has great slopes to glissade down. Glissading is by far the most convenient and laziest (although not the safest) way to return to your car in a timely fashion. Any mountain that features built-in slides gets a five-star yelp review and my continued patronage. Although as the snow melts, some of the carved snow shoots are now basically large mud holes, troughs and trash bag slip n slides, and a few of the shoots have also thawed out to expose jagged rocks, so certainly be careful if you do decide to glissade down Pilchuck. Glissading injuries are common this time of year on Pilchuck and Ellinor, so skip the shoots if you want to be extra cautious.
All and all, it was a great day on the mountain. We met some perfectly pleasant people along the way and other than a bit of sunburn (even with copious amounts of sunscreen, my complexion is unfortunately only ideal for wearing sweaters in dreary, overcast climates) and our party almost being run over outside of Granite Falls by a man driving a stolen RV the wrong way down the interstate (read about it here), it’s hard to find a single thing to complain about. Hands down one of my favorite trails in the Cascades.