Location: 48.057974, -121.797918 Summit Elevation: 5,340′ Lookout Type: L-4 ground house Site Established: 1917 Current Structure Built: 1943 Date Visited: 7/1/19
Washington State Parks estimates that Mount Pilchuck received 500-700 visitors per week in 2021, making it one of the most popular hikes in Washington State. It was with purposeful irony that I saved Pilchuck as my very last fire lookout to visit on July 1, 2019 after a several year effort to visit and photograph all of Washington’s remaining lookouts.
Photos from 2019.
According to Washington State Parks, the word Pilchuck comes from the Native American name red water, for a creek in the area. Mt. Pilchuck was first climbed in 1897 by Louis Fletcher of the USGS. This first ascent took over 8 hours from the Monte Cristo Railroad because there was no trail back then. In 1909 an access trail was built to the summit along Black Creek then in 1910 a more direct 7-mile trail to the summit was built starting near Robe and using a cable car to cross the Stillaguamish.
The first fire camp was established on Pilchuck’s summit in 1917. That same year the Washington Forest Fire Association contributed to the construction of a summit trail led by the Forest Service. Materials for a D-6 cupola lookout were ordered in 1918 and a telephone line was strung up between the summit and Granite Falls.
A section of the summit of Pilchuck was blasted off to make room for the lookout, which was built between 1919 and 1921 and first staffed in 1921. There are conflicting historical reports, but the present L-4 ground house was built sometime between 1938 and 1943. Pilchuck was regularly staffed until the 60s.
A ski area was operated on Pilchuck between 1957 and 1979 but the area closed in 1980 due to poor annual snow conditions. Some ski lift artifacts are still visible on the mountain along the trail.
In the late 1980s the lookout was restored thanks to the efforts of Forrest Clark and the Forest Fire Lookout Association. The lookout is currently maintained in partnership with the Forest Service and Everett Mountaineers. The Forest Service maintains the trail and trailhead while the State Park and the Mountaineers maintain the historic lookout building.
In 2021, Washington State Parks estimated 500-700 hikers visited Mount Pilchuck every week during the summer.
1935. North panorama.1935. Southeast panorama.1935. Southwest panorama.
Distance (RT): 5.4 miles Elevation Gain: 2,300′
Though Mount Pilchuck is certainly one of the busiest trails in the area, don’t be fooled by it’s short approach, which climbs 2,300′ in 2.7 miles. The route is strenuous and requires a little boulder scrambling and short ladder climb to reach the lookout. The boulder climb is straightforward but does require a little extra dexterity and in poor conditions, can be dangerous and slick. There have been search and rescue missions on Pilchuck so do be careful and don’t underestimate the route or weather. In winter, the road is gated, requiring a long approach and technical skills.
At the trailhead, I recommend signing in on the register, just in case, then the hike starts through beautiful towering old growth forest. Eventually the trail pops out into a talus field and this is where people have sometimes gotten lost. Just pay attention to the little orange posts that point the way. The trail becomes much more obvious past the initial talus field and also much more rocky, so watch your step! Views start to open up across to Three Fingers and include Glacier and Mount Baker.
The fire lookout is perched atop boulders on the summit, so carefully scramble up, then take the final steps up a short ladder to the top. Inside the lookout there are bench seats as well as historical photos and information. It is possible to overnight at Pilchuck but the lookout is often very busy, so plan accordingly.
Pilchuck is completely volunteer maintained and receives a huge amount of traffic. Entry is allowed only when the doors are open. Please do not force the door or shutters open if they are closed as this causes significant damage to the lookout and risks the integrity of the structure.
Beautiful old growth forest.First view of Three Fingers.The lookout, perched high on the rocks.Signs pointing through the talus.
The end of a journey.
When I first set off to try to visit and photograph all of Washington State’s remaining fire lookouts, I really had no idea how long it would take or if I’d even be successful. Though I had been to a handful of lookouts prior, I spent most of the two years between July 2017 and July 2019 on a lookout mission. I was incredibly lucky with my timing as these were generally favorable years in terms of fire, road, and weather conditions.
It was with purposeful irony that I left Mount Pilchuck, the most popular and commonly visited lookout in Washington State, as my last. And it was fitting I suppose that my celebration atop Mount Pilchuck on July 1, 2019 with two good friends and my dad was a rather comedic outing that seemed wholly unfitting after so many years of effort! That said it was still a fantastic evening at Pilchuck, albeit a very short one!
The few days before Pilchuck, my dad, an avid peakbagger himself, had flown into town to join me on a trip to the Colville to visit a handful of lookouts I had remaining. I wasn’t sure we’d be successful getting all of them but we were, and so I made my dad delay his flight back so he could join me on Pilchuck for thr big celebration. Two good friends also joined us, my former partner Nick, who ventured with me on a trip to Mebee Pass, and my friend Ian, who most certainly wins the award for surviving more of my death marches than anyone else. He’s been on pretty much the worst backpacking/bushwhacking trips with me as well as journeys to Three Fingers, Monument 83, and Puyallup.
Since July 1 was a Monday, we all agreed that we’d leave Seattle around 4pm, do an after work hike up to Pilchuck, break out the bubbly, and have a quick sunset celebration! It was a great plan until I went to start my Jeep and found the starter completely dead. Ha! My beloved reliable old Jeep Cherokee with 250,000 miles that took me to every fire lookout in the state died right before the last one!? I really couldn’t believe it but I also let out a sigh of relief it hadn’t happened the day before when my dad and I were miles out into the backcountry of the Colville! That Jeep sure had a track record of impeccable timing, I’ll give it that.
With our little hiccup, my friend Ian instead picked us up and drove to Pilchuck, but by the time we got on the road we missed our planned departure, got stuck in traffic, and somehow he managed to Google Map us to the wrong trailhead.
By the time we got to the correct trailhead it was already 7:30pm and we knew we’d have to practically sprint to the top to get there by sunset. Luckily my 72-year-old dad was in prime shape, so we set a murderous pace, somehow reaching the summit in just over an hour. I suppose the benefit of our late departure was that we scored the summit all to ourselves!
Of course it was fitting for my notoriously laughable ladderphobia that Pilchuck in fact, required me to climb a small ladder to call my fire lookout journey complete. Unfortunately the rungs of the ladder spin around, so my friends were there to poke fun and laugh while I awkwardly drug myself up that ridiculous ladder. I still laugh at Nick joking “that’s one small step for woman….” Oh ladders. But I made it!
Once on top, we popped some champagne, took some hurried photos, and reveled at the sunset. I had in mind this awesome afternoon/evening spent at Pilchuck, relaxing, taking tons of photos, and enjoying the accomplishment. Instead, with our ridiculously delayed departure and storm system inbound, we enjoyed all of about 20 minutes on the summit before heading down in the dark by headlamp. It was still a wonderful visit but the most anti-climactic celebration ever and the reason I have very few good photos of Pilchuck! It was pretty cool though to have it all to ourselves and enjoy hiking down in the dark with the twinkle of the city lights in the distance.
We got back to Seattle around 2am, just in time for a post-hike Wendy’s drive-thru feast. Haha! A memory for the books, that’s for sure. I’m still in disbelief that my old Jeep made it to so many places in Washington, including every darn standing lookout but the last one. I sold her to a friend a few years ago so a return to Pilchuck is definitely in the cards, maybe this time at a far more reasonable hour.
Heading up to my last fire lookout with my dad and friends Nick and Ian.Busting butt to get up by sunset.My dad climbing up the rocky route. He’s 72 and made it as fast as we did!My dad with Three Fingers in the background.Ian just below the summit.My last challenge to reach my last standing fire lookout.Oh ladders, how I despise you so!Hauling myself up the ladder!Success!!! A toast to visiting and photographing all of Washington’s still standing fire lookouts!Celebrating with my dad made it even more special!My dad and I.With friends Nick and Ian.Enjoying a beautiful sunset.Mount Baker at sunset.The beautiful city lights far below.Heading down in the dark, ecstatic to have completed this incredible journey!
From the Verlot Visitor Center on the Mountain Loop Highway, continue approximately one mile, cross a bridge, then take a right onto Mount Pilchuck Road (FR 42). Follow the road 6.8 miles to a parking area. The road is often rough and washboarded and GPS is unreliable in this area, so bring a paper map just in case. The road is gated in winter.