Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hiking Mount Pilchuck: A Mountain of Firsts

It all started on a cool, misty summer day when I was just nine years old. That day ever-cheerful camp counselor Marge led a group of girls from Hidden Valley Camp up Mount Pilchuck. Thus began my lifelong love of the mountains, hiking, and the verdant evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

We began ascending through dense forest, then up a subalpine rocky trail, and finally scrambled over a pile of huge slate boulders to a weathered old fire lookout enshrouded in clouds on the summit. 
We couldn’t see much past the big windows of the lookout, where we huddled inside eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But I was hooked. What was out there to see beyond the whiteout surrounding us? I wanted to come back.

Historic Mt. Pilchuck Fire Lookout
Since then I’ve hiked up many peaks and along miles of trails throughout the Cascade Mountains and in far-flung places like New Zealand, Bhutan, and the Italian Alps. But Mount Pilchuck was my first. And what girl can forget her first?

Recently I had the pleasure of taking fellow blogger Tea of Tea & Cookies on her first hike in the Cascades to—you guessed it—Mount Pilchuck. I figured she might as well walk through a beautiful forest, enjoy dramatic subalpine scenery, and get spectacular panoramic views on this hike not much more than an hour from Seattle.

Tea has spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking in California’s Trinity Alps and Sierra Nevada Mountains, but is a relative newcomer to Seattle. Like a good outdoorswomen, she was well-prepared when I picked her up, even bringing sweet little homemade scones and a small jar of her peach-blackberry jam to share with me.

I, on the other hand, was not so prepared. As we neared the turnoff onto the access road from the Mountain Loop Highway east of Everett, it hit me.  Another first—I forgot to bring my hiking boots!

The middle portion of the Pilchuck trail is extremely rocky. At some points along the trail you have to look for yellow arrows spray-painted on the rocks to stay on course. Regardless, there I was, in Mary Jane-style Keens with my twisty ankles, so I tightened up the straps and headed on up.

While the first part of the trail travels through lush forest, about a half mile on the trail skirts the edge of a massive clearcut that wasn’t there when I first scaled Pilchuck. Then we emerged onto the rocky upper slopes of this westernmost Cascade peak, occasionally passing remnant cables from the ski area that operated here in the 1960s and '70s.

Unlike many heavily forested western Cascade peaks, Mount Pilchuck is lashed with steep cliffs that drop precipitously from the summit and upper ridge. Every few years some unfortunate soul ventures off trail too close to a cliff edge and perishes, but not the guy pictured below, thank goodness.

We scooted up the trail, angling along the moderate western and southern upper slopes to the final boulder field, where it’s hand over foot to the ladder at the base of the lookout and then to the top. And time for jam and scones, which were delicious. (Thanks Tea!)

I never tire of climbing Pilchuck, regardless of whether it’s clear or cloudy. When the sun shines, the world drops away at your feet, with views stretching across Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains, south to Mount Rainier, and a host of lesser Cascade volcanoes and peaks. When it’s cloudy, it’s still a beautiful landscape to pass through, rich with lovely native flora like alpine heather (P. emepretriformis), and a good thigh-burning workout.

Not bad for a first, huh?

How about you? Do you remember your first hike or outdoors experience, and how did it affect you? Join in the conversation by leaving a Comment below. 

When You Go
Here’s a map showing Mount Pilchuck, which is about 12 miles from Granite Falls and less than a mile or so past the Verlot Visitor Center on the Mountain Loop Highway. After several miles driving up a dirt road to the trailhead at 3,100 feet, it’s 6 miles round trip to the 5,341-foot-high summit. If possible, avoid sunny weekend days because of the crowds you’ll encounter. You do need a Discover Pass for parking here. And don't forget your hiking boots!


Jenifer said...

First hike: to the top of Mt. Misery in Connecticut's Pachaug State Forest. Distance 1.2 miles each way; elevation gain a staggering 140 feet. My Girl Scout troop camped in the forest the night before the hike, and as a neophyte camper I brought a dinner of frozen pizza, which I ate partially burned and partially thawed. Thus fortified, I huffed and puffed my way to the top the next morning. It's a miracle I'm still hiking!

Anne said...

My first hike? It must have been when I was a Brownie, somewhere in the Washington Cascades or foothills.
I just remember being out in the woods a lot during my childhood. I didn't care if we were going uphill or along a stream or small river, I just lived the fresh smell.

jill said...

Jenifer, frozen pizza, I love it! Never tried that camping before.

Anne, yes, the smell of the forest is so refreshing!

Ingunn said...

My first hike (as an adult) was to Shi Shi Beach for camping...I was dressed in strappy city shoes and soggy cotton, but I loved it.

My first peak, if you can call it that, came a few weeks later on Noble Knob, which to this day is my favorite hike because of sentimental reasons. That's where I fell in love with hiking and where we later said goodbye to our beloved pup Bobby.

Dave Wenning said...

Great post. My first was Mystic Lake on Mount Rainier, 1968. It's part of the Wonderland Trail. Beautiful campsite, abundant wildlife some snowfields in July and the trail runs just yards from the Carbon Glacier.

Anonymous said...

I hiked Mt. Pilchuck with a camp counselor too! Bummer about forgetting your boots, but way to stick it out. Looks like you had much better weather than last time.

jill said...

Ingunn, Ha, glad you had a wonderful time at Shi Shi regardless. I did that in college for a geology field trip - one of the wettest weekends camping of my life! Cool blog BTW.
And sorry for the loss of your beloved pop, but they bless us for however long we have with them.

Dave,I'll have to check out that lake,although I wonder if the glacier has receded since then? I've only done bits of the Wonderland Trail.

Kim, funny about the camp counselor thing. I recall not seeing any other hikers on the trail that day, which would NOT happeny these days regardless of the day of the week.

jill said...

Ingunn - make that PUP, not pop :)

Patricia Lichen said...

Wow, how interesting that so many women have mentioned Girl Scouts--that's how I accomplished my first hikes as well--and have since led a troop in similar adventures. When I was a kid, there was a way to earn a wooden hiking staff for a certain number of hikes in a year (I think this must have been through the state park system) and then after that you'd earn little metal "shields" with tiny nails to hammer onto them. Each year's was a different color, and of course the really cool hikers had staffs with lots of shields running down their lengths. Wow, Jill, I haven't thought of those staffs in many years! Wish I still had mine!

jill said...

Glad I triggered a fond memory. Scouts are good for getting kids out - although my camp was a co-ed, liberal, folky place that is still going today. I'm overdue for a haiku Friday, too!

Anonymous said...

My first hike--- I was 9 years old. Hiked along the Sunnyside horse trail (before it was a hike) to the old Hough Ranch on top of Sun Mountain, in Methow Valley, just before the lodge was built. I also found my first rattle snake on that trip. -MaryAnn

Heather Frederick said...

Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire with my dad, when I was nine! Still one of my faves. Love your blog!

jill said...

Thanks Heather Frederick, two years late!