Carolanne Warren directs her mother, driving a Toyota Prius on rut-riddled Mount Pilchuck Road on Sept. 7. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Carolanne Warren directs her mother, driving a Toyota Prius on rut-riddled Mount Pilchuck Road on Sept. 7. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

To get to iconic Pilchuck lookout, hikers must brave ‘hell on wheels’

Mount Pilchuck is one of the most beloved hikes in the region. The 7-mile pothole-riddled road to get there? Not so much.

GRANITE FALLS — To get to the trailheads for two of the most beloved hikes in Snohomish County, make sure your car’s bumper is secure and your tires have enough tread.

U.S. Forest Service Road 42 leads to the Heather Lake (at 1.4 miles) and Mount Pilchuck trailheads (at 6.9 miles). For many years, the muddy gravel road off Mountain Loop Highway has been notorious for its poor conditions. Deep potholes and loose ground have historically made the road impassible for drivers who either lack a high-clearance vehicle or the will to risk damaging their cars by bottoming out.

When hikers mention Pilchuck, what is perhaps Snohomish County’s most iconic hike, Forest Service ranger Justin Sundstrom always asks what type of vehicle they plan to take.

“We get a lot of complaints on this road,” Sundstrom said.

A recent survey estimated the Heather Lake trail sees 30,000 visitors each year. It’s a relatively flat walk, 2.3 miles each way. The steeper Mount Pilchuck trail is estimated to see more than 10,000 visitors annually. It’s 2.2 miles to the summit, gaining about 1,000 feet with each mile.

In local hiking circles, the forest road is a frequent topic of scorn: “hell on wheels,” as one Facebook comment put it last summer.

Keeping up with road maintenance in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest keeps rangers busy. A lot of funding for road repairs comes from grants and federal funding, ranger Colton Whitworth said. That cash can be spread pretty thin.

“The amount of money that’s needed to maintain these Forest Service roads is steeper than many other areas in the nation,” Whitworth said. “Just the amount of rain that we get in this area.”

Road 42 is on rangers’ radar, and there will be funding to repair it eventually.

“It’s just a matter of time at this point,” Whitworth said, adding that wildfire response has taken priority the past month.

On a hazy September morning, it took a Daily Herald reporter about 45 minutes to make it to the end of the road in a 2013 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition. She bottomed out a few times, but made it to the top with her car’s bumper mostly intact, though her patience was thin.

Bastiam Smith had just parked at the Mount Pilchuck trailhead and was preparing to hike up the mountain. The Everett resident said he had driven the road and hiked the mountain at least 20 times in his life. Smith had seen the road in worse condition in the past and gotten his car stuck on it, he said, adding “it’s been like this for a long time.”

The views on the hike are worth navigating the rough road, he said.

“I like how you go through the wildflowers, then the boulders,” he said. “And of course the fire lookout. I love how you get all the different views, going through the woods first.”

There will be money to pay for repairing Mount Pilchuck Road — eventually, say U.S. Forest Service rangers. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

There will be money to pay for repairing Mount Pilchuck Road — eventually, say U.S. Forest Service rangers. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘Exposed to the elements’

As the sun rose one summer morning, a thick haze of wildfire smoke obscured what would have been a panoramic view from the summit of Mount Pilchuck. In the name of journalism, a Herald reporter hiked up the mountain when she heard crews would be renovating the restored fire lookout on top.

The sound of helicopter blades slicing the air echoed through a valley below. A white Huey chopper emerged from the smog. Dozens of feet below, hung from a rope, heavy white boards swung from a rope.

“There’s our shutters,” said Washington State Parks ranger Kevin Lease with a smile as he stood on the catwalk of the Pilchuck fire lookout.

Lease was among a group of workers who hiked up the mountain to replace the 14-foot-long wooden shutters on the cabin in the sky. It would be a tall order to haul the shutters up the mountain, scrambling up steep trails and through a boulder field. Thankfully, the Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team offered their services.

“Every year, we’re doing a lot of exterior panting and looking for structural damage,” he said. “It takes a beating. It needs more maintenance than the typical building at a lower level — being exposed to the elements, temperatures and wind.”

The original fire lookout on the summit was built and first staffed in 1921 by the Forest Service — well before the age of helicopters. It was remodeled in 1938.

Forest Service employees scanned valleys below for signs of smoke until the 1960s.

From 1957 to 1979, Mount Pilchuck was home to a ski resort. Some longtime locals remember looking up and seeing the lights from the old resort twinkling on the mountain, Lease said.

A lack of consistent snow led to the closure of the ski resort. Though some remnants of the lift remain along the trail, all buildings associated with the resort were removed in the early 1980s.

Around that time, Scott Chalfant was assigned as a park ranger at Mount Pilchuck State Park.

One of his fondest memories, he wrote, was hiking the trail up the mountains while the ski lift towers were being removed.

“The whole process was done with a large military style helicopter,” he wrote. “Welders used cutting torches at the base of each ski lift tower, and they would cut them in coordination with the helicopter, to chopper them off the mountain … the process was fascinating, though a little bit sad.”

Chalfant was a ranger at the park until 1981. He drove a Polaris snowmobile to make it up the road to the trail in the winter. A big part of his job was keeping watch of the resort buildings to make sure they were free of vandalism before they were removed.

In 1989, volunteers from Everett’s chapter of The Mountaineers restored the cabin in the sky. After thousands of hours, the structure was restored as an L-4 style cabin.

Taken in 1921, this photo of the original Pilchuck fire lookout is displayed inside the restored structure. (Photo provided)

Taken in 1921, this photo of the original Pilchuck fire lookout is displayed inside the restored structure. (Photo provided)

A story written by former Herald writer Mark Funk about the restoration ran in an October 1989 edition of the newspaper:

“From a mile in the sky,” the story begins, “the October fog that hunkered down in the Stillaguamish and Skykomish river valleys this weekend looked like an inland sea.

Above it all Saturday were a band of men and women who worked and dreamed in the brilliant autumn sun. After several hours of labor in the rarefied air 5,324 feet above sea level, they paused to admire their handiwork.

‘I think we saved the poor old thing,’ said Don Foley, an Everett Mountaineers member who estimates he has reached the top of Mount Pilchuck at least 20 times.”

Thirteen lookouts remain of more than 80 that once stood in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. And of the 656 lookouts constructed in Washington state over the years, less than 100 still exist. Many historic photos and sites can be found on willhiteweb.com, the personal website of an avid mountaineer from Washington.

As far as payoff for effort, Pilchuck is one of the best bargains in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Workers move a window shutter on the mountain summit below the Pilchuck fire lookout on Sept. 9. (Ellen Dennis / The Herald)

Workers move a window shutter on the mountain summit below the Pilchuck fire lookout on Sept. 9. (Ellen Dennis / The Herald)

Sometime, bring a headlamp and get to the summit at sunrise. Look east, and the silhouette of Glacier Peak carves its way into a glowing cotton candy horizon. To the north, Mount Baker towers at 10,781 feet of elevation. If you turn around, you’ll see Mount Rainier to the south. And to the west, island cutouts weave through Puget Sound.

A mural inside the lookout gives a panoramic diagram of that jagged skyline, if you want to double-check what mountain you’re looking at.

“Mount Pilchuck is such an iconic mountain for our region,” park ranger Lease said. “Anywhere you go in the county, if you look up on a clear day, you’ll see it. It’s certainly not the highest, but most people know it. I encourage anyone who’s able to hike up to it to do so in their lifetime. Getting up to a lookout is spectacular, and this one is really special.”

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; ellen.dennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

Mount Pilchuck trail

Round-trip distance: 5.4 miles

Elevation gain: 2,300 feet

Highest point: 5,327 feet

Parking fee: Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day pass fee.

Dogs allowed: Yes, if kept on-leash.

Getting there

From Everett, take U.S. 2 east, following signs toward Lake Stevens, Granite Falls and Mountain Loop Highway. One mile beyond the Verlot Public Service Center, turn right onto gravel Forest Road 42 immediately after crossing the “Blue Bridge.” Drive 7 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road.

Be aware the parking lot often fills up, so get there early if you can.

Caution: Snow stays on the northern exposures until summer. Some areas are dangerous to those without proper equipment and training.

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