Up until yesterday, Mt. Pilchuck Lookout was on my hiking bucket list. As of last night, it’s checked off. We completed the tromp up to the top of Pilchuck late in the day and in doing so discovered that the sunset from the summit is unreal.
From Mt. Pilchuck Lookout you can see Mt. Rainier, Seattle, Everett, the Olympic Range, the San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker and the North Cascades. Mix in a deep orange sunset and some strawberry cotton candy clouds and you have a landscape photographers dream.
Below are my notes and lessons learned from our trip including how to get there, setup considerations, and getting back safely.
Getting to the trail head from Everett and the Seattle area is easy. Follow the link here for driving directions to the trailhead: WA Trails Association Link – Mt. Pilchuck Lookout Trailhead Directions.
We mapped the trail using Gaia GPS, click the link below to download the route:
A couple of things to consider in terms of timing: The road near the top has some significant washboard effect going on. On the drive up, there are some spots where you are going to need to go slow or sacrifice your suspension. To avoid having to sprint to the top you want to determine the time of sunset and plan appropriately. Make sure that you take the rough road and elevation gain on the trail into consideration so that you don’t miss it.
Mt. Pilchuck Lookout Sunset Photoshoot Setup
I was surprised at how many people were at the top to watch the sunset. I wouldn’t call it a circus, but there was a lot going on. A peakbagging summit first for me: five photographers were shooting a barefoot model in a white dress with Mt. Baker and the North Cascades in the background. I think that they may have been shooting a wedding catalog and it added to the surreal sunset festivities. I guess the lesson learned here is that if the weather is good it is probably going to be busy at the top. Time your arrival 1- 2 hours before sunset to give yourself time to find the perfect spot.
Although we own a DSLR camera, I typically just carry my iPhone when I hike. Yesterday was no different and I was happy with the photos that we were able to capture. That said, if you own some nice camera gear and know how to use it this is one of those occasions when you want to consider carrying the extra weight. The light at the Mt. Pilchuck Lookout is intense at sunset you want to use the best gear that you have to capture it.
Time Lapse Video
Since our trip to Maui, I have been trying to figure out how to shoot good time lapse sunset videos using the iPhone. The biggest problem that I had was finding a stable, flat spot. A lesson learned from that trip? Get a tripod so that you don’t have to use a beer bottle.
For this trip, I used a Targus pocket tripod with a Joby Grip Tight iPhone clamp. I also used an external power source to ensure that I didn’t run out of batteries mid-way through. I’m really happy with this rig and if I keep using my iPhone to shoot time lapse videos I’ll stick with it.
To shoot the time lapse sunset, I set up on the West side of the lookout. If I do this again, I will definitely set up on the East side and try to position the lookout between my camera and the sunset. The light that comes through the lookout windows is amazing and the window frames cast some very interesting shadows. When I setup (about 45 minutes before sunset) I thought that the focal point would be the sun, the Puget Sound and the Olympic range. In retrospect, the lookout with the sun and Sound in the background would have made a better shot.
In any case, here is the video:
Mt. Pilchuck Lookout Safety Considerations
To do this project safely, you need to consider the trip up, your time at the top, and the logistics of getting down.
Getting to the Top of Mt. Pilchuck Safely
We did this trip in September and the weather was perfect. It is easy to forget that Mt. Pilchuck has seen its fair share of accidents and fatalities. Fair weather hiking is great but don’t forget that things can turn and it is up to the hiker to be prepared. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
The trail to the top about 3 miles with 2500 feet of elevation gain on what I would consider class 2 terrain. It’s a rough and rocky trail. Bring water, food, clothing, a first aid kit and all of the other essentials.
When you get to the top and you are focused on taking photos, don’t forget that the rocks and cliffs will be unforgiving of a bad foot placement or loss of balance at the wrong time. Pay attention to your surroundings and sudden drop offs.
Getting Back Safely
Getting back to the trail-head is the most difficult part of this project. There were several photographers at the top that chose to camp out rather than take the trail in the dark. We took the trail.
If you decide to hike down at night, there are two things that you are going need: a headlamp and trekking poles. Use the light to spot the roots and rocks. Use the trekking poles for balance and to save your knees. The trail to Mt. Pilchuck Lookout is a rocky, bumpy trek and if you do it at night prepare for a million trip hazards.
So that is a synopsis of our Sunset on Pilchuck project. Getting to the top was the easiest part. If you put this on your bucket list remember that you have that “golden hour” before the sun sets and you want to have time to set up. The last and most important part is the decent, so be sure to put some thought into the logistics of getting back safely.
On a final note, the photo below is my favorite of all of the ones that we took. In the upper right of this shot my daughters headlamp is illuminating the lookout. In the lower left you can see Everett and the last remnants of the sunset. I snapped this shot just as we began our hike out.
One final favor to ask before signing off: This was a fun project that we will do again. If you do it too, please drop a link to your photos, videos and any lessons that you learned along the way.