Hiking in Oregon Part II: Backpacking In Washington
Last month I wrote about some great little day hikes in the greater Portland metro area. These were hikes within an hour drive or so of the city and required less than 7 miles of hiking round trip. If you ever find yourself in Oregon (or Washington, I suppose) for more than a couple of days and are a serious outdoor enthusiast, I highly recommend taking a backpacking trip to the Goat Rocks Wilderness Area in the State of Washington. Its a longer drive, is more of a workout, and takes more time and commitment, but the rewards are worth every bit of extra effort. I took a 3 day backpacking trip to this area just a few weeks ago and am still in awe of the incredible scenery and pristine landscapes seen there. Theres also something to be said about sleeping under a brilliant canopy of stars, high in the mountains, miles from any real civilization.
The trail head is in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in between Mt Adams and Mt Rainier in the Cascade Mountain range. Its about a 3 hour drive from Portland to the trail head. Drive north on I-5 for about 60 miles, take Route 12 east for another 60 miles or so until you get close to Packwood, WA. Theres a turn off onto a forest road within a few miles of the town of Packwood, and then drive 10 or 20 miles on curvy gravel roads to get to the trailhead of the Goat Ridge Loop Trail. The trailhead is the start of a few different trails and it also has a pit toilet that was remarkably clean. You need a NW Forest Park Pass to park here which can be acquired at the local grocery store in the town of Packwood for a fee of 30.00 for the annual pass of 5.00 for the day pass.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 3:00pm on a Sunday afternoon. My pack weighed about 40 lbs and was loaded with the usual amenities of clothes, food, first-aid kit, maps, and the like. We brought mostly dry food as I do not have a camp stove and brought one of those self heating meals as our only hot meal just to try them out. We arrived at the trail head later in the day, but that was intentional. We hoped that by arriving late in the day on Sunday, the area wouldnt be too crowded and we would be able to find an optimal camping spot near Goat Lake. We ate a quick lunch at the picnic table at the trail head, then loaded our packs on our backs and started the 6.5 mile walk (with 1900 ft elevation gain) into our campsite destination of Goat Lake.
The trail starts in the dense forest and works itself slowly up the side of Goat Ridge. As we hit the trail we started to hear some rumbling, so it sounded like the forecast of possible isolated thunderstorms was proving to be accurate. The trail ascends fairly steeply here, so didnt mind a bit when the first of many cool and refreshing raindrops fell on our heads. The trail goes by a swampy area and it was here that I was viciously mauled by packs of enraged mosquitoes. As I was being beset on all sides by the winged beasts, I scrambled for my mosquito repellant and quickly applied copious quantities of the lethal solution to all exposed skin areas. After the application, I was fine. If I had not had the repellant, however, I would have been one large, itchy, engorged, mosquito bump. Bottom line: bring insect repellant!
After the mosquito assault about 2 miles into the trail, it starts to ascend even more steeply. This was the toughest section of the hike and the large pack made it that much tougher. Just as the sweat was dripping down my face and I felt like I couldnt take any more punishment, the trail started to get a little bit more level and finally crested into a high alpine meadow known as the Jordan Basin. This was a nice level spot with beautiful wildflowers and pristine mountain views. We decided it was a perfect place to stop, relax, and have a snack. Its funny how you lurch forward when taking a 40 lb pack off your back after wearing it for 4 miles of uphill walking. Imagine someone holding back a guy who is trying to fight with someone else, and then just releasing him. Thats how it felt when the pack was removed and I lunged forward until I recovered my balance. We enjoyed a snack and the time without the heavy packs on our backs. But the sun was getting lower in the sky and our goal was to get to Goat Lake, which was still 2.5 miles away. We begrudgingly heaved the large packs onto our backs again and continued bravely up the trail.
From here on out the views should be great all the way up to the 6400 ft elevation of Goat Lake. And they were pretty good for us most of the way. But as the sun got lower and the evening darker, a thick mist rolled into the valley. The trail is basically a big loop around the horseshoe shaped ridge known as Goat Rocks. Goat Rocks used to be a 12,000 ft volcano that has been extinct now for two million years. It has since eroded and has left only the jagged rocks that peak at about 8000 ft elevation. The trail skirts the ridge line of what used to be this massive volcano, and Goat Lake is located where the caldera of the volcano once stood. After getting to Jordan Basin, the slog through the woods is over and you are out in the alpine meadows. The trail becomes a bit precarious with steep drops to the left at this point. As the mists rolled in, it got darker and spookier as we were no longer able to see across to the other side of the ridge. We pressed on through the murkiness and finally made it to our destination of Goat Lake. By this time, we were exhausted. We looked at the lake for a few minutes in a daze, then decided that with darkness quickly descending and a surprisingly chilly wind rolling off the high cliffs behind the lake, it was best to set up camp as soon as possible.
There were a few campsites scattered just above and below the lake. Having walked 6.5 miles already, we opted for the campsites below the lake and quickly scuttled down the trail to the lower of the two rugged campsites. These were not campsites in the conventional sense, but merely a section of level land where it looked like it would be a comfortable place to pitch a tent. We chose a level section just behind a grove of trees and near some low rocks. The rocks helped to shield us from the wind that was now blowing hard through the high alpine passes. Due to the mist, it was difficult to see where we had camped, exactly. To fight off the coldness and fatigue, we decided to consume our hot meals. They were great! You just pull a tab, let the box of food sit for 15 minutes, then open, stir, and eat. It tasted a little like Chef Boyardee, but after the strenuous hike and considering how chilly it was getting, a hot meal with no preparation really hit the spot. Ah, the miracles of modern science!
We woke the next day and were pleasantly surprised with the view from just outside the tent:
It was a remarkable view of Mt Rainier looming high above the clouds. We were above the clouds, too, which was a pretty cool feeling. To the left and right of this picture are the high ridge lines that make up the loop of Goat Ridge. We woke up slowly and were surprised by the lack of soreness. We were in better shape than we thought! As we walked up to the lake to get some drinking water (we brought a special filtering mechanism along to pump lake or river water through to sterilize it for our drinking pleasure), we turned around and were pretty awestruck by the site of our campsite (our little tent is in the middle there):
After obtaining some drinking water for the day, we chilled by our campsite, took in the view, and relaxed. The Gator-Aid mix was key and I enjoyed some refreshing orange flavored goodness. We ate granola, fruit, and jerky. We took some naps in the tent, laid around some more in the sun, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Eventually, we decided that it was time to go for a day hike. We peered up towards the lake and decided to see if we could get up to the high cliffs above the lake. The views from up there must be truly astounding! We headed up towards the lake and then worked our way past it and continued around the trail high on the ridge. As we walked higher and higher, we heard more rumbling. We turned around to see that the ridge line near the lake and our campsite was now littered with puffy, threatening clouds. We didnt want to be caught up on the highest ridge in a driving rain or hail storm, so we had to weigh our options and decide if we should continue on:
After careful deliberation, we decided that being caught that high up on the ridge in a fierce storm while trying to descend a steep muddy trail would not be fun. Downright sketchy, in fact! We played it safe and came back down the trail. Of course, as we got lower the clouds seemed to get less threatening, but we had made our decision and decided to stick with it. We soon found ourselves almost back down to the lake chilling out on some large rocks, enjoying the view and the sunshine:
After basking in the sunshine just above this pristine alpine lake for quite some time, we looked over towards where the menacing storm clouds had been. They were still there, but a little less and seemed content to stay on the opposite side of the ridge. A random backpacker walked by and we asked him what he thought the weather might do. He said that at this elevation, the weather can decide to do pretty much whatever it wants to do at anytime. But he agreed that the bad weather appeared to be staying on the other side of the ridge. So we mustered up our courage and retraced our steps back to the point where we had turned around on our last attempt to get to the high point of the ridge behind the lake.
It was a pretty steep hike up the side of the ridge and sections of it were loose, dusty, and rocky. We hit plateaus that were covered with snow and mud and continued hiking on through. There were several plateaus followed by steep sections of trail. We spied large craggy cliffs and swirling clouds rolling around off the other side of the high cliffs. It was a pretty surreal, other-worldly environment. We finally crested the highpoint and were awestruck once again by the magnificent views. We had brought lunch along with us in our day-hiking backpack, and decided this would be the perfect place to stop for some much needed sustenance. We enjoyed a very lovely view from our lunch spot:
After lunch we descended back towards the lake and our campsite. We decided to chill out some more on our stone perch just above the lake and take in that view awhile longer. Eventually we made it back to our campsite where we fell asleep at an unknown time. It was cool not knowing what time it was and knowing it didnt really matter. We had no watches or clocks and cell phones were useless. After reading a bit and lying in the tent, we fell asleep. I have no idea what time it was when we woke up, but it was dark, cold, and windy again. We lit our candle lantern and enjoyed some food. Unfortunately, dinner was made up of yet another almond butter and honey sandwich, granola, nuts, trail mix, jerky, etc. I was already getting tired of such rudimentary fare, but it sure did pack easy and was relatively lightweight food to pack in.
The next day we woke up early and packed up our campsite after another quick breakfast of granola bars and the like. Yuck! We then stopped by our drinking water source, Goat Lake, and pumped a few more liters of water through our filter for our 6.5 mile hike down and out on the opposite ridge of the loop trail. We were struck again by the beautiful views of the steep ridge as we headed out:
We spied some deer in the woods and also marmots lying on some rocks on our way out (but no goats!). Im pretty sure we saw a bear cub footprint in the muddy trail just below the tree line, too. And there was a point where the mosquitoes viciously attacked me again, but luckily my repellant was close at hand. It took a long time and we were getting pretty weary, but we eventually got down to the trailhead and car. Thats when the pit toilet at the trail head came in handy. Very handy. After a pit stop in the pit toilet, we were on our way back to civilization. We made a short stop at a little restaurant in Packwood to eat nachos and burgers (which really hit the spot after eating like a squirrel for 3 days), then headed home to rest, shower, and prepare for work the following day. The experience was incredible in every way and I cant recommend this backpacking trip strongly enough. The only thing I like as much as live music is the awesome power of nature, and the Goat Ridge Loop offers scenery that is beyond all expectations (and some darn good exercise, taboot!).