Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees…
Report: Goat Rocks Wilderness Area: Snowgrass Flats, Lily Basin Trail, Goat Ridge Trail
First of all, realize that this backpacking trip’s trailhead is south of Mount Rainier, and we live quite some distance north of it—usually we see Mt. Rainier as a faint, majestic blur to the south and comment, “Oh, the mountain’s out,” in passing. But Dad and I started yesterday at 7:00 driving south on I-405, then to some other major road, then along Highway 7 and connecting to Highway 12. This sounds easier than it was, however, because we took no fewer than three wrong turns along the way. Dad and I estimate this added about 40 minutes to our “down there” trip, which considering the total trip took about five hours isn’t actually that significant.
We planned on making this a two-night, three-day hike in which we walked around this glacier valley: up one side of the ridge, to Goat Lake smack in the middle-top of the ridge, and down the other side. It’s somewhat U-shaped so that from our campsite last night we could see where we would be hiking the next day on the other side of the valley. Yesterday we hiked about four miles, gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation (most of it in one short, steep stretch). Though we heard rumors of snow—we started at 4,800 feet in elevation and planned to climb to about 6,600 maximum—our trail was blessedly dry. Dry unto dust, as we quickly discovered, and dust sticks phenomenally well to sweaty, bug-repellant-slathered skin. Thus I gained my “dirt tan” early on in the hike. We took our time, taking a long break next to a gorgeous creek with a nice wood bridge spanning it; we admired the difference in ecosystems between subalpine and alpine areas (most of our backpacking thus far has been distinctly subalpine); we examined the numerous wildflowers in bloom, of which I only recognized lupines and Indian paintbrushes. There were lots of white flowers in different shapes, as well, and some of what I started to think of as dust-mop-heads, whose flowers are fuzzy dust-mop shaped balls balanced atop a long fleshy stalk. We quickly moved from heavily forested areas into alpine forests, which tend to sport tiny, stunted trees spaced far apart, meadows of various grasses and flowering plants, and lots of open space (read: very little shade).
When Mt. St. Helens erupted 25 years ago, Snowgrass Flats received a noticeable ashfall. Once we reached Snowgrass Flats, the gray, powdery sand-like dust was heavily in evidence in the spaces between plants; last night we actually slept on Mt. St. Helens ash. In fact, the ash became quite a part of our afternoon/evening as we set up the tent and it got into clasps and on the dog—who thoroughly enjoyed cavorting in it, and whose footsteps on the ground drummed quite loudly—but ended up providing one of the smoothest, lowest-rock-density backpacking nights I’ve ever enjoyed. We set up camp, after much hemming and hawing, as well as a brief scouting trip up a steep grade, at a camp site that provided stunning views of both Mt. Adams to the south and our next day’s trail across the valley, as well as a ridge that ran along behind us. As the sun set and rose we gawked at each of these three spectacles, each one as beautiful as the last. After a dinner of possibly the worst freeze-dried chicken and “rice” (which also included barley, wheat, and soy) we went to pump fresh water from a creek nearby and startled a doe and her fawn that were grazing in a field dotted with wildflowers and stunted alpine firs.
That first hike, though strenuous at times, mainly meandered through fields of wildflowers and alpine forests; we had plenty of shade, as well as lots of company, as many people were hiking out from Snowgrass Flats yesterday.
Today, we woke up with the sun at 6:00, watched the sun rise on Mt. Adams and the hills, then ate breakfast and broke camp. The trail called, we wanted to see Goat Lake, and what else was there to do besides hike? So by 7:30 we were off, through increasingly beautiful fields of flowers (mainly lupines, though lots of stalky white flowers tended to be in evidence as well; I’m not botanist, so who knows), sometimes containing meres into which Carmel immediately jumped. Keeping her out of water in general proved impossible, though we loaded her doggie-backpack down with our garbage and her own water and food; she loved too much to dash into creeks to greedily gulp water. Our trail wound along the side of the ridge, an unprotected hike whose lack of trees was made up for by both the earliness of the hour and the fantastic views of the glacial valley framing Mt. Adams in early-morning light. We were up very high, you must recall, with no trees whatsoever: just our narrow, single-person-wide trail cutting across the ridge slope. We saw elk grazing on the ridges as well as marmots whistling in rock falls and passed within spitting distance of a tiny glacier. When we reached Goat Lake at 9:30 we found it still sporting a snowy covering in part of it, as well as having patches of snow still clinging to its barren, rocky sides. Though the lake and its sides are barren, however, there was a beautiful river flowing from it as well as several amazing camp sites (which were taken) that offered views of the river’s waterfall as it flowed down the ridge as well as the valley and Mt. Adams. It was stunning.
After Goat Lake, things started going downhill—literally, as we soon reached our highest elevation after that at a saddle in the mountain and crossed over the ridge to the other side. Sadly, this offered less fantastic views (no Mt. Rainier for quite some time, though Mt. St. Helens was in evidence) and much less running water. We passed down quickly, losing elevation through more wildflower fields, then into alpine forests of trees not much taller than ourselves, then into bigger evergreens. Keeping a weather eye out for camp sites, we were much disappointed to find that what camp sites we did find offered no water sources whatsoever. Dad and I kept telling each other, “OK, here’s a site, now let’s just go on and see what we see.” What we saw, in the end, was our trailhead: though we planned to stay another night, the other side of the ridge was much less picturesque than the one we’d enjoyed the day before and earlier in the morning. Thus we ended up hiking the nine miles out all in one day rather than in two as planned, arriving back at the car by 2:00, and made our drive home through rush-hour traffic.
Home at 6:00. Dad and I now can boast our longest in length backpacking trip, a 13-mile long trip around the Goat Ridge, as well as the largest collecting of wild animals we’ve ever seen. All in all a wonderful trip, sadly shortened by lack of camp sites and water, but a picturesque farewell to Washington State. Next up: Worcester on Monday.
– KF –