A wave of moisture flows in from the Pacific Ocean, falling as rain on the coast, snow in the mountains. It must be October! Time to stow hiking boots, wax skis, reflect on favorite summer adventures and dream of next year’s trails!
It’s rumored to rain constantly in the Pacific Northwest; a myth perpetuated by residents in an attempt to keep crowds away. Unfortunately, that myth was confirmed this summer, with shifting weather patterns delivering a generous dose of gloom that obscured the mountains. When the gray lid of cloud finally snapped open to reveal the peaks, our backpacks were packed for an overnight trip to Goat Lake, and 13 miles of magnificence.
Edward Abbey wrote, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome and dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
If this is the standard by which hikes are measured, then Goat Rocks Wilderness, nestled between three of the iconic Cascade volcanoes, Mt Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt St. Helens, more than delivers.
Crooked and Winding
The trail to Goat Lake starts at Berry Patch trailhead, elevation 4600 feet, and winds along the gentle gradient of Goat Creek through a forested wetland.
At 2 miles the trail becomes less winding and more crooked switchback as we leave the valley floor to climb the steep ridge leading to the wildflower meadow of Snowgrass Flat at 6000 feet.
Old Snowy Mountain rises above us, the ridge line of Goat Rocks and Goat Ridge stretching out on either side. There are some trail choices to be made at this point. With glorious views and alpine flowers many hikers camp here or make it their turnaround spot for a day hike. A second option at this juncture is to climb up the ridge line to the Pacific Crest Trail and the 2,659 miles of extended backpacking choices it provides. Today we’re opting for a modest overnight backpack, so we cross Snowgrass Flat and continue 2 miles to Goat Lake.
All of which leads me to the “lonesome” part of the trip, the only measure of this incredible hike that is up for debate. A flyer at the trailhead self check-in booth cautions hikers of the trail’s popularity. If you’re in search of lonesome then this trail doesn’t qualify, although solitude can be found midweek and off season weekends.
The fact that so many of us are getting outdoors is heartening, but the love is taking its toll on the environment. Well-worn, human-created trails meander through the wildflower meadows and lead to the edge of the Flat in search of the perfect site with a view. Tent size patches of wild flowers lie flattened next to the stream.
The plants that grow in the mountainous regions are perfectly adapted to harsh conditions and short growing season. Yet life is tough here and their fragility is underscored by the damage inflicted with hiking boots and thoughtless pitching of tents. In an effort to preserve the fragile ecosystem of this federally designated wilderness area, hiking permits may soon be required to regulate the numbers of backpackers each day.
We are fortunate this particular weekend since most backpackers have opted to camp on Snowgrass Flat. It soon becomes apparent why we’re sharing the trail with few other hikers. It may be summer at the trailhead, spring in the wildflower meadows, but here at 6500 feet, the last breath of winter hangs over the frozen lakes and snow fields.
Sections of the trail angle across steep slopes many of which are snow covered. During the winter under certain conditions these slopes would pose a dangerous avalanche threat. This time of year the snow is stable, if slick and crusty, from repeated thawing and freezing, making me deeply appreciative of two essentials I carry in my backpack no matter the season: lightweight hiking poles and micro spikes for my hiking boots.
My poles are a 6 year old version of the Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking Poles, and have reliably accompanied me to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helen’s, along the West Coast Trail and all the adventures in between. I like the Dual FlickLock Pro pole locking mechanism that allows for easy length adjustment. These have proved far more durable, as evidenced by 6 years of heavy use, than previous trekking poles that have a twist lock mechanism.
There are many traction devices for boots depending on terrain and hiking conditions. I have a pair of Yaktrax, lightweight and compact to fit neatly into my backpack. Within minutes they’re attached to the soles of my boots and provide the perfect amount of stability and traction in the kind of marginal conditions we encounter at Goat Lake. I watch Bear, our Retriever Border Collie mix rescue dog, run in the snow with toes splayed and nails extended. Who needs traction devices when you have built in micro spikes and snow shoes?
Mountains, Clouds and Views
At Goat Lake we find a patch of snow free ground to pitch our tent. Partially protected by the wind-stunted subalpine firs, we’re on the lip of a ridge, the views from which we can only imagine since the wind has picked up and the clouds have closed in. After a hasty meal we crawl into our sleeping bags. Even our snow loving dog looks relieved to be out of the cold.
We wake early to silence. The wind has gone and with it the clouds. Spread out below us is a perfect U-shaped glacial valley.
And beyond, Mt. Adams rises out of a sea of foamy clouds. It’s a breath-taking, heart-stopping, fall-to-your-knees-in-wonder moment! And yes! I think even Edward Abbey would agree the view is amazing.
About the Author: Sheila Dearden spent her childhood playing outdoors, poking in the dirt, collecting bugs and climbing trees in England. As an adult she moved to Washington State where she still loves to play outdoors: hiking, backpacking, skiing, kayaking, cycling, running. She also still digs in the dirt, growing most of their food and maintaining a backyard habitat for wildlife which she shares with a small flock of chickens, a dog, black bears, coyotes, hummingbirds, bobcats, bees and the very occasional mountain lion. You can read more about her outdoor adventures and the wild and not so wild visitors to her backyard at her blog playwithoutceilings.com