Thru-Hiking the Goat Rocks Wilderness
with Mike and Robbin
August 14th - 16th
I have wanted to thru-hike the Goat Rocks for a long time now and I finally got a chance to this year. Accompanying me on this trip were my friends Mike and Robbin from the Kitsap Climbers Group. We drove 2 cars so we could leave one at either end of the trail so we would not have to back track. The route we took is about 30 miles long, 25 of which are on the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT. The Pacific Crest Trail is roughly 2600 miles long, goes through 3 states and stretches between Mexico and Canada. The Goat Rocks Wilderness section of the PCT attains the highest elevation in Washington State and is also considered to be among the most beautiful sections in any of the 3 states. Only the Sierras in California rival its beauty. (in my opinion)
Aug 13 2009
We left Silverdale at 7:30, Thursday evening. After fueling up with gas and making a couple of quick stops we were on our way to White Pass on Hwy 12 to drop off one of our rigs. Around 11:30 we made it to the pass and dropped off my car. The winter before, a landslide had closed one of the forest roads we needed to take to get to the other trailhead so we had to drive and extra 20 miles to get around it. Total mileage to the trailhead near Walupt Lake by this route was around 70 miles. It was really late when we finally made it and set up our tent. It was just starting to rain when we got in our sleeping bags. I was not looking forward to hiking in the rain.
Aug 14 2009
We were up early on our first day, at least 9:30 am. But seriously we didn’t get to sleep the night before until around 1:30 am so a full night of sleep was really needed after the long day we had before. We had a big day in front of us. It was very foggy and cloudy but no rain, thankfully. Our day started off by talking to the camp host about where we needed to park the truck for the hike. She informed us that we needed a NW Forest Pass or park across the bridge ¼ mile away from the trail. We argued that the Parks Pass Mike had would be sufficient but the camp host said it would not work and that we would get fined, whatever. We decided not to take a chance and we parked Mike’s truck across the bridge and unloaded our gear. We were already going to hike 30 miles or so, so what’s an extra ¼ mile going to hurt? Snacking on the Salsa Sun Chips Mike brought for the start of the hike, we started to make our way to the Nannie Ridge trailhead and self registered for the hike. Once we were actually, finally hiking at around 10:30, I felt a sense of both excitement and sadness. I was finally on the trail, doing what I have wanted to do for so long but the limited views and potential for rain kind of bummed me out. The forecast was 40% chance of rain and mostly cloudy.
Slowly we made our way up the steep Nannie Ridge trail. After a few miles we came to an unmarked junction. Should we go uphill or continue straight on the trail which looked as if it were going downhill from that point? We decided to head uphill. We climbed to the top of the ridge and followed the trail to a cliff face and paralleled the cliff until the trail just seemed to disappear. After consulting our maps for about the third time we discovered that we were not as far along on the trail as we thought and that we had actually turned onto a trail that goes to the top of Nannie Peak. This would have not been so bad but remember, it was foggy and we had no views so it was kind of meaningless.
We headed back down Nannie Peak to the junction. Once back on the correct trail again, we made good time. We eventually came to a lake which I mistakenly thought was Sheep Lake. There were three ladies there on horseback and we chatted for a few minutes. They informed us that Sheep Lake was still up ahead on the trail. After letting their horses graze for a bit the ladies took off and said they would see us at Sheep Lake. After a short break we were once again on the trail and before too long we were indeed at Sheep Lake and the ladies we saw earlier were having lunch and they waved and said hi as we passed. Just after the lake we hit a junction and we left the Nannie Ridge trail and took a left turn on to the PCT.
We were heading up to Cispus Pass. Alpine splendor was all around us, we just couldn’t see it due to the clouds. What we could see, meadows full of lupine, Indian Paintbrush and other alpine wildflowers were very beautiful, but for an area known for its expansive views, the clouds were a let down.
It still hadn’t rained on us though so that was in our favor. Getting hungry we all decided to take a quick snack break and it was pretty cold with the wind blowing. We didn’t pause for too long before we once again started climbing towards Cispus Pass.
After another mile or so and about 500 feet in elevation gain we headed over the pass and into the Cispus drainage. We didn’t have any sun breaks but we did break free of the foggy conditions and we could actually see into the drainage for a ways.
We made our way down, winding around the drainage and finally stopped at a creek which is actually part of the Cispus River and filtered some water. Looking back up towards the pass we had just come through, we could see the ladies on horseback we saw earlier up near the top.
Continuing on, we made our way towards Snowgrass Flat. I was planning on hiking past Snowgrass and camp down below at the Alpine Camp but everyone was tired and hungry, myself included, so we made our way over to a little ridge which looked like it had a camp spot on it. Tired and cold, we whipped up some dinner and set up the tent.
My thermometer read 44 degrees and there was a light breeze. Being cold from my wet feet and socks, I decided to head to bed early around 8:00 pm after hanging our food from a nearby tree. Mike and Robbin stayed up for a while and watched some deer playing in the valley below. When I checked, my thermometer read 36 degrees at one point in the night.
Aug 15 2009
Opening my eyes, the world seemed bright but did not seem sunny. I was surprised though when I opened the tent door and saw Mount Adams in the distance with the sun shining on it. Mike and Robbin too were pleasantly surprised when seeing it that morning.
With the sun shining down we quickly made breakfast and whipped up a couple of day packs so we could head over to Goat Lake. Today was our easy day, at least that’s what we thought. After securing the tent so it would not blow away by throwing our packs inside it, we headed off down the trail.
When we got to the snowgrass flat trail junction we took it down for a mile or so and then took the Lily Basin trail at its junction. Hiking along in the alpine splendor, walking through fields of lupine, we took numerous photographs.
I had told Robbin before about the Pika I had seen the last time I was through here and sure enough I heard one starting to squeak as we walked past a talus field. I had told them before how the Pika sound like a dog’s squeaky toy when they talk to each other but I guess they didn’t quite understand what I meant until they actually heard one for the first time. They look to me like a mix between a chipmunk and a big mouse. We made a stop at a waterfall and one came right up to us for a photo op.
Leaving the waterfall and Pika behind, we continued on towards Goat Lake. Mount Adams loomed to the south above a sea of clouds that appeared to be retreating in the valley below. We reached the lake around 10:15 and stopped for a snack. We had the whole lake to ourselves for a bit.
After a few pictures and sitting in the sun for a while, people started showing up at the lake one by one. After a while, I counted 9 people, all guys, looking to be in their 20’s and were sitting near the shore. One of the guys had a little dog and the guy through a stick out on the ice of the lake and the dog went out there for it. Not too long after I heard one of the guys say “I have a King Sized Snickers for you if you go out there too” .Not more than 5 minutes later, the guy with the dog was out there on the lake himself, slowly walking around, probing the ice with a hiking pole. Great entertainment for sure, watching these guys.
While taking pictures, Mike let out a groan and told us his last camera battery had died. This really sucked because we still had over half of the hike in front of us. Around 10:45 we started heading back towards camp the way we had come in. Back at camp, we had a quick lunch and packed up and headed back out on the PCT towards Old Snowy. Robbin was gracious enough to let Mike use her camera but you could tell he was in a bad mood due to the battery incident. I couldn’t blame him. Up the trail we went.
We were getting close to the highest portion of trail on the PCT in Washington. Soon we past Split Rock and not long after that we walked by the remains of the Yelverton shelter.
Dana Yelverton died of hypothermia in 1962 when a freak August blizzard hit the area we were now hiking through. A group of people took a couple of summers and built a shelter in her remembrance using timbers that were helicoptered in and local stone. There is a rumor floating around the internet that the shelter may be rebuilt in the near future. Cruising past the shelter we crossed a snow field and came to the top of the ridge. Mount Rainier made its presence known and it looked huge and appeared to float on a sea of clouds looking much the same way Adams did behind us.
Looking down we could see the knife ridge we would have to cross in the near future and the clouds that were almost high enough to start spilling over it. This is said to be a very dangerous place in a storm as the wind can blow ferociously over the ridge, not to mention the fact that there is a very narrow path along its crest that literally was dynamited into place where there was no path before, with steep drop offs on either side. Needless to say I was a little concerned when I saw the clouds nearing the rim. The path we were on, the PCT crosses the Packwood Glacier at this point. The glacier is not very wide at the crossing point but where it crosses is very steep and has a significant run out below it. A slip here would be very bad indeed for the unlucky thru-hiker that forgot his or her ice-axe. None of us were carrying ice axes but knowing about a high route that goes almost to the top of Old Snowy and avoids the glacier altogether, we took the high route. Summiting Old Snowy was an option we were considering anyways, so up the high trail we went. Once we got to the top of the high trail we had to decide if we wanted to climb Old Snowy, or head down to the knife ridge. Looking down I could see that the clouds I was worried about had just started to spill over the crest. The decision was made right then that we needed to get down to the spine of the ridge as soon as we could and make our way across before conditions got too bad.
Slowly we picked our way down the high trail. At one point I stopped to pull out my hiking sticks. Parts of the boot path were very steep and there was lots of loose slippery rock. I offered one of my sticks to Mike who reluctantly took it but he did seem to benefit from it from time to time. Before too long we intersected with the main crest trail again and we headed across the knife ridge as the clouds were spilling over it. The hiking was fast now as we tried to get across the spine before the wind picked up too much. In a few spots, going behind a rock or some krummholz the wind died down, only to pick up as we exposed our selves again to the open.
The only benefit we had from crossing in the cloudy weather was that we were spared the vertigo inducing position of seeing the exposure on either side of us. Before too long we made it to Elk Pass. At the PCT trail sign, some wise guys decided to drag a couple of goat or deer carcasses up and position them on the sign in such a way as to suggest a rough trail ahead, an omen of sorts. Luckily for us, we had just crossed that section.
As we continued on, the trail suddenly starts going east and we drop down into the Eastern Washington side of the crest. All of a sudden we are back in sunshine again, as if the whole ordeal on the spine was just a distant memory. We dropped down into Upper McCall Basin and continued our hike through more lupine and down past snowfields and streams and soon we were looking for the McCall Basin camp.
Earlier in the week when researching where to stay each night, I heard about McCall Basin and knew it was supposed to be about 5 miles from Snowgrass Flat. Unfortunately, what I read and what I remembered were two different things. What I actually read was that Upper McCall Basin was a great place to camp and was 5 miles away but we were hiking to lower McCall Basin which was more like 8 miles away, not Upper McCall. We were all tired and kept on Hiking but the McCall trail just wasn’t materializing where I thought it should. After consulting the map again, we realized where the camp was and set off once again. We finally made it to McCall Basin camp around 7:00 and Mike laid down right after setting up the tent and crashed for about 45 minutes. Apparently he was not feeling good and probably ran out of gas on the longer than expected hike. After his nap, Robbin finally coaxed him to eat something and got him to come out of the tent. Robbin heated water while I filtered water from our camp side creek. We hung our food from a nearby tree, and then I left in search of some sunset pictures I could take.
Not finding much in the way of photo ops I came back to camp and hit the sack around 8:45. I set my alarm for 5:00 am so we could get an early start on our last day.
Aug 16 2009
The alarm went off at 5:00 and I quickly shut it off. I declared “its 5:00 am if anyone cares” and promptly went back to sleep. About 10 minutes after 6:00 Mike wakes me up and we all get up for breakfast. By around 7:30 we are all packed and ready to hit the trail.
As we were walking out of camp, I was tip-toeing through a wet marshy area taking care not to get my shoes too wet, when I turn around and see Mike and Robbin poking fun and pulling their pant legs up as they walked through the marsh as if they had anything to worry about in their gore-tex climbing boots. Hardy har har, what comedians they are. We’ll see who’s more tired by the end of the day. Me in my trail runners or them in their boots.
We get out on the trail and feeling really good despite a lack of sleep on my part, we really start making great time on the trail. According to Mikes trip computer on his GPS, our average speed for the trip actually starts going up. A few miles into the hike we come to Tieton Pass where we meet a couple of ladies who started their hike on the Columbia River at Cascade Locks a hundred something miles away. Mary Ann said she is a section hiker and has been knocking off chunks of the trail every year for the last 7 or 8 years. Washington is the last PCT section she has left and she will complete her thru-hike next year. Her hike this year will take her as far as Stevens Pass. Kris started her hike at Cascade Locks as well but this is her first big chunk of the PCT. She asks us if we know of any bus service than runs from White Pass and we tell her we are unsure. She tells how she started in a brand new pair of boots but switched over to trail-runners due to blisters. She is planning on getting off the trail at White Pass and ending her hike instead of continuing on to Stevens Pass as she had planned. Mary Ann and Kris met on the trail and were now hiking together. After we all chatted for a while we all set off down the trail again. I said to Mike we should let them pass us now or they would be on our tail the whole time but we didn’t and they weren’t which surprised me as seasoned as they were. After a mile or so Mike stops me and asks if I think we should give Kris a ride down to Packwood or Randle and more importantly since it was my car if I minded. That’s one of the things I like about Mike, he is always looking out for people. I said I didn’t mind if we gave her a ride but my son’s car seat was in the car and we would have to figure out where to fit everyone and our gear. We wait on the trail for a few minutes for the ladies to catch up. Mike asks Kris if she would like a ride and before you know it, this lady we just met on the trail who had never hiked long distance before had yogi-ed a car ride, a call on a cell phone, and a stop at the Kracker- Barrel store at the pass so she could pick up her bounce box. Kris, if you are reading this, that was absolutely brilliant! You totally have my respect. So now we have Kris in tow. She says her good-byes to Mary Ann and we are off down the trail. We are going at a pretty good clip because the trail is so flat in this area but soon we start to climb again. We are at nearly 5000 feet and have to climb up to 6600 feet as we climb up to the Hogback ridge. Soon about half way up we take a break and wait for Kris. A few minutes pass and she catches up.
She exclaims that she is amazed at how fast we are hiking and if she didn’t know better she would have thought us to be thru-hikers. Mike and Robbin are pretty humble and don’t say anything but when they get up to leave I tell Kris that they just climbed Rainier and almost summited Adams 3 times within the last couple of months so they are in pretty good shape. I didn’t tell her though that I was able to keep up because my pack was about 10 lbs lighter than theirs. Still I felt pretty good that I was able to keep up with them as well as I was. In fact I wanted to keep hiking the day before, when Mike bonked. I attribute this to Mike and Robbin carrying more than was absolutely essential in their packs and my oz counting and cutting in assembling my gear. But back to Kris, I told her of their summit achievements and she was impressed. We continued on up the trail. Soon we came up to a ridge and as we reached the top, we looked out and Mount Rainier made its presence know again for the first time since the day before up near Old Snowy. This was a pleasant surprise. I was not expecting any more views like this for the rest of the trip. Looking back, we could see Old Snowy and Gilbert and Ives along with the rest of the Goat Rocks. What a beautiful place. The views were almost as good as from Old Snowy itself.
We hiked on following around the contour of the Hogback Mountain until we crossed over a little saddle and Shoe Lake lay stretched out down below us. The views just got better and better.
Again we hiked on following the contour of the mountain, this time from the other side. We started climbing a little bit right before we reached another saddle where there were a couple of back country horsemen resting their horses.
After chatting for a few minutes with the Horsemen, Kris and I took off after Mike and Robbin who had left a few minutes earlier but whom we could see skirting around the long lazy trail down the Hogback.
Kris using her skills again, yogi-ed my hiking poles from me that were secured to my pack. I think the knife ridge and Packwood glacier were still fresh in her memory from the day before and she did not want a repeat. She had told us earlier that instead of taking the high route on Old Snowy, she actually crossed over the Packwood glacier and she slipped a few feet. I guess it was a terrifying experience for her as a slide there could lead to a very serious injury or death. I wasn’t using the poles and letting her use them actually took a little weight off my back, a win-win. We ambled down the Hogback soon meeting up with Mike and Robbin who decided to take a break.
I told Mike that I thought Kris was really hurting as she was not so much limping but you could tell she was favoring one foot as she walked. Mike told her to take off her shoes and he took a look at her blisters. She had done a pretty good job of patching things up with moleskin but you could see she was getting a couple more blisters on one foot. After a quick snack and letting Kris put her shoes back on, we set off for the last portion of the trail. We were at around 6000 feet and need to get to about 4400 feet at the pass. As fun as the hike was, I was excited to get back to the car and get home. We tore up the trail and when we hit the first of the switchbacks, Mike and I stopped to wait one last time for Robbin and Kris. A round of gummi bears went around before we set off down the trail again, this time Mike staying back with the girls. About 45 minutes later and I find myself crossing the little bridge over the creek at the parking lot where I left my car 3 days earlier. I get my car clothes out and wash up in the creek while I wait for the others. When they arrive I go into the woods and change clothes while fighting mosquitoes the whole time, the only ones I saw during the whole trip. Soon we are all changed and we figure out how to load the car with all our gear. Then we are off to the Kracker-Barrel store for Kris’s Bounce-box. At the store Kris buys us all a drink for our troubles and we have some more snacks for the road. In the car again we drive the 70 miles back to the other trailhead to Mike’s truck and tell stories of our adventures the whole way there. Once we get to the truck, we unload and re-load our gear into the respective vehicles, say our thank-yous and goodbyes, and hit the last stretch of road home.