A Very Different Goat Rocks

Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington
13 miles roundtrip, ~1770 feet elevation gain

The unbelievable has happened. We have Goat Lake to ourselves.

At 6400 feet, Goat Lake sits in a high alpine bowl in the Goat Rocks wilderness in Washington State. Sandwiched between the three Cascade giants of Rainier, Adams and Helens, the Goat Rocks are the blown-out, spiny remains of an extinct volcano and showcase some of the most spectacular scenery in the state. 

It is also usually mobbed. 

And this is the only reason why it is not currently bombarded by human and dog foot traffic.

Um? Hello? Summer? (photo by AJP)

The Goat Ridge-Snowgrass Flats loop provides one of the few, easily accessible loop options within this outstandingly lovely alpine wilderness. And Goat Lake, with its wide open views of Adams and its ridge hugging trails wandering through fields and fields of alpine wildflower heaven, sits at the epicenter of the loop.

Getting here has been a challenge this year. Mid-August, yet it looks more like late June or early July. 

As part of our annual Perseids trip, Andy and I chose to head up to Goat Rocks this year knowing that condition reports were sketchy, so we left for the weekend with no particular game plan. There was no mileage agenda, no destination-itis: we wanted to star-gaze, moon-gaze, practice some night photography and stalk some mountain goats from a distance. Just being out was enough. 

We found the moon. We saw goats, had an early morning camp marmot visitor and walked across lots of elk evidence. And the Perseids, though faint due to moonlight interference, were abundant, streaking their long way across the night sky.

We headed up the Snowgrass Flats trail on Thursday afternoon, opting to try the loop counterclockwise, since the Cowlitz Ranger District had updated a condition report (finally) that the trail was logged out and clear of snow to the junction with the Lily Basin trail. Personally, having walked this loop before, I find it to be more scenic clockwise; although the Goat Ridge trail is steeper, it is far more scenic, and I prefer views to a long forest slog. We chose Snowgrass though, since we weren't sure what we would find higher up. 

It was the right choice. 

We stayed below Snowgrass Flats on Thursday night, wandering wet meadows only just melted out, photographing green shoots and early flowers inching their way through the still muddy earth. Several groups were camping there on Thursday night but nothing, nothing compared to the starved backpacking hoards headed up when we would leave on Saturday.

recently thawed meadow & the Goat Rocks

We sat and star-gazed for hours, the moonlight bright enough that no headlamps were necessary.

Friday morning we lazed about before deciding to see how conditions were at Goat Lake. From our camp on Thursday night we could see the basin, still very, very snowy. We had been warned by one individual that getting there was "dicey".

where we are headed: Goat Lake basin

Just beyond the main creek in the camping area below Snowgrass, the trail began to rapidly disappear under snow. Huge bowls full of snow. The sound of water everywhere, running underneath your feet. Blinding sun. And little pieces of greenery here and there, beginning to raise their heads through the still lingering winter. As we began the final climb to Goat Lake, the sun had already worked its magic, the hillsides greener here, with phlox and avalanche lilies galore carpeting the slopes.

route finding
(photo by AJP)

And then the traverses. Two of them.

On its final, winding way to Goat Lake, the Lily Basin trail traverses steep slopes in a valley filled with tiny, seasonal cascades. By the time we arrived, the snow was softening in the midday sun. Even with my Kahtoolas, the first traverse, though not long, had my heartbeat drumming in my ears.

the first traverse

The second traverse was longer, and the exposure of consequence. Halfway across, fully committed, I was downright nauseated and cursing myself for my stubbornness. My downhill foot kept sliding in the sun-soft snow, causing my vertigo to rear its ugly head and my sense of balance to careen out of control. This type of challenge is not my forte, and it took every ounce of mental steel to keep myself putting one foot in front of the other. But there was no turning around on this narrow, foot-wide, beaten shelf of slick snow.

this was NOT intelligent (photo by AJP)

I was a shaking mess by the time I reached the other side.

the second traverse as seen from Goat Lake

Nature cannot be tricked or cheated.  She will give up to you the object of your struggles only after you have paid her price.  ~Napoleon Hill

post-traverse trauma: sunburned and mentally fried

So it was that we came to have the still-frozen Goat Lake to ourselves, not a soul in sight.

Locked in a seasonal time warp, Goat Lake remains buried under massive drifts, only the barest outline of its turquoise lined banks cracking through the mounded snow. Goat Creek can be heard under your feet and is raging at its outlet as it drops off the cliff face below the lake basin. We claimed the one and only melted out campsite for the evening, watching mountain goats graze on the cliffs above us. As evening progressed, Mount Adams became bathed in alpenglow while the moon rose, full and clear over Old Snowy and Ives Peak. Later, meteors and that rushing wind that always fills the Goat Lake basin in the evening hours would keep us company.


Mount Adams alpenglow

moonrise over Old Snowy and Ives Peak

starry starry night

We had decided that in the morning we would head back the way we came, banking on the snow refreezing overnight and thus providing us with better traction. It was a good gamble; actually, the only gamble available. Beyond Goat Lake, where the Lily Basin trail climbs to the junction of Hawkeye Point and the Goat Ridge trail (just above Jordan Basin), cornices were still visible, and I knew from previous trips that the exposure there is deadly. No mistakes were possible on that section of trail. So, no loop on this trip.

In the still early morning, the traverses passed relatively quickly, the now solid snow providing the sticky consistency our microspikes excel at gripping. The previous day’s nauseating scare behind me, it was smooth sailing back to the trailhead.

better, but I still do not like you

Andy has 40+ mosquito bites. He’s itchy and annoyed, but we both agree this was an unforgettable trip. A very different and unique face to the Goat Rocks, one of our favorite wilderness wonderlands.

Lily Basin trail just before the second traverse
Goat Lake basin & Mount Adams (photo by AJP)

best window in the world (photo by AJP)