Goat Rocks Wilderness: A Real Eye-Popper

Some say Goat Rocks Wilderness has the best scenery along the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Decide for yourself.
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Some say Goat Rocks Wilderness has the best scenery along the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Decide for yourself.

Hike through luxurious forest into a high meadow sparkling with streams and flowers. Frame the scene with a backdrop of dark, craggy summits laced with snowfields. Top it off with views of mammoth volcanoes, and you'll know why Goat Rocks Wilderness rates as one of the most scenic stretches of wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail. Considering the competition-the Sierra and North Cascades, for example-this is not a minor boast.

Some 31 miles of the Mexico-to-Canada PCT wind through the marshy lowlands, deep forests, and jagged remnants of prehistoric volcanic vents that characterize this 105,000-acre wilderness, but it's by no means the only road to this show. An additional 90 miles of trail opens a wide variety of hiking options, like the short scramble from the PCT to the top of 7,930-foot Old Snowy Mountain, which pays off in a panorama dominated by the hulking cones of Mts. Rainier and Adams.

Old Snowy is a half-day excursion from Snowgrass Flat, itself a 6-mile, 1,800-foot grunt up Snowgrass Trail from the nearest trailhead. The Flat is a popular camping area amid lush meadows that in late summer swell with lupine, goldenrod, Indian paintbrush, and many other native wildflowers.

If you're seeking solitude, you can usually find it in the Coyote Lake area, a rigorous 6-mile hike up the Clear Fork Trail. Or stretch your legs and head for the sky on the 11-mile Lily Basin Trail or the steep, 9-mile Angry Mountain Trail. Both climb 3,400 feet into the high and remote Johnson Peak area. And as you're hiking, keep an eye out for marmots, elk, and black-tailed deer.

As you might expect, Goat Rocks has its share of mountain goats, and it is also popular with that other breed of mountain inhabitant: alpinists. The 8,200-foot summit of Mt. Curtis Gilbert can be bagged by a challenging but nontechnical ascent. The ridge to the west of Curtis Gilbert is capped with several basalt horns rated as technical, Class 4 pitches. Further along the ridge, the 7,940-foot Ives Peak is a steep scramble.

The window for hiking and climbing at Goat Rocks is narrow-snow doesn't melt until August and it can fly again in September-but it's worth slipping through.

QUICK TAKE: Goat Rocks Wilderness

DRIVE TIME: Goat Rocks Wilderness is located in southeastern Washington, about 145 miles (31/2 hours) southeast of Seattle and 160 miles (31/2 hours) northeast of Portland.

THE WAY: Trailheads to the west and central sections of the wilderness are off US 12, 16 miles east of Packwood.

TRAILS: There are more than 30 interconnected trails totaling about 120 miles. The most popular are Snowgrass Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, which intersect at the flower fields of Snowgrass Flat.

ELEVATION: Hiker-accessible terrain ranges from 2,700 to 8,200 feet along a series of summits running north-south on the Cascade crest.

CAN'T MISS: Mountain goats are often visible from a distance, casually grazing on precariously steep summit slopes.

CROWD CONTROL: Scenic Snowgrass Flat is thick with backpackers, especially late August through early September. The Johnson Peak area, accessible to strong hikers from the Lily Basin and Angry Mountain trails, offers relative solitude.

MAPS AND GUIDES: The best trail map of the area is the Goat Rocks Wilderness Map ($4) available at the U.S. Forest Service office listed below and at most outdoor retail shops in the Portland and Seattle areas. The Goat Rock Wilderness region is also covered by the USGS 7.5-minute topographic quads for Old Snowy Mountain, Packwood Lake, Walupt Lake, and White Pass.

PIT STOP: In Packwood, just before or after a hike, you can buy groceries at Blanton's or refuel with a meal at Ambrosia: Shop of Fine Flavor.

WALK SOFTLY: Cathole human waste at least 100 feet from any water source. Pack out all refuse, toilet paper included.

MORE INFORMATION: For west and central region: U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Packwood Ranger District, 13068 US Highway 12, Packwood, WA 98361; (360) 494-0600. For eastern region: U.S. Forest Service, Wenatchee National Forest, Naches Ranger District, 10061 US Highway 12, Naches, WA 98937; (509) 653-2205. Permits for hiking and camping are required, and they're available free of charge at trailhead self-registration posts. Beginning in 1998 there will be a quota on permits during heavy usage seasons, and there will be a small fee; permits will be available at ranger stations and certain outdoor outfitters.