Goat Rocks Wilderness and Iron Creek Campground

My friends and I spent the final weekend of July camping in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with day hikes in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Our campground of choice (this is the second year we’ve been there) is the Iron Creek Campground. It’s well-maintained, laid out in such a way that it never seems crowded, even when every campsite is full, and has the added bonus of proximity to the lovely Cispus River, perfect for cooling off after those hikes! In short, highly recommended. Our evenings were spent around a campfire at the “main” site of the three our group had. An innovation this year was a group dinner on Saturday night of campfire nachos, which were great!

On Saturday, I joined the majority of the people in our group in a hike toward Heart Lake/Johnson Peak, up and along a ridge overlooking Packwood Lake and Mt. Rainier. Getting to the trailhead involved some self-doubt, as I was driving the lead car and the directions our thirty-year-old guidebook gave along the twisting snarl of Forest Service roads were sketchy. We had a modern map to help things along, but it was still very much a case of “just as you start to think you should turn around and go back to x turn and take the other choice, you arrive at the trailhead.” We may have cheered.

The guidebook said that the trail runs, “up and down, but mostly up” on the way out, and that was certainly the case. Truthfully, the first few miles of this route aren’t a lot of fun. They aren’t horrible, either – mostly just monotonous. The trail in all its late-summer bushiness would have pleased the Knights Who Say Ni, but miles of dust and leg-whacking shrubs wasn’t the most fun I’ve had on a trail.

Magenta paintbrushes. Oh, and a mountain.
Magenta paintbrushes. Oh, and a mountain.

That being said, the views from about mile 3.5 onwards made up for it. You finally break out into high meadows, which at this time of year were mostly filled with Indian paintbrush (in a startling shade of magenta) and heather. The views to the northwest were breathtaking – first Mt. Rainier looms into view, and then you get Packwood Lake gleaming like jade below it after another quarter-mile or so. I hadn’t had much of a chance to look at Mt. Rainier before this (drives up and down I-5 don’t leave a lot of room for contemplation of the scenery) and I relished the chance to stare without threat of sudden fiery death.

Mt. Rainier above Packwood Lake.
Mt. Rainier above Packwood Lake.

Our group continued on until we got just over the ridgeline and were looking down into a different watershed, a valley hemmed by ridges, over which we could just barely see the top of Mt. Adams, briefly. Before we headed back, I enjoyed my first (easy) scramble up a rocky outcropping since February. As is usually the case, the walk back seemed to stretch on much longer than the walk in, but we got there in the end. And when we got back to the campground, most of us opted to go down to the river, either to wade (me) or swim (several others) and refresh ourselves. (And now I have Madonna exhorting me to “refresh yourseeeeelf” in my head.)

Sunday we had a lazy start, and then decided to do an easy hike to Packwood Lake. The map and the guidebook disagreed on the mileage; we decided to trust the map. We should have trusted the guidebook. We arrived at the trailhead, with a hard time limit on when at least one of our party had to be back at the car to head back to civilization, to find that it was indeed 4.5 miles to the lake, as the guidebook had said (not the 3-ish we’d estimated from the map). We set off anyway.

Our group quickly attenuated quite a bit. A group of us powered ahead, trying our best to get to the lake by the time the earlybird had to turn around, so he’d get a chance to see it. We made it; we were probably averaging about 17 minute miles. Keeping up that pace was made easier by the trail, which was wide, level, and covered with nice, springy pine needles. I got into a swinging lope that helped me keep up with the rest of this subgroup, who were mostly several-to-six inches taller than me. Felt pretty good, actually – at one point, I was leading the group, and since I’d determined not to let there be any comments from the peanut gallery about the pace dropping off, I was focused on keeping up to the original pace set. Pretty sure I succeeded, or close to it!

View from Packwood Lake back towards ridge where we'd hiked on Saturday.
View from Packwood Lake back towards ridge where we’d hiked on Saturday.

On getting to the lake, we bid goodbye to the earlybird, and the rest of us waded/swam in… some in a greater state of undress than others. (Things I didn’t really need to see…) The water was crystal-clear and the color (as mentioned before) of jade. We had a clear view up to the ridge where we had walked the previous day, which provided nice symmetry. And surprisingly (fortunately, for those who had opted for nudity), it wasn’t very crowded. A couple of other groups went past on their way to or from other parts further around the edge of the lake, but we had our little beach, right where the trail spits out at the lake, all to ourselves. The rest of the group caught up, and we spent a nice twenty minutes or so splashing around in the shallows.

The walk back starts with a bit of a climb back up to the average level of the trail (which is maybe 100 feet above the lake), but once you’re there, it’s easy. I felt like I was sleep-walking the last couple of miles, from a combination (I’m guessing) of cold medicine and tiredness from having pushed so hard on the way in. It was wonderful to get to the parking area and feel the cool breeze and be able to use the bathroom and stretch some. Then it was back to Portland and real life… or, in this case, several days off work with a stonking cold. Back-to-back 9-mile hikes probably wasn’t the best plan for heading the cold off… However, it was very reassuring for my plans to do Timberline Trail over Labor Day weekend: my ankles were barely sore either Sunday or Monday morning, which means that I think I should be okay for Timeberline. (Yes, longer mileage and four days instead of two, but I can also go more slowly since I’ll have all day to do the hikes in, and besides, I have a whole month in between to get even stronger!)

Final rating:

Hike towards Heart Lake/Johnson Peak: 3.5 stars out of 5. Great views, but hilly monotony to get to them.

Hike to Packwood Lake: Also 3.5 out of 5. The trail isn’t very scenic, but boy is it wonderful to walk on, and the lake itself is lovely.

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