Goat Rocks Wilderness

The Goat Rocks Wilderness area is in the southern part of the Cascade mountain range in southwest Washington, between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.   It is very backpacker friendly as portions of it connect with the Pacific Crest Trail, and there are so many trail options to create an itinerary from.  In the early season, wildflowers explode in the meadows. In the fall, the bright colors shine beneath the mountain ranges. Mountain goats, pikas and marmots wander about if you’re lucky enough to see them.

We did a quick 1 night backpacking trip in this area in early September of 2020. The conditions were perfect – mild temperatures, late enough in the season that mosquitoes weren’t much of a bother, and the smoke from nearby wildfires were in the process of clearing out. 

Mt. Adams at first light from our campsite

The Details

  • PERMITS: none to park; do complete a free wilderness permit at the trailhead
  • DOGS: allowed!
  • GETTING THERE: start at the Snowgrass Trailhead.  The closest towns are Randle and Packwood.  The road to the trailhead should be accessible by any car.  
    • Out and back: Snowgrass Trailhead → #96 → #97 → PCT #2000.  This is what we did, basically the first half of the counter-clockwise loop
      • This includes approximately 6-7 miles to get to our campsite (a little more than halfway up PCT #2000 trail), 2-3 miles of day hiking, and a 6-7 mile return trip = 14-17 miles total and 2500-3000’ elevation gain
    • Full loop (CCW): Snowgrass Trailhead → #96 → #97 → PCT #2000 → #86 → #95 → Snowgrass Trailhead
      • This was our intended plan, and then we decided against it due to a snowpack we decided not to cross. This would have been about 13-15 miles and 3000’ elevation gain
Image credit: US Forest Service
Yellow = road to the Snowgrass Flats trailhead;
Red = Snowgrass Flats Trail #96 (4 miles long);
Orange = Bypass Trail #97 (~1 mile);
Green = PCT Trail #2000 (~2.4 miles);
Purple = Trail #86 and Trail #95 (this is the other half of the loop we did NOT do)

The Experience

Day 1

  • We drove in this morning, parked at Snowgrass Trailhead, and took Snowgrass Trail #96.  Boots on the trail at 10:30am
  • The first few miles are easy moving through a forest, then the elevation starts to build as you climb out of the forest into more exposed meadows
    • At the 4 mile mark, there is a junction with Bypass Trail #97, which will connect you to PCT Trail #2000.  This is what we did.
    • Alternatively, you can stay on Snowgrass Trail #96 to take you to Lily Basin Trail #86. There are more campsites along this way, and this is the quickest way to get to Goat Lake. But we did not do this because we planned on finding campsites along the PCT
  • We connected with the PCT Trail #2000 with the goal of finding a scenic campsite along this trail.  The views here really start to open up and you can see multiple mountain ranges.  Wildflowers were blooming in pockets of surrounding meadows, and there were established campsites nearly everywhere you turned.  This is the perk of being along the PCT – it is so backpacker friendly.  
  • At some point we came across a stream that we used to filter our water.  Then, we continued another half mile North and decided to set up camp in an open area with expansive views and a few large trees for shade.  It was about 3:45pm by the time we chose a campsite about 1-1.5 miles along the PCT Trail #2000.
  • The views were still hazy from nearby wildfire activity, but you could tell that Mount Adams was trying to peek through.  After setting up camp, we settled in to have the best tasting bowl of ramen (food always tastes better after miles of hard work, right?), and then went to sleep.
Sunrise views from our campsite- Mount St. Helens to the left, Mount Adams center

Day 2

  • Thankfully the winds overnight cleared out a lot of the smoke, so we had an incredible sunrise and clear skies this morning.  This ended up being quite the scenic campsite after all! But I really don’t think you could pick a bad campsite in this area.
  • After eating a quick breakfast, we took our day packs to do a day hike to Goat Lake for some views. About 1 mile later, we encountered a large snowpack that we were not equipped for (we did not have microspikes, poles, or other forms of traction to cross it safely), so we turned around to head back to camp after taking a million amazing photos.
Breathtaking panoramic views of Goat Lake in the foreground, and the South face of Mt. Rainier in the background
  • This little jaunt was unbelievable – we had clear views of Mount Adams with beds of wildflowers in the foreground. We could even see Mount St. Helens at a distance!  And even though we didn’t reach Goat Lake, we could still see the turquoise waters from afar, nestled in a basin beneath Mount Rainier’s shadow heading North
  • All of the views were just jaw dropping and this trip is still one of my all time favorites in regards to the photo opportunities I snagged
  • After our day hike, we broke down camp then hiked back to our car.  We headed back down the same way we hiked up, down the PCT to connect to Snowgrass Flats trailhead which took us back to the car.  This was almost all downhill and flat, but just felt like such a long drag since the temperatures were getting warmer and we were constantly stepping aside to let the increasing number of incoming hikers pass.

postcard views at every turn

Pro Tips

  • Regarding food storage, we brought a bear bag with a line to hang it up overnight.  The first part of the hike is through a forest, so there are plenty of places to hang your bear bag, but where we ended up deciding to camp along the PCT was much more exposed with only a few nearby trees.  So, if I could do it over, it would have been much easier to have a bear canister for food storage rather than a bear bag.
  • Since we were short on time and also not prepared for snow, explore further than we did! 
    • For example, hike on further to Goat Lake, Hawkeye Point, or Old Snowy Mountain.  Our original plan was actually to hike to Goat Lake and make our trek a loop (counter-clockwise is what is recommended actually) instead of an out-and-back (from Goat Lake, you could take Lily Basin Trail #86 to Goat Lake Trail #95 back down to Snowgrass Flat Trailhead).  Choose your own adventure!  I would love to return another day on a longer trip and add on these additional destinations.  I think this would be a perfect 2 or 3 night backpacking trip. 
  • If you research this hike online, you’ll find that it is quite popular.  So if you want to avoid crowds, avoid weekends if you can!
  • At the end of our trip, before making the drive all the way home, we rewarded ourselves with a burger at Cliff Droppers in Packwood – highly recommend this yummy spot!  They have an outdoor patio which was perfect for my pup.