Goat Rocks Traverse: Washington’s Best Backpacking

Story and photos by Dave Stamboulis

Washington ranks right up there with the American West’s best for both hiking and scenery, as it boasts old growth forests, some of the United States’ most epic volcanoes and the stunning mountain scenery of the dramatic North Cascades. Due to its steep inaccessible terrain, many of the region’s most magnificent vistas can be seen only by birds or experienced mountaineers, yet one trail stands alone, not only for its ease of access to mere mortals, but also for its bucket list-worthy, drop-dead gorgeous landscapes, and if you’re only going to have time for one hike next time you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you ought to make a beeline for the exhilarating Goat Rocks Traverse.

View of Mt. Adams in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

I first heard about the GRT when I was living in Bellingham, Washington. I was climbing all over the Cascades at the time and concentrating on getting up peaks on my climb wish list, so I’d only hear raves from friends who had taken a long weekend or more to go down south and explore the Goat Rocks Wilderness. It wasn’t until years later, when my wife and I walked the Pacific Crest Trail, that I got to experience this magical spot first hand.

We were heading north on the PCT, which is probably the way most folks should approach the GRT, as one gets to walk facing Mount Rainier and get a more exhilarating view of the ridge traverse from above, although south-bounders do get to look out toward Mount Adams in the latter section of the hike. 

If coming from the south for a short backpacking trip, you can either start at Walupt Lake, accessible off of National Forest Road 2160 (which connects to NF21 and leaves Highway 12 just west of Packwood), or else save some elevation and distance by taking the Snowgrass Flats trail, which is reached by following NF21 and then turning off onto NF405 eight miles before the Walupt Lake turnoff.

From Walupt Lake, a steep trail climbs up five miles to Sheep Lake and the PCT. From here, it’s seven miles up to Cispus Pass, where at 6,470 feet, you have sublime views of the southern Goat Rocks spires, including the highest summit here, Gilbert Peak (8,200 ft). The basin here is incredibly lush in summer, with meadows full of wildflowers, waterfalls cascading off the sides of the trail and several excellent spots to pitch a tent and admire the views.

From Cispus Pass, one remains up on the crest, and the trail contours around a ridge with stunning views of Mount Adams to the south coming into view. Here, you’ll find plenty of weekend warriors from Seattle who take the route up from Snowgrass Flats and find spots to pitch their tents for prime sunrise views of Adams, which lights up pink and crimson at dawn. This spot alone would be worth an overnight trip, but it only gets better from here.

About five miles after Cispus Pass Mount Rainier roars into view for the first time, its immense bulk and crevassed glaciers towering ahead. Here, we crossed a short snowfield that usually lingers late into the summer. It can be a bit slippery here, but it’s fairly level and without runout, so most folks will get by without carrying micro spikes. 

The route splits just after the snowfield, with the old PCT and “stock alternate” route going left, seemingly more benign as it remains level, traversing the side of a ridge, but nobody uses this route anymore, as it is avalanche-prone in snow, very narrow and subject to rockfall. Instead, the main path climbs steeply, gaining the ridge top just below the junction to Old Snowy.

Old Snowy is a rocky peak that is probably the most rewarding summit in the Goat Rocks in that it is not a technical climb yet affords fabulous views of Washington’s three most famed volcanoes, Rainier, Adams and Mount St. Helens. It’s only about a 40-minute scramble up from the PCT to gain the top, with a few hand-over-hand moves near the top, but nothing an avid hiker can’t handle.

Back on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Goat Rocks Traverse hits its most thrilling section. From the ridge, one looks down at the route ahead, which is a knife edge track that divides the Packwood and Tieton River basins. The path here is pasted into the rocks, and while it looks really daunting, even terrifying from up high, this is really just an optical illusion, as once on it, the trail is actually wide enough to not worry about slipping. 

We ambled up and down across this high ridge, reveling in the alpine scenery and overjoyed to have picked a good weather window to make this traverse. Not just for safety reasons (it would not be prudent to be up here during an electrical storm), but the fact that this trek showcases some of the West’s most fabulous scenery means you want to have blue skies and plenty of camera battery.

Some seven miles after Cispus Pass, the route leaves the knife edge spine and begins an eastward swing, still staying high and offering mountain vistas, but slowly dropping towards Tieton Pass. From here, one can drop down to the Cowlitz River and Clear Fork trailhead just off of Highway 12, or else continue another four miles to a trail that drops down to beautiful Shoe Lake, a turquoise alpine gem that makes for a great swim, and from where it is another seven miles to White Pass on Highway 12, which has a restaurant, shop and lodging.

Everything I’d always heard about the best of Washington’s alpine terrain was always situated in the North Cascades National Park, but Goat Rocks, much further south, is a slice of jagged, rugged and mesmerizing mountain scenery that you’ll never forget. The camp spots are spectacular, the walking is fabulous and the views of Rainier and Adams dominating the horizon are the best you’ll find, other than standing on some neighboring peak.