Dateline: August 15, 2017
Snowgrass Flat, Gifford Pinchot NF, Goat Rocks
8.2 miles, + the added loop and my mistake
It was not an auspicious start to the day, I overslept—a rare occurrence. I didn’t wake up until the time I had hoped to leave the house. I carried written directions this time, not relying on memory, like I did when I went to Mowich Lake several weeks ago and ran down my car battery while I tried to figure out where I needed to be.
What I forgot was the WTA (Washington Trails Association) assumes everyone is coming from Seattle, and the inconspicuous sign I wasn’t yet looking for to Forest Service Road #21, was a right turn before Packwood, not a left turn beyond Packwood. Ten miles past the turn, while waiting at the beginning of the line for the pilot truck to take traffic past road construction, clock ticking and knowing this was good and truly not right, I realized I had a Gifford Pinchot map in the car door. That’s when I remembered I wasn’t coming from Seattle. I hate it when part of the adventure is my own stupidity.
I turned around in the La Wis Wis Campground entrance, which fortunately was right beside me, before having to pass the road construction and wait in line again. A victory.
The 15.5 miles of gravel FS road (with a stretch of serious washboard, but no potholes) took 45 minutes. I was at the trailhead at 10, an hour and a half past when I wanted to be there. The ambrosia alpine scent began right at the parking lot. It’s a smell that could make a person pass out, and it drove away any lingering disgust with myself.
The first hour through the beautiful forest was virtually, stunningly flat, with a few low grade downs that would be ups on the return. I chose this trail partly because at 8 miles, it wasn’t the 14 Indian Henry’s was. I wasn’t ready for that much again so soon. I didn’t expect it to be easy, though.
It started up, then, but never did get particularly difficult. Indian Henry’s is my comparison now; this was a piece of cake. And there were a few huckleberries to sweeten the climb! Also water features that are always a distraction. And glimpses of mountain peaks.
Climbing to these “parks” is like the heroes’ journey, the prescripted writing of novels and movies. The trail starts getting closer to the crowns of the trees and there are glimpses of the sky opening up beyond them. Your heart quickens for the climax; then nope, not yet. Then anticipation builds again toward the climax; and again, not yet.
Then, finally, the trail breaks out of the curtain of trees and stretched out ahead is the glorious open-meadow vista, the curve of the azure sky, the horizon of mountains, the flowers. And you want to fall to your knees, toss back your head, throw out your arms, and sigh or shout, sing or whisper: thank you, thank you, thank you.
I guess that sounds like sex. But I have more experience with the heroes’ journey than I do with sex. (Speaking of sex, did you know grasshoppers can hop while mating? Awkward.)
There were an unusual number of hikers at the top who were likely using their Senior Access passes on this glorious day. It was nice to see “my people” there. I even spoke to some.
In spite of the rigors of the road to get here, Snowgrass Flat is the most popular hike in the Gifford Pinchot. A note on the kiosk at the trailhead warns not to be surprised if there were 100 people at the flat. There weren’t that many on a weekday, still there were more than I usually see anywhere other than Paradise.
I knew many of the cars in the full parking area were backpackers. There are a plethora of campsites scattered about the meadows and in the trees, and it’s part of a network of trails, including the Pacific Crest. This is a national forest, not a national park. Although it is well cared for, the rules of use are less stringent. I even thought it possible I could manage to pack into here myself. The thought of watching the sun set and the sun rise in this place made my heart leap up. A personal questing time, perhaps. Probably won’t happen, but a girl can dream. I feel strong.
One of the (backpacking) elders I spoke with suggested I take the loop back. It’s two sides of a small triangle out of the meadow that follows the PCT for a ways then loops back via Trail 97 to Trail 96 (Snowgrass). I had seen that on the kiosk map and decided NOT to do it, given my late start. I confess I had in the back of my mind, if I got back to Packwood early enough, I could return home via Ashford and the Base Camp Grill.
Temptation overcame judgement; I decided what the heck, I would do it. But I wasn’t ready to head back yet. I walked on through the meadow on the PCT to a cairn on a small patch of dirt, and stood glorying in the vista. I gazed, further tempted, at the green hill beyond me, wanting to know with all my heart what could be seen beyond it. Possibly Mt. Adams and Mt. Baker, maybe even Mt. Hood, though it was a little hazy low on the horizon. The man who urged me to take the loop said the highest Washington point on the PCT is somewhere just over there.
But if I was returning by an unfamiliar route, I best not. I built my own wobbly cairn (falling as I snapped the shot) instead, took one more wistful look at the hill, and started back down the trail. I would be here again. I could save it for another day.
I met two women of my age or so coming up from the way I was headed. “It’s beautiful,” they said. Affirmation.
I watched a couple pikas playing in a talus field, trying and failing to get a good photo before they scampered off. And I missed the intersection with Trail 97. I thought it seemed too far, and it was getting late. I was a teeny bit anxious. Finally I knew it couldn’t possibly be right. I asked the next hikers I met. Yep, missed it. Maybe 3/4 of a mile back. The signs up here, unlike national parks, are mostly nailed on trees. This one was on the back of one, from the direction I’d come. Also they don’t have miles on them. And there are a lot of unmarked trails, that might not be trails.
I came to a river crossing, on logs and stones. The sign sorta sign said to cross it. It was nearly 4:00 now, and getting dark and shadowy in the trees. I met someone coming up. Okay, that’s a good sign. She liked my hat. I liked hers. Just as I was getting anxious again, I came to the trail intersection. Never been quite so glad to see a familiar place.
It was a beautiful loop. I’m glad I did it.
I scurried on down the trail and got to the car at 5:30. No time for the Grill. Next summer. Late July or so for the flowers.
I have picked a gloriosity of hikes this summer. Spray Park at Mowich Lake, Indian Henry’s at Longmire”—both at the height of the flowers. This one I will do again. And again. As long as I can. It’s my new Paradise, sans crowds and traffic.