Monday, July 3, 2017

Goat Peak Lookout (North Cascades)

North Cascades view from Goat Peak Lookout
5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Rough gravel road to trailhead, not recommended for low clearance vehicles; Northwest Forest Pass required

Goat Peak's high perch at the eastern front of Washington State's North Cascades delivers outstanding views of a sea of wild and rugged peaks. Towering almost a mile above the community of Mazama in the Methow Valley, the summit is crowned with a fire lookout that is one of the few active fire lookouts remaining in the country. Despite the long drive, steep trail, and rough road to this hike, plenty of day hikers make their way up to the lookout in the summer. However, stay on the mountain overnight and you'll likely have these sweeping views and some very dark night skies all to yourself.

I hiked to Goat Peak Lookout as an overnight on a beautiful early July weekend with two friends. Leaving from Seattle, we took I-5 north and then Highway 20 east across Washington Pass to Mazama. At Mazama, we turned left to follow Lost River Road across the Methow River, then turned right and followed Goat Creek Road east briefly. After crossing a bridge over Goat Creek, we turned onto Forest Service Road 52, a gravel road marked with minimal signage, which we followed uphill for three miles to a signed junction where NF 5225 headed to the left towards Goat Peak Lookout. We followed NF 5225 past a viewpoint of Mount Gardner and Silver Star atop the Goat Wall to a junction with NF 200, where we took the right fork and followed NF 200 the remaining couple of miles to the trailhead. The last 12 miles of the drive were on very rough gravel roads with large rocks in the road, rutting, potholes, washboarding, and vegetation encroaching on the road. While I made it up to the trailhead in a sedan, this is about as rough a road as I'd be willing to put a low clearance vehicle through; high clearance would definitely be helpful. The trailhead parking lot can hold about 10 cars.

The trail followed the north ridge of the mountain from the trailhead to the summit. It started with a steady but gentle ascent along the ridge with occasional open views to the west of jagged Silver Star and pointed Black Peak. Wildflowers decorated the open areas near the trail.

Soon, the trail began to climb in earnest up the mountain's forested slopes. At just under a mile from the trailhead, we entered a large, sloped open meadow with views to the east of Tiffany Mountain and the Okanogan Range. The forested summit of Goat Peak rose ahead of us and the meadows around us were dotted with paintbrush, lupine, and other summer wildflowers.

Wildflowers on the hike up
At the end of the meadow, the trail embarked on an aggressive set of switchbacks up the mountain. The trail here was steep and rocky, making this the most difficult section of the hike. As we ascended, we noticed that we had entered a forest of alpine larches; while beautiful in the summer, Goat Peak would undoubtedly be superb in the fall when the larches turn golden.

After crossing a small section of steep snow, we came out on top of a knoll along the summit ridgeline of Goat Peak. In front of us was a breathtaking view of the serrated and snowy spires of the North Cascades that included many of Washington's highest peaks. Gardner, North Gardner, Gilbert, Silver Star, Corteo, Goode, Black, Fisher, Logan, the Needles, Azurite, Ballard, Crater, Jack, Robinson, and the peaks of the Pasayten crowded the skyline.

The North Cascades
The next half mile of the hike was consistently stunning. The trail followed the top of the ridge with constant views of either the North Cascades or the Okanogan Range and Methow Valley, or both. Larches dotted the meadowed slopes and spotty patches of paintbrush and glacier lilies bloomed along the ridge. The lookout itself rose ahead of the trail, crowning the peak's steep forested slopes.

Goat Peak Lookout and Mount Gardner
The trail dropped to a grassy saddle before making a final ascent to the summit through groves of larches. There was still some snow on the trail at points here, but all of the snow patches were easily negotiable. We set up camp at a flat spot a little over 150 yards short of the summit with pretty views off both sides of the ridge.

Dawn over the Okanogan Range
Just short of the summit, we found a large pile of rocks decorated with Tibetan prayer flags that commemorated former lookouts who staffed the Goat Peak Lookout.

Monument on Goat Peak
The lookout itself was locked; not even the top deck of the lookout was open when we arrived. This was not at all disappointing, though, as the views from the bottom deck of the lookout were nothing short of stupendous. The North Cascades dominated the western horizon, with sharp peaks piercing every inch of sky. To the south, Hoodoo, Oval, and the other peaks of the Sawtooth Range near Lake Chelan rose just to the left of Mount Gardner. Forested Lookout Mountain near Twisp, where I had been just a day before, was visible although not prominent. The brown, desert hills to the east near Winthrop were a striking contrast to the forested slopes of the Cascades to the west. Early Winters Creek and the Methow River snaked out from the deep recesses of the mountains. The rugged peaks of the Pasayten populated the expansive terrain to the north. The silhouette of the elevated lookout on the flat, blasted summit of Slate Peak was clear against the light of the setting sun.

Azurite, Ballard, Crater, Tatie, and Jack Mountains; Methow River flows below
Goat Peak Lookout
Due to our late start (we didn't hit the trail until almost 6 PM), we didn't see anyone on the trail or at the lookout; we spent the night in solitude with just the setting moon and a light but insistent breeze.

We made multiple trips to the summit from our camp that night to see the sunset, the sunrise, and the night sky. After the moon set and before the start of astronomical twilight of the coming dawn, we could see the Milky Way spilled across the dark night sky, stretching from Mount Gardner in the south to the Pasayten peaks. However, we discovered that light pollution can affect even such a remote location: Silver Star was backlit by the glow of the Puget Sound metropolis and we spotted light on the horizon in the directions of Wenatchee and Vancouver as well.

Milky Way above Mount Gardner
At 5 AM, the rising sun painted pink alpenglow on Gardner and Silver Star. We watched the triangular shadow cast by Goat Peak retreat down the slopes of Silver Star as the sun gradually rose and warmed the chilly mountaintop. We returned to camp and slept until the first hikers of the day arrived and ended over 12 hours of solitude atop Goat Peak.

The shadow of Goat Peak retreats down Silver Star
This is a dry hike: bring all the water you need. If you choose to camp on the mountain, be sure to bring sufficient water, as the climate on the eastern side of the Cascades tends to be drier and hotter than that on the western slopes.

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