Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Snowgrass Flat and Old Snowy Mountain

Snowgrass Flat
15 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain (10 miles, 1700 feet to Snowgrass Flat)
Difficulty: Strenuous (Moderate to Snowgrass Flat)
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

The journey through the wildflower meadows of Snowgrass Flat along the Pacific Crest Trail to the summit of Old Snowy Mountain is among the highlights of hiking in the state of Washington. Each July and August, Snowgrass Flat delivers one of the most stunning wildflower displays in the Cascades; Old Snowy Mountain is a lofty, 7900-foot peak with expansive views of the volcanoes of the South Cascades and of the craggy Goat Rocks. The route to the summit of Old Snowy Mountain requires a bit of Class 2 scrambling but is fairly straightforward, making this one of the highest summits in the state that is reasonably accessible to most fit hikers.

Both Snowgrass Flat and Old Snowy Mountain can be day hiking destinations, although Old Snowy Mountain makes for a long, tough day of hiking. However, the Goat Rocks is substantially more popular for backpacking: there's plenty of campsites in Snowgrass Flat and the area is a long enough drive from any city that most hikers prefer to stay the night in the mountains. I did Old Snowy Mountain as a day hike and ended up spending 6.5 hours driving and 9 hours hiking in a single day.

I took Highway 410 from Enumclaw to reach the trailhead, though hikers from Seattle can also access the area via Highway 161 from Puyallup. I followed 410 southeast from Enumclaw into Mount Rainier National Park, then followed Highway 123 south out of the park to its junction with US 12; I followed US 12 west two miles past Packwood to the turnoff for Forest Service Road 21. NF-21 was an unpaved but well-maintained gravel road with washboarding but few potholes; I followed it southeast 15 miles to the turnoff for Chambers Lake and the Snowgrass Trailhead, where I made a left onto the road for the Snowgrass Trailhead; I followed signs for the Snowgrass Trailhead, passing branch points leading towards Chamber Lake and the Berry Patch Trailhead. The last 2 miles of gravel road were a little rougher with a number of potholes, but this road should still be manageable without too much issue for most cars. When I reached the trailhead at 8 on a Sunday morning, there were already well over 50 cars parked there, presumably mostly overnight hikers. I filled out a mandatory self-issue Goat Rocks wilderness permit before heading out.

From the Snowgrass Trailhead, a connector trail led 200 meters past a sign for the Goat Rocks Wilderness to Snowgrass Trail No. 96; at the junction, I took the right fork, which led towards the flat (the left fork goes to stock access at the Berry Patch Trailhead). The first mile and a half of the hike had minimal net elevation gain, generally following the contour lines along the lower part of the southeast slopes of Goat Ridge (the trail was not completely flat, with short sections of ups and downs). At a mile and a half, the trail had a mild sustained descent to a bridge crossing over Goat Creek.

Bridge over Goat Creek
After crossing the creek, the trail continued through fairly flat terrain for another half mile before starting a gradual ascent with switchbacks. The trail remained in the forest with no views, but about a mile and a half past the bridge, wildflowers- specifically, lupine and arnica- began lining the trail. At two miles from the bridge (3.5 from the trailhead), I came to the junction between the Snowgrass Trail and the Snowgrass Bypass Trail No. 97; I continued straight on the Snowgrass Trail.

Wildflowers along the ascent on the Snowgrass Trail
After another two-thirds of a mile of steady climbing, the trail came to a junction with the Lily Basin Trail, which led off towards the left to Goat Lake and Goat Ridge. Here, the trail broke out into a clearing for the first time, with a wildflower appetizer teasing at the meadows to come further up. I stayed on the Snowgrass Trail through this junction; the trail reentered the trail briefly as it continued to climb but began emerging into clearings more and more frequently. A few remaining avalanche lilies bloomed near the trail, although it was clear that they were past peak. Valerian, beargrass, columbine, and paintbrush were blooming profusely.

A few minutes later, the trail entered Snowgrass Flat, an absolutely magnificent, verdant subalpine meadow dotted with innumerable flowers. Ahead me rose the rugged crest of the Goat Rocks; to the south and southwest stood massive Mount Adams and topless Mount St. Helens. Magenta paintbrush, heather, and western anemone seedheads added splashes of color to the meadows.

Entering Snowgrass Flat
Arrival at Snowgrass Flat
Two-thirds of a mile from the Lily Basin Trail junction- and 4.8 miles from the trailhead- I came to the end of the Snowgrass Trail at its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail in the heart of the meadows of Snowgrass Flat. I was at a loss for words: a sea of wildflowers stretched from where I stood to the foot of the high peaks of the Goat Rocks. This is surely among the greatest wildflower meadows of the Northwest.

Old Snowy Mountain rises above Snowgrass Flat
For day hikers heading just to the flat, this is the end of the hike; it's possible to wander around the meadow along the PCT or to make a loop by taking the PCT south to the Snowgrass bypass and then taking the bypass trail back to the Snowgrass Trail, but the highlight of the Flat itself is undoubtedly this huge meadow at the junction of the two trails. Bugs had not been too bad on the hike up but were a little annoying once I was at the meadow.

After picking my jaw up from the ground, I continued on my way towards Old Snowy Mountain, turning left and heading north at the junction with the PCT. The abundant wildflowers continued, stretching out in all directions as I enjoyed the views of the Goat Rocks and the sister volcanoes of Adams and St. Helens. It seemed that I may have been just slightly past peak with the flowers- although paintbrush was blooming like crazy, I observed many lupine with hairy seedpods that had finished blooming, so I might have been a little late for the lupine.

Ives Peak at Snowgrass Flat
Mount St. Helens from Snowgrass Flat
Mount Adams at Snowgrass
As I hiked northward and the PCT climbed steadily, the meadows began to fade into an alpine landscape of snow and rock. Soon, flowers were limited to small patches of heather, lupine, or paintbrush. Views to the north also began opening up, hitting a climax when the trail made a right angle turn onto the north side of Old Snowy Mountain, opening up a stunning view to the north of Goat Ridge and Mount Rainier. The trail then traversed a sizable snowfield; a partially frozen pond of snowmelt at the base of the snowfield was a brilliant blue. From this vantage point, I could see all the way across to Goat Lake at the base of Hawkeye Point on Goat Ridge; although the flowers at Snowgrass were already in full bloom, the waters of Goat Lake still appeared to be solidly frozen.

Goat Ridge and Rainier
After crossing the large snowfield, the PCT came to the northwest ridge of Old Snowy Mountain, which offered a lofty viewpoint over the valley of Lake Creek and the remnants of the Packwood Glacier. Climate change has reduced the Packwood Glacier to essentially a large snowfield; this it the source of the creek that feeds Packwood Lake. Here, about one and a half miles past the Snowgrass Trail Junction, the PCT split into two, with the main PCT traversing the crumbling north slopes of Old Snowy Mountain above and on the Packwood Glacier and the PCT alternate route climbing further up the ridge of Old Snowy. I followed the right fork for the PCT alternate route and Old Snowy.

The trail pushed steeply upward towards the north shoulder of Old Snowy up a trail of sharp, loose rocks. The Goat Rocks are the remnants of an extinct stratovolcano, once a Cascade sister to Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens; since cessation of volcanic activity, erosion has exposed the harder underlying rock in the volcano as the crest of Goat Rocks. The remaining rock is loose and crumbly, making hiking and scrambling in the Goat Rock a bit unpleasant.

A half mile of hard uphill past the PCT alternate junction, I reach the zenith of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington, the highest point of the 500 miles of the PCT in Washington at about 7600 feet. From here, the PCT led to the left down the jagged north ridge of Old Snowy, while an unmarked but clearly visible path led south along the ridge to the summit. From this junction, I looked down to the east on the snows of the McCall Glacier, which was larger and in better shape than the Packwood Glacier.

Final scramble up Old Snowy
The final stretch of trail was a steep uphill scramble along the north ridge of Old Snowy. The path was generally easy to follow but it's important to note that this is more of a climber's path than a leisurely hiking trail: rocks were loose and the grade was often very steep. The crux of the route was a ten foot wall that required a bit of Class 2 scrambling just short of the summit.

Crux of the route- a bit of Class 2 scrambling
At the summit, views were astonishing. While climbing Old Snowy isn't easy, it's also probably one of the easier summits of its height (7900 feet) in the state. The 360-degree view was awesome both in the quality of the scenery and in the scope of the viewshed. The most apparent, in-your-face aspect of the view was the crest of the Goat Rocks, with Ives Peak and Gilbert Peak rising steeply above the McCall and Conrad Glaciers.

Gilbert and Ives Peaks and the McCall Glacier from Old Snowy
The view to the north was dominated by Mount Rainier, which rose like a god above all the surrounding Cascades. This view is more or less the same as the view at Paradise, with the Nisqually Glacier cascading down the south face of the mountain. One of the most satisfying aspects of this view was the clear visibility of the meadows at Paradise and the Muir Snowfield, allowing me to see fully the route from Paradise up to Camp Muir. Gibraltar Rock, which seems so massive when viewed at the foot of the mountain, was here flattened out to an almost unnoticeable rock feature, as were the typically notable Cathedral Rocks. The Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers were also clearly identifiable from this angle and Point Success and Liberty Cap were distinguishable as two separate summits.

Rainier from Old Snowy
The views to the south and southwest encompassed Snowgrass Flat, from which I had ascended, and the generally forested South Cascades from which Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens rose up. The Mount Margaret/Coldwater Peak cluster of peaks north of St. Helens stuck out. To the east I could see all the way out to the Willapa Hills near the Pacific; to the northeast, High Rock and the Tatoosh Range rose behind the closer peaks of Goat Ridge. To the north, I spotted Chimney Rock and Summit Chief, Glacier Peak, and Mount Stuart to the right of Rainier. I could also see the Wenatchee Mountains form the northern boundary of Kittitas Valley, although I couldn't see Ellensburg, and I spotted the parallel dry desert ridges that define the landscape around Yakima. To the south, I looked past the peaks of the Goat Rocks and could see all the way into the Oregon desert.

Adams, St. Helens, and Snowgrass Flat from Old Snowy
Goat Ridge
Although I encountered plenty of people on the trail, I had the summit to myself for about half an hour before another group arrived; while Snowgrass Flat is popular and Old Snowy sees a good number of visitors, the summit was by no means crowded. It seems, for the most part, that the secret that is the Goat Rocks, while short of a true secret, has not fully gotten out yet.

I retraced my steps to the trailhead but made two detours on the way back. The first I don't recommend: rather than taking the PCT alternate route down from Old Snowy the way I came up, I decided to make a small loop by descending the other leg of the PCT alternate route down the north ridge of Old Snowy, then I returned by traversing above the Packwood Glacier on the principal PCT. While the scenery was wonderful and gave me a glimpse of the PCT to the north, which followed an open ridgeline and looked spectacular, there are no new views and this detour added about half a mile hiking with a hundred feet of elevation gain (this is not accounted for in the hike description at the start of the post). The other detour was more enjoyable: once I returned to the PCT-Snowgrass Trail junction at Snowgrass Flat, I returned by taking the PCT south another mile to the Snowgrass Bypass Trail No. 97 and then followed the bypass trail a mile back to the main Snowgrass Trail. The additional mile along the PCT delivered more meadows, plenty of blooming flowers, and many good views of Mount Adams and the crest of the Goat Rocks.

Views of the Goat Rocks along the PCT in Snowgrass Flat


  1. Thanks for your great comments on the trail and campsites.

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for visiting the blog and have a wonderful hike if you decide to head out to Snowgrass!

  2. Was the Goat Rocks spine part of this hike, or would one have to hike north on the PCT to experience the spine?

    1. The Goat Rocks Knife Edge section of the PCT starts from the shoulder of Old Snowy, so it is north of this hike. If you hike the triangle where you take the PCT alternate up close to the summit of Old Snowy, then you can hike a short stretch of the Knife Edge along the PCT alternate and then return to Snowgrass Flat along the main PCT across Packwood Glacier.