Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Goat Peak (Chinook Pass)

Mount Rainier and the American Ridge larches
6.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Washington State has many excellent summits named Goat Peak; this one, located just east of Chinook Pass, stuns with its views of the east side of Mount Rainier and the fall colors of the western larches along the trail. With a trailhead easily accessible from a paved highway just outside Mount Rainier National Park, you'd expect Goat Peak to see crowds, but at least in the autumn, this panoramic summit in the William O. Douglas Wilderness provided a beautiful experience with lighter than expected traffic. Western larches are common in the valley of the American River, making this one of the best hikes to see this lower-elevation larch in the Northwest.

From the Puget Sound area, I took Highway 410 east and south from Enumclaw to Cayuse Pass in Mount Rainier National Park; at the junction with Highway 123 at Cayuse Pass, I stuck to the left to stay on Highway 410, crossing Chinook Pass and then descending into the valley of the American River. The trailhead for Goat Peak was directly off the south side of 410, across the road from the Hells Crossing Campground and just east of a bridge over the American River. There was parking for twenty or so cars; at the time of my hike, there was no sign indicating that a Northwest Forest Pass was necessary, but the trailhead is on Forest Service land so I put my pass up regardless.

From the trailhead, the trail made an initial quick climb to gentler slopes before beginning a steep climb alongside a small stream in a ravine. A few autumn larches already dotted the lower forest in the American River valley, although the densest groves of larches were still to come on the upper mountain. In fall, the streambed was dry in the ravine but earlier in the year, there would almost certainly be a creek flowing down this narrow and steep gulch. The trail paralleled the creekbed, crossing the stream twice before swinging back along the slope of the mountain after the second crossing. Here, the trail flattened out very briefly as it traversed to the east, cutting along the slopes of lower Goat Peak and offering the first glimpses of rocky Fifes Peak across the valley. Portions of the trail were eroded here at spots where the trail crossed open gravelly slopes, so be cautious if you go!

The trail wrapped around one corner of the ridge before finally turning uphill at the easternmost flank of the ridge, a little over a mile from the trailhead. As the trail approached the ridge, it entered a stand that almost purely larch, emitting a golden glow in the low-angle autumn sun. A few berry bushes near the trail added splotches of red autumn color.

Western larches on the ascent up Goat Peak
As the trail gained the ridge, it came to an intersection with an unmarked social trail that led off to the north towards a prominent outcrop along the ridge. I scrambled onto the rocky outcrop for an airy view of the American River Valley and of rocky Fifes Peak across the valley. Looking up towards Goat Peak, I saw vast swaths of western larches spread over the mountainside.

Larches and Fifes Peak from the first overlook
Western larches
For the next two miles, the trail followed the ridge uphill, climbing steeply at times. Views were frequent, with clearings either to the east into a larch-filled gully or west into the American River Valley. As the trail climbed progressively higher, Mount Rainier emerged from behind the Chinook Pass peaks.

Larches and Rainier
The climb was constant but was ameliorated by the many views. In spots, the trail had eroded substantially, clinging onto barely-remaining ledges while cutting across some crumbly scree slopes; however, it should remain manageable for hikers who frequently deal with terrain of intermediate difficulty.

Western larches lit by sunlight
About 2.5 miles into the hike, the trail finally matched the height of the ridge that lay to the east across a ravine. This ridgetop was actually a small plateau coated with larches- this color display was one of the highlights of the hike.

The larches of American Ridge
Having completed the majority of the climb, the trail carved its way east through the forests and a talus slope on the north slope of Goat Peak and met up with the American Ridge Trail (Trail 958). Here, a ridgeline outcrop provided a stupendous view to the north: the ramparts of the distant Stuart Range rose above a shining grove of nearby larches.

Stuart Range, larches
At the junction, I took the right fork, embarking on the final leg of the ascent. A few switchbacks brought me to the foot of the summit block; the trail wrapped around to the south side of the summit block, where the American Ridge Trail continued westward while an unmarked but clearly trod spur trail led the final few meters to the summit of Goat Peak.

The summit boasted a 360-degree view of the South Cascades dominated by Mount Rainier to the west. From this perspective, I could see much of the Disappointment Cleaver route which I had ascended earlier in the year. Little Tahoma seemed to blend into the mountain from this angle, which provided a head-on view of the Ingraham, Emmons, and Winthrop Glaciers. Larches dotted the ridges that flanked either side of the American River valley between the peak and Chinook Pass; at the head of the valley, I could see the roadcut of Highway 410 ascending towards the pass.

Mount Rainier
To the immediate south rose the high peaks of the William O. Douglas Wilderness: Mount Aix rose above the great ramparts of Nelson Ridge. Below lay Bumping Lake, surrounded by forests of larch. These mountains fostered a love for nature in William Douglas, a native of Yakima who became the longest serving Supreme Court justice in US history who passionately argued for the preservation of wild lands across the continent.

Mount Aix, Mount Adams, Bumping Lake
Mount Adams and the Goat Rocks were visible to the far south; the Alpine Lakes Wilderness peaks were visibile to the far north. Lemah, Chimney Rock, Overcoat, Summit Chief, and Daniel were all easily identifiable from this point far to the south. The northward and eastward views also encompassed many burnt areas devastated by the Norse Peak Fire the previous summer.

Lemah, Chimney Rock, Overcoat, Summit Chief, Daniel
An inversion layer on the day of my hike meant that the summit was warm but that air pollution in Eastern Washington was trapped at ground level, limiting my views out into the desert. I could see out to Manastash Ridge- one of the multiple folds separating Yakima from Ellensburg- but couldn't see any towns in the Kittitas or Yakima Valleys themselves.

Western larches and the view towards the desert
Having gotten an early start, I had the summit to myself for an hour in the morning and returned to Seattle early enough for donuts and a cookie ice cream sandwich in the afternoon.

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