Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gobblers Knob

Lenticular cloud caps Rainier
11.5 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, Mount Rainier National Park entrance fee required

Perched atop a rocky peak across the Tahoma Creek valley, the fire lookout at Gobblers Knob offers one of the most impressive front-row seat views of the west aspect of Washington State's Mount Rainier. This is one of the best places to view the less-visited western side of this mighty mountain and is a good deal quieter than Paradise, Sunrise, and other more tourist-friendly parts of the national park. The hike to this lookout visits placid Lake George as well but does require a long, 3.2-mile walk up the carfree portion of Westside Road to reach the singletrack trail leaving from Round Pass. While the scenery here is still not as impressive as the wildflower meadows and close-up glacier views elsewhere in the park, it's a good place to enjoy amazing views of Mount Rainier without having too much company.

I hiked Gobblers Knob on a late June Friday, choosing a less popular hike on a weekday so that I could practice social distancing. Unfortunately, the timing for my hike wasn't great: there was still over two feet of snow on the upper parts of the mountain, making the trail hard to follow and requiring me to use traction on my boots.

From Seattle, I took Highway 167 and then Highway 512 south to Puyallup, exited onto Highway 161 and followed it south past South Hill, Graham, and Eatonville to the junction with Highway 7; I turned left and followed Highway 7 to Elbe and continued on Highway 706 from Elbe towards Mount Rainier. Passing Ashford, I entered the park and soon after the entrance booth I made a left turn onto Westside Road. I followed the gravel Westside Road up about 3 miles to the parking area at the road closure; there were some potholes but the road wasn't too bad.

From the trailhead, I followed Westside Road north, quickly passing by the massive rockslide that caused the northern portions of this road to be closed. Originally meant to be part of a ring road around Rainier, Westside Road offered car access between the Nisqually and Puyallup watersheds until the threat of rockslides from Mount Wow led the road to be closed at the current trailhead. After passing the rockslide, the trail followed the base of the massive cliffs of Mount Wow. In June, a seasonal waterfall cascaded down these cliffs with a number of gracefully plunging drops.

Waterfalls tumbling off Mount Wow
Westside Road maintained a steady but gentle uphill grade, soon crossing a bridge over Fish Creek. At about a mile in, the road came to the wide, debris-strewn path of Tahoma Creek. This spot offered the first good views of Mount Rainier: Liberty Cap and Point Success rose above the forested mountains that boxed in the Tahoma Creek valley. Tahoma Creek is a volatile geologic area: there are frequent glacial outburst floods from the South Tahoma Glacier that cause debris flows through the valley; at the time of writing, the last such flood had just occurred in 2019.

Tahoma Creek
After the road left Tahoma Creek, it embarked on a set of switchbacks through the forest as it climbed towards Round Pass. This is unfortunately the most boring stretch of the hike: there were no views and the road itself took two miles of switchbacks with a very gentle grade to cover a distance that it probably could've covered much more efficiently with some steeper uphill.

A little over three miles into the hike, Westside Road arrived at Round Pass. A former parking area on the left side of the road marked the start of the trail to Lake George and Gobblers Knob. There's a bike rack here: if you'd rather not hike the long, three-mile slog of Westside Road, you always have the option of biking up to Round Pass. The Lake George Trail left from the northwest corner of the lot and immediately began a climb with a steeper grade through a beautiful forest. Occasional breaks in the trees here provided partial views of Rainier and the understory vegetaion, having just recently melted out, was dotted with avalanche lilies.

Lake George Trail
A mile after leaving Round Pass and a little over 4 miles into the hike, I arrived at Lake George. A spur trail broke off to the left, leading to some campsites and a toilet; I took a brief detour from the main trail to the lakeshore to enjoy views of Mount Wow rising over Lake George. Lake George is a pretty alpine lake, although it's not necessarily a standout in the PNW due to tough competition. While nice, I wouldn't recommend the lake as a standalone destination.

Lake George and Mount Wow
The trail towards Gobblers Knob briefly followed the lakeshore before turning sharply into a stream valley. Here, the snow started: between Lake George and Gobblers Knob, I spent most of my time hiking in snow that was well over two feet thick in places. Luckily, the initial snow patch ended once the trail began to climb again and the first set of switchbacks above the lake were snow-free with beautiful carpet blooms of avalanche lilies. Avalanche lilies bloom immediately after the snowmelt and are one of the my favorite Washington wildflowers- their brief bloom requires good timing to catch. The Mount Rainier area is one of the most reliable places in the Cascades to see avalanche lilies.

Avalance lilies
Trillium and avalanche lilies
The snow-free trail didn't last: the next small basin was covered in snow and this time the trail ascending out from it was still snow-covered. As some parts of the hike required crossing steep snowfields, I donned my microspikes here and kept them on for the rest of the hike.

The trail was completely snow-covered by the time it ascended to a small pond on a bench beneath Gobblers Knob. Here, it became hard to follow the trail and the bootpack faded out. With this much snow, it would've been wise to turn back, but having limited time before I moved from Seattle, I was determined to reach the summit. I circled around the south end of the pond; with no clear path through the snow, I chose to head roughly due west as I ascended the snowy slopes of Gobblers Knob.

Frozen pond above Lake George
Unfortunately, I popped out on the ridgeline a little south of where I should've been, so I backtracked a bit and headed north and soon found myself at the intersection between the trail west to Goat Lake and the spur trail to Gobblers Knob: the trail sign was lower than the snow level but was visible as a snow well and melted out around it. The snowy terrain was slippery and disorienting and not recommended for hikers without proper traction gear and navigation skills. I followed the Gobblers Knob spur for a last half mile uphill push to the summit. After spending most of the hike in the forest, views finally started opening up as I approached the summit. Soon, the lookout appeared above on a large rocky outcrop.

Gobblers Knob and Mount Rainier
A final push into a terrain of meadows and rocks brought me to the summit. I climbed up onto the deck of the fire lookout for an excellent panoramic view of Mount Rainier and the South Cascades. Rainier dominated the view to the east. All three summits were visible: Liberty Cap, Columbia Crest, and Point Success. A lenticular cloud has just begun forming over the summit. Liberty Cap and Point Success together create the Sunset Amphitheater, a caved in portion of the mountain filled by the massive Puyallup Glacier that catches the sun's dying rays each day. Below Point Success was the South Tahoma Glacier, which fed Tahoma Creek. The debris flow-widened valley that I had hiked up was visible below.

Rainier from Gobblers Knob: Sunset Amphitheater and the Puyallup Glaciers
To the southeast were the Tatoosh Range familiar to tourists at Paradise and farther away were the Goat Rocks, the most impressive peaks in the South Cascades outside the three major volcanoes. Mount Wow's snow-streaked slopes were due south.

Tatoosh Range and Goat Rocks
Two more volcanoes were visible to the south: Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. Mount Adams is blocked by Mount Wow from this angle. High Rock is a notable and sharp peak to the south and is home to another Rainier-area fire lookout. To the west, the Cascades faded into the lowlands and the hills of Capitol State Forest near Olympia. The Puget Sound can probably be seen from here on a clear day but the skies over the lowlands were not very clear so I couldn't see the Olympics, the Sound, or Cascade peaks to the north.

Mount Wow, High Rock, and Mount St. Helens
Due to the snow conditions, no one else appeared to have made it up to Gobblers Knob on the day of my visit and I had the spot to myself. On weekends, this area sees its fair share of visitors, although the hikers here are still far sparser than the crowds that ascend to Paradise. I got to enjoy the views from all four sides of the deck of the fire lookout at a leisurely pace. The fire lookout is one of four left in Mount Rainier National Park.

Gobblers Knob Fire Lookout
This was a beautiful and enjoyable hike, with wildflowers and a lake on the way to a summit with stunning views of Mount Rainier. While not one of the highlights of the Cascades, this is nonetheless an excellent hike for locals who wish to see Rainier from a less frequently viewed angle.

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