Gifford Pinchot National Forest; Goat Rocks Wilderness
Packwood Lake Trail #78
Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.
August 21-23, 2020
10 miles RT
I’ll set the scene for this one. The year was 2020 and we were at least 5 months into a world wide pandemic. Portland was in the height of their Black Lives Matter movement. The overall status of our world was not great. The summer provided a sense of false hope as cases lowered and more people were outside. But, as we know now, things came crashing down again in fall. I clung to that glimpse of hope and decided to plan a backpacking trip with my friend, Anjelica, and her roommate. It felt safe since we were outside, I was only meeting up with people from one other household, we drove separate, and I brought my own tent. I won’t dive into the deep end of how the pandemic effected us or the mental gymnastics that came with it to get here. The last time I had a chance to see my friend was in 2019, pre-pandemic.
Packwood lake was a place I had wanted to hike or backpack to since a previous girls cabin trip to the area in April 2019. We weren’t able to round up everyone for a hike at the time but it stayed on my radar. My partner wasn’t interested in going here either due to the popularity of the area. I left pre-dawn on Friday morning to get to the trailhead as early as possible. I knew it was busy and I was worried about finding a camp spot. I reached the trailhead around 8AM before my friend and her roommate got there. It was an almost full parking lot but there were still a few spots left. It is an easily accessible trailhead off a paved road, NF-1260, that leaves directly from the east side of Packwood. You will need a NW Forest Pass or equivalent to park here. My friends rolled in about 30 mins after me. The excitement that comes with seeing someone you haven’t seen in a long time and doing something you love that you haven’t been doing as much of because of a pandemic is unmeasured. We headed out on the trail shortly after they arrived. The trail is fairly straight forward and undulated gradually through a forest setting for 4 miles. You don’t enter the Goat Rocks wilderness until you are directly at the edge of the lake. There are self issue permits here for when you do enter the wilderness, please make sure to fill one out. As we started to hike around the lake the closest spots were already taken. The first open spot we came upon was on a slope, but we were worried that if we continued on we wouldn’t find anything better. Anjelica decided to run on ahead to check out other options without her pack on. Her roommate and I occupied the spot in fear of losing it during further exploration. She came back a short while after saying there were better options farther down. We continued on to a flatter spot with a private beach to access the lake. I’m glad we didn’t settle!
It was overcast and muggy when we got there. After setting up camp, the first thing I wanted to do was jump in the lake to cool off. I brought a swimsuit with me, but I couldn’t be bothered to change. I striped down to my sports bra and boy shorts for a quick dip (both cover more than a standard swimsuit anyway). The water was too cold for Anjelica, but her roommate followed me in fully clothed. I had lugged 3 liters of bagged wine in for us to enjoy. I figured we could sip on it all weekend, but it was gone before the first day was over. Oops! Throughout the day, more people had started to trickle in and even our secluded spot ended up having close neighbors. I’m not sure if this area is as crowded during a normal year or if everyone was desperate to get outside because of the pandemic. But, we would have been hard pressed to find a spot if we had come in on the Saturday instead. This was a trip dedicated to relaxing, which meant most of Saturday was spent in camp. We were either reading, swimming, or playing cards in the sun. I discovered my air mattress doubles as a decent floaty too. We decided to take a walk to the main view point for lunch and check out the old ranger station. Nothing like a quick leg stretch to prepare you for more lizard time (aka lazying around in the sun). Near dusk we walked to the other end of the lake where the trail starts to head steeply up into the wilderness. There is a view of Mount Rainier from this end of the lake, but it can be hard to see due to brush. We also would have had to walk through someones camp if we wanted to get a better view. It should also be noted that Washington was in a burn ban during this time, but tons of people were still having fires. I wish I would have had more confidence to say something, but there were too many of them. We would jokingly talk about the ban and emphasize the word BURN-BAN as we walked by some camps, but we knew it wasn’t going to stop anyone. A guy who was even cutting up a downed log asked if we needed fire wood. No sir, we do not. Please always check your states current rules and regulations on fires if you’re going to recreate outside. Even when you think you’re being safe things could easily go wrong and quickly get out of hand.
We had a slow morning on our last day trying to soak up as much scenery as possible. Instant coffee never tasted better than in the backcountry. None of us wanted to go back to reality. It was the closest thing to normalcy we had felt in a long time. We passed a lot of day hikers on our way out and the trailhead was overflowing with cars. It’s not a trail to find solitude, but it was sure fun. The good-bye was extra long as well since we didn’t know when we’d be able to see each other next.