Trip Report: Packwood Lake

In mid-summer, we backpacked up into Goat’s Rocks Wilderness to beautiful Packwood Lake. We had a loose plan to camp the first night at Packwood lake, and then continue up to Lost Lake via Coyote trail for a two night, three day trip. We ended up changing our plans while on the trail, and it was a wonderful trip.

Originally, we had permits for Mt Margaret but opted to pick a different trip after a landslide/washout made the road inaccessible. This was a trip to celebrate Pat’s mom’s birthday, and so we looked for a trail that would be fun and provide big views. Goat’s Rocks Wilderness came to mind as it is a stunning area and not so far from us.

On a side note – we had recently sold our previous backpacking tent and were supposed to have our new tent for the trip. Unfortunately, there was a delay in production which meant we wouldn’t have it in time. This posed a the question – cowboy camp, buy a tarp, or lug our 7 lb (!) ‘car camping’ tent out? (We chose the latter and split the weight between our packs. Weight training!)

The first day, we made our way through a lush old-growth forest on a well-groomed, wide trail. The trees and small springs that dotted the trail felt so nice against the hot sun. We ate lunch in a patch of blooming bear grass. I truly love the way their flowers look — very ethereal and delicate, though the leaves are sharp and can hurt.

The trail in is pretty quick – our Garmin had it at less than 5 miles from parking lot to the lake. There was a ranger at the entrance of the lake, and we spent some time talking with him about campsites. We learned that many groups had been heading up to Lost Lake all day, to our dismay. Lost Lake is a lot smaller than Packwood and we were looking for some quiet time in nature instead of a party lake. We decided to find a campsite and see how the trip unfolded before making any plans.

I loved the views at Packwood lake. The end of the lake stretched out to Johnson Peak in the distance. The colors were absolutely stunning – the lake was an immaculate aquamarine color and very cold. I saw someone swimming all the way out to Wizard Island. There were also several people fishing. The ranger told us that this lake had its own special subspecies of rainbow trout, but that they were hard to catch since they lived in the deepest parts.

We hiked on, passing campsites that dotted the lakeshore. Our plan was to hike to where the ranger said his favorite spot was, which was a few miles away. It was very hot, making each site we passed look tempting. We investigated some of the sites along the way, since some had beautiful sandy beaches or creeks nearby.

Unfortunately, many of the campsites were disgusting because there was used toilet paper all over. I couldn’t believe it. People had used the bathroom right next to the lake. It made me feel so upset that this beautiful area was getting trashed by humans. I also felt bad for the poor ranger who had to clean up after people. We saw something similar at Snoqualmie Lake, but that lake had a backcountry toilet that people were supposed to use. It is a sad reality but popular places get ‘loved up’ during the season. So – PSA: pack out toilet paper (and any other trash). Use the bathroom 100-200 feet away from water and be sure to bury feces securely so that animals can’t dig it up.

The first part of Packwood Lake was pretty busy, with groups of hikers and families occupying most of the campsites closer to the entrance of the lake valley. As we hiked on, groups became less frequent, and the space between sites stretched out. We began to see a new view — once we swung around to the tip of the lake, we would be facing “backwards” and would be able to see Mount Rainier.

When we made it to the campsite, it felt like we had arrived in a magical place. The late afternoon light flickered off the lake and danced back in the trees, illuminating a soft, mossy forest. There was a large creek that bisected the trail, with a tiny waterfall that splashed over a downed log. We were excited to filter water from the creek – it tasted delicious. Even the ducks drank from the creek, and we got to watch them swim up from the lake to take a big drink, before returning to the open water.

From our campsite, we had a view of both Johnson Peak and Mount Rainier. Despite the cold water, I went for a dip in the icy lake. It felt amazing after sweating under my pack all day. I floated in the water for a long time, until I turned into a small prune.

I loved listening to the lake lap at the pebble beach, with the rushing creek in the background. The birds called to each other, and we even had a family of Mergansers (mom and three babies) sleep on a log nearby. It was soft, quiet, and gentle. It felt magical.

The next morning, we woke and had breakfast on the pebble beach, watching the sun arc over the hills of the valley. Something that I love about backpacking is that there are countless opportunities to change plans and adjust. We decided to spend the day exploring the valley that extended behind us and looking for wildlife tracks. In the late afternoon, we would hike out and have a birthday dinner with Pat’s dad. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a fortuitous plan because many, many groups were hiking in and Packwood lake was about to become packed.

During the day, the valley we explored was very quiet, and we did not see any other hikers the entire day. We started out on the trail that would eventually take us up to Packwood Saddle and Elk Pass. As we felt like it, we got on animal paths, or followed the river as it coiled through the valley. It felt special to be able to wander slowly, listening to the sounds of the forest. We followed woodpeckers through the trees, found mink tracks in the sandy mud near the river, and ate lunch in a small dip surrounded by blooming yarrow, wild rose, cow parsnip, and countless tiny wildflowers.

The hike out was easy and shaded, next to a river. Instead of following the same trail that we took in, we curved off onto an old forest access road to try something new. The trail was almost completely empty and followed the river for most of the way, keeping us cool and providing some beautiful views. We could see Mount Rainier peaking through the trees along the way. We hiked quickly so that we could stop at the Mountain Goat cafe in Packwood before it closed, since it was highly recommended. We made it just in time — while we waited for our coffee, three elk wandered up the street and snacked on the trees. Overall, it was a beautiful and wonderful trip.

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