I visited Cispus Basin in the Goat Rocks Wilderness for the first time a year ago. I backpacked for a few summers and had seen some incredible sights but was not prepared for the beauty of Cispus Basin. Rounding a corner after steep, dusty switchbacks to a field full of wildflowers, and Mt. Adams looming impressively in the distance, I stood awestruck. I barely remembered the mileage, as each twist exposed new beauty. The heavy scent of humid, fresh growth embraced me and I felt fully immersed in this incredible environment. I floated to our campsite and reveled having an entire afternoon to explore the basin.
When friends reached out hoping to go on their first ever backpacking trip, my mind immediately went to Cispus Basin. Slightly more mileage than the nearby Snowgrass Flats, a classic intro backpacking trip, Cispus Basin seemed like the ideal way to introduce someone to the extreme beauty of the Goat Rocks Wilderness, high alpine meadows and proof that not every hiking trip looks like Mount Si. Of course, I forgot about the steep, dusty stretches of trail, massively underestimated the number of bugs, and when the weather was in the upper 80’s instead of the low 60’s as forecasted, I wished I picked a lake. However, our friends Emily and James were troopers, committed to the entire trail and seemed thrilled to be there, despite the bug bites, blisters and lack of shade.
Goat Rocks: Cispus Basin
We woke early on Saturday, packed up the gear and piled into the Forester. The route to Packwood from Seattle is pretty incredible. The road crosses through five different wilderness areas and national forests, including Mount Rainier National Park. Highway 123 covers the east side of Mt. Rainier and we were treated to gorgeous up-close views of the volcano. It was almost beautiful enough to convince me to skip our backpacking trip altogether and turn off to Paradise, but the Goat Rocks called to me.
After two hours of driving, we made it to Packwood and the Mountain Goat Coffee Company for some lattes and savory scones. It is one of my favorite coffee spots; the scenery is gorgeous, the coffee is great and they make a really good cheesy ham scone that is the perfect second breakfast before hiking. I simply cannot go to Packwood and not stop at the Mountain Goat Coffee Company.
The turn-off to the trailhead is just past the coffee shop and follows a dusty, gravel road for 16 miles. The road has minimal potholes, but plenty of washboard and general bumpiness. After an hour on the forest road, we made it to the full trailhead. The trailhead services more popular routes including Snowgrass Flat and Goat Lake, making it a busy weekend destination.
We saddled everyone up with their packs and started on the trail. The trail drops mildly for about a mile. Biting flies and mosquitos slowly increased their number and took advantage of any available skin. We enjoyed increasingly older trees as the trail continued at a fairly level grade. The sounds of rushing water grew louder and we passed a nice bridge over Goat Creek. The biting flies did not allow for a break, and we continued up as the trail began to climb. Quads burning and sweat dripping, we slowly made our way to the Bypass Trail Junction at 4.1 miles.
One of the reasons I chose this route was the numerous campsites on the route providing beautiful views. If blisters were bad and morale was low, there is a campsite at the Bypass Junction, or we could continue to Snowgrass Flat for a roundtrip mileage of 8.2 miles. Luckily, people were feeling good and we decided to push on the additional 2.5 miles to our campsite.
After turning on the Bypass Trail, we saw a campsite in a meadow that looked perfect for lunch. After taking a little break for eating, and enjoying the expanse of green and wildflowers, we started back on the trail. This section of trail is the area I was thinking of when I first decided this trip would be a perfect first backpack. Slowly gaining elevation, the trail parallels expansive sections of bright green, with every color of the rainbow represented in the wildflowers. Our speed dramatically lowered as we constantly stopped to admire the view. Goat Rocks began to peek through the trees and excitement built as we neared our next junction.
We arrived at the PCT junction and moved to the PCT. Things continued to improve as the trail switched to a gentle, meandering grade. Numerous creeks gently babbled over the trail and the bugs began to disappear. As we entered the basin, I steered the group to a campsite I had scouted the previous year. I remembered it being large and perfect for a group, with spectacular views and magnificent star-gazing. My memory did not deceive me and I was so excited to share my favorite spot with the group.
Goat Rocks Wilderness is an eroded extinct volcano that stood at 12,000 feet two million years ago. The majority of the wilderness is above the timberline, featuring vast alpine vistas with grand ridges and dramatic rocky peaks. The view from our tent looked out over Big Horn and Goat Citadel, the flat section to the right. One of the first wilderness areas to be designated in Washington State in 1931, Cispus Basin felt truly wild. We climbed to a viewpoint and saw trees and peaks, and nothing else. It is incredibly refreshing to look out and not be able to see anything but wilderness and it makes me so incredibly grateful for the early conservationists that protected this area.
While the weather forecast listed 63ºF as the maximum temperature for the day, it was easily in the 80’s. Unfortunately, our campsite was mostly above the timberline and there was minimal shade. We set up our tents then relaxed in whatever shade we could find, including hiding under the tent vestibules. I was regretting choosing a basin over an alpine lake, as I desperately wished to be underwater, where the sun and bugs could not find me. However, the view was so spectacular, and it felt so good to be sitting that it was hard to imagine being anywhere else.
After an hour or so of relaxing at the campsite, we went to a tributary of Cispus River to collect water. About a third of a mile away from the campsite, the walk to the basin-within-a-basin was stunningly beautiful. The basin sits above a waterfall and was still full of snow. I love this spot as you can trace the beginning of the waterfall and creek to where it bubbles up out of the ground and feel like you have made it to the true source. We filtered water with my gravity filter and tested out the lifestraw, James drinking directly from the icy water.
We played on the small boulders that dot the flat, snowy meadow. Juggy and short, the routes were perfect for hiking boots. One side of the boulder was about two feet off the ground, but I prefer to get to the top the hard way.
After filtering water, we returned to camp and made dinner. We used fresh ravioli from Trader Joes with dehydrated ratatouille (recipe soon!). A shared Mini Bota Box of Cabernet Sauvignon classed up our dinner and we pulled a few swigs from the flask filled with excellent island gin.
By the way, we tried Underwood Wine in a can on our trip to Shi Shi, and the Bota Box wins hands down. Underwood tasted more tinny and harsh, and it was a struggle to finish it. Underwood is the equivalent of two glasses of wine, instead of three glasses of wine in the Bota Box mini, so the Underwood is more convenient when there are just two of us. Extra wine might be a good way to make friends in the backcountry? Also, the Bota Box has a resealable lid, so if you can’t finish 3 glasses of wine after hiking in the heat all day, you can always pack it back out.
The bugs were still terrible, and I was starting to look like I had the chicken pox, so we climbed into bed for some reading and digesting. It was still light out, and I was desperate to see Mt. Adams turn pink in the sunset, so I popped my head out every 15 minutes. Luckily, I caught it at peak sunset and saw the golden pink glow on the giant volcano.
I fell asleep shortly after and woke just after midnight. The stars were perhaps the most magnificent I have ever seen. I attempted astrophotography and failed miserably. Eventually, I gave up and just enjoyed looking at the Milky Way. It was difficult to fall asleep again, as I wanted to keep watching the stars until morning, but my body did not seem to agree.
Knowing that we were only seven miles from the trailhead, it was easy to take a lazy morning. I lay cozy in my sleeping bag until Michael popped his head in and let me know a marmot was running through the camp. Our wildlife sighting was pretty low so far this year, so I was very excited to see the blonde butt of a marmot scampering through the camp. It crested the ridge and wandered down to a flat space, where it dug in the shrubs, periodically nibbling.
After some coffee and slow gathering of our supplies, we returned to the water source to filter a little more water for the day. We saw an entire family of marmots scampering across the rocks, two adults, and four juveniles. Everyone heard a marmot whistle, which is rather startling if you have not heard it before.
We enjoyed the beautiful basin one last time, shouldered our packs, and dropped on the main trail. We continued on the trail towards Cispus Pass until we reached the waterfall below our filtering location. The waterfall was beautiful, and the spray delightful given the oppressive heat that started at about 8:00 am.
We turned around at the first waterfall and started back towards the trailhead, slowly. I was in no hurry to leave Cispus Basin, as I knew things were only going to get less beautiful from here. Such is the problem with an out and back backpacking trip.
As we lost elevation, the bottom of my feet hurt, but my shin splints felt great, so I was simply happy to have “normal” hiking pain. As the bugs increased, we took fewer and fewer breaks, until we reached the bridge crossing Goat Creek. At this point, our feet hurt, and Emily’s had many painful blisters. We decided to use some bug spray and eat a lunch of bagels and Justin’s nut butter.
We took off our shoes and dipped our feet into the icy stream. Michael and I jumped into a pool just below the bridge. I looked miserable in the frigid water but still slid in three times. The intense sun immediately warmed me every time I climbed out, so the instantly numbing water was refreshing.
Wearing some wet layers, we returned to the car. Another beautiful drive through Mt. Rainier and we were home. A stop at Bongos once we got back to Seattle rounded out the day.
All in All
It was incredible to introduce friends to backpacking. Backpacking has brought so many positives into my life, and I have found a deep passion for spending time on the trail. Being able to share this with friends made the experience all the more wonderful. It was an excellent opportunity to reflect on how much I have grown as an outdoorswoman and I can’t wait to learn and discover more.