There was no doubt that summer was over as we scrambled up Goat Island Mountain on the first Sunday of fall. Golden colors abound, fresh snow at the top seemed a real possibility and there was a definite bite in the air. I spend so much of the year looking forward to the summer season when the snow melts and the high alpine is accessible, spending as many weekends as possible under the stars. Fall is always a bit bittersweet.
This fall, however, feels so different. I was invited to this trip through some friends I met on Instagram and the stoke was contagious. Rather than mourning the summer I that was over, I became so excited for all of the objectives to come in the following months. I was not hobbling along a 4-mile trail, hoping my shins would not revolt, as I was doing last September, I got to tag along on a route that tested my limits. Instead of feeling completely disconnected from the hiking community as I desperately hoped that my injuries would heal, I felt accepted and thrilled to connect with such awesome people.
All to say, I am getting really excited about this fall.
Goat Island: The Climb
We arrived at the trailhead after a nice sunrise drive. We hit the trail for about half a mile before turning-off and beginning the off-trail portion of the route. A faint bootpath presented itself and we began to scale the wooded hillside. Climbing over damp logs, through spiderwebs and dew, we slowly wove our way through the woods, frequently pausing to check navigation and catch our breath. The trees began to thin and bushes threw off small ice crystals as we disturbed their slumber.
Eventually, we broke through the trees and reached an open meadow and rejoiced–the real fun was about to begin.
We slowly meandered up towards the closest ridge, dodging elk poop every five feet. Matted grass gave signal to where elk recently lay, though the only animals we saw where the ones lining the road as we entered the park. After climbing the meadow, we reached the ridgeline and walked through the trees. The views grew more and more spectacular as we looked down upon the valley we had so recently climbed.
The trees turned into a rocky cliff band on the ridge. We debated a scramble over a section with a bit of run-out or dropping down to the meadow below, crossing the talus field and climbing the gulley. While the ridge was likely possible, we were reticent to turn around at this point and opted for the route we could see, despite the slightly miserable climb up the steep gully. We could see the false summit on the other side of the saddle, losing a few hundred feet of elevation gain only to climb again was slightly heartbreaking but great for the quads.
At long last, we regained the lost elevation and crossed the saddle. Trees gave way to grass, then the grass gave way to gravel as we continued to climb. A stubborn cloud threatened to hang over Mt. Rainier as we grew closer to the high point.
Goat Island: The Ridge
As we reached the high point of the ridge, the large, looming cloud slid to the west and Mount Rainier appeared. It was almost too grand to comprehend and worth every panting step to get there. It felt so close that it was almost inevitable that we would skip to the summit from where we stood. A large icefall on one of the glaciers quickly dispelled that myth, reminding us that nothing on this shore is static. We took a seat and enjoyed the view as we ate a little lunch.
After reveling in the sights, we packed up and continued on our way. We followed the ridge, growing ever closer to the volcano as the clouds moved in and out. The ridge separates two basins that Michael and I visited last summer–allowing a bird’s eye view of the places I have been. Both Summerland and Glacier Basin were two routes I completed last summer as recovery hikes from shin splints. Each step was a tender, hopeful journey for the following summer not limited by pain. To bound up a meadow, scramble over boulders and slab, climb to a 7300’ peak and literally see the distance I have come was very powerful.
A turquoise lake that Michael and I swam in last summer appeared to our right as a small dot. To our left, the small glacial tarn below Panhandle Gap seemed to glow in the distance. The ridge climbed slowly and revealed better and better views from the mist until we reached the second summit. From here, Rainier stood as an even more massive behemoth. The icy tendrils of the glacier reached into the basin and it felt like a completely different world than the lush forest we wandered through earlier that day.
The ridge began to descend as we scrambled through the last of the rocky section and then through golden meadows punctuated by evergreens that smelled of fall and coziness as we brushed through. We eventually reached a large gully above Fryingpan Creek. We scrambled down the dried stream bed until we reached the creek.
Luckily, the water level was low and we were able to easily cross it. From there, we followed the river until it intersected the Wonderland Trail. Thrilled to be on a defined, flat trail, we coasted the rest of the mileage back to the trailhead.
This trail was primarily off-trail navigation. I firmly believe in staying on-trail when in established hiking areas with established trails. However, leaving an established trail can be a bit tricky when also trying to adhere to leave no trace principles. Here are some things that we considered while hiking:
1. This is a low-traffic route without an established trail. Whenever there was an established trail we stuck to it, but for most of our route, we used backcountry off-trail travel standards. This meant we stuck to durable surfaces whenever possible and spread out to avoid creating a path.
2. We used GPS apps rather than constructing cairns or altering the the landscape. We also chose a loop route which meant we only walked across each area once, rather than walking through then returning.
3. I have provided minimal navigation information about our specific route on my social media feeds. As this area is lesser-known, I don’t provide as much detail as the super popular trails. It is important to have backcountry navigation skills before wandering off trail, and that includes the ability to research a route.
4. And as always, we packed out everything we brought in, used the bathroom appropriately and left what we found.