Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Packwood Lake, June 5, 2009

Packwood Lake (Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Goat Rocks Wilderness)

Was I the only hiker in the Pacific Northwest who had never been to Packwood Lake? It was beginning to feel that way. What was I waiting for? The perceived long drive from Seattle for starters – about 2.5 hrs from Seattle. Plus, it sounded like it would be crowded, with a general store, resort and boat rental.

It is a long drive but it enhanced the experience - it took longer than we planned to get there because we stopped to gawk at waterfalls along State Route 123 between Cayuse Pass and Ohanapecosh.

En route to Cayuse Pass we passed scenes of devastation – where streams blew out last winter, covering the highway with trees, water and mud. Apparently Greenwater was even cut off from Enumclaw for a spell last winter. Today SR 410 is in good shape as is SR 123 between Cayuse Pass and US 12.

Cayuse Pass and Chinook Pass are open; the Sunrise Road remains closed as are stretches of the Stevens Canyon Road. Some loops of the Ohanapecosh Campground are now open for the season.

At Highway 12 we continued to Packwood and found Snyder Road (FS Road No. 1260) well signed, near the abandoned Packwood Ranger Station (the Packwood District trails now fall under jurisdiction of the Cowlitz Ranger District). The 6-mile road to the trailhead is paved and snow-free.

The trail to the lake is mostly through second growth and old-growth forest. We encountered a few blow-downs but nothing a hiker can’t step over or get around. There is very little snow, route-finding not a problem. The forest was quiet, broken only by the soft hooting of a hidden owl and the gurgle of freshets.

Summer flowers are beginning to appear – bear grass and Canadian dogwood still beaded with raindrops from an early morning shower. We also spotted vanilla leaf, flowering current, salmonberry, vine maple, Oregon grape, yellow violets and pinedrops, the tallest saprophyte in our region.

In about 4.5 miles we reached the lake and before we even had a chance to say “Guard Station” we encountered an agile, elderly fisherman who was just packing up from a fishing trip. His first words were “Would you like some bug juice?” We gladly accepted.

Though mosquitoes seldom bite us these mosquitoes were anything but polite. From him we learned there hadn’t been a general store or a resort there since the 1980s; you can’t rent a boat either. The only structures at the lake today are the Guard Station and a historical Ranger Cabin that is under restoration.

The fisherman had ridden his bike to the lake via the Pipeline Trail, an ATV trail (Trail No. 74) and was going back the same way. We asked if could hike the ATV road back to the trailhead to make a loop. Sure, he said - there was only one junction and it was signed.

After we bade our farewells we followed the lakeshore to the historical Ranger Cabin, peeked in, then crossed Lake Creek on a sturdy footbridge. A little beyond is the site where the resort once stood. There is little evidence today that a general store and a resort once stood there. We lingered for a while, enjoying views of Agnes Island on the lake.

Hikers can continue on the trail after crossing Lake Creek to campsites and connections with other trails including Mosquito Lake and Lost Lake.

We re-crossed the bridge and picked up the ATV trail. We looked at the dam before continuing on the trail as it parallels Lake Creek to an unsigned junction. You can take either trail, they meet again - the uphill trail is rocky, the lower trail appeared to be muddy.

Though the fisherman said the ATV trail was not scenic we beg to differ; moss-bordered freshets trickle down from cliffs above the road and there are a few logging artifacts along the way. It is the kind of road that raises questions: what is this object? What was it used for? One stretch of the road has been recently repaired from a washout.

While the ATV road makes a pleasant loop it might not be so pleasant on a busy, summer weekend. The Packwood Lake trail is hiker-only, mountain bikes are not allowed. The trail around the lake is also hiker-only – ATVs are not permitted beyond the end of the road.

Soon, we were back at the trailhead, having hiked 9 miles with 400 feet of gain. We did miss the view of Johnson Peak from the lake; but we’ll likely return.

Just before we left the trailhead we watched an old-timer walking toward the trail with a chainsaw, a pack and a hard-hat. He looked to be in his 70s – when asked, he said “Just clearing a few trees off the trail.” We were impressed!

Getting to the trailhead: From Packwood follow US 12 to Forest Service Road No. 1260 (Snyder Road), continue 6 miles on paved road to trailhead. The map is Green Trails No. 302 Packwood. The loop is about 9 miles with roughly 400 feet of elevation gain.

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