Ranking: 4/5 This will be one I remember as being one of the best hikes I’ve been on in recent memory, for the sheer challenge, solitude, and scenery that this trek offered. The great views from Warm Lake, being on top of the Goat Rocks high point, and the amount of territory there is to explore here, make this one of those rare hikes that bear repeating, if for nothing else than to explore.
Difficulty: 7/10 The drive here isn’t bad, only about 5 miles or so of gravel road, and ample parking when you reach the trailhead. The way up towards Surprise Lake is a gentle grade, making it an easy hike for the first 5 miles or so. After that, there will be some route finding skills necessary, and of course, scrambling to the top of Gilbert Peak should only be done by those with some previous experience.
Getting there:Drive US 12E to NF-1200/Tieton Reservoir Rd, and turn right at the sign that says, “Clear Lake Recreation Area” and follow road around Clear Lake for 3 miles. Here, road NF 1207 continues straight, turning to dirt. Turn left across bridge, stay on paved NF-1200 for 8.1 miles along Rimrock Lake, turn right on S. Fork Tieton Rd, NF-1000. In 5.7 miles, the road turns to dirt. Once you reach the 12 mile mark, you will come to a Y, stay right at the Y, and travel another .4 miles to parking lot. Here, you will see a nice, concrete pit toilet and wide fields where horse trailers are parked.
Permits: Northwest Forest Pass required to park at trailhead, self-register at trailhead register.
Maps: Green trails #303 White Pass, and #335 Walupt Lake.
Warm Lake, Gilbert Peak Summit Added 11/04/2012
Everyone was busy!!! So, what’s a guy to do, other than strike out alone on a 3 day trek into parts unknown…Which is exactly what I did this weekend, as I ventured to the east side of the Goat Rocks, in search of a small lake that I had only seen pictures of, called Warm Lake. It looked like a great place to make base camp and then do some exploring, as the area seemed rich with opportunities to wander about. And, since it seems the weather was going to cooperate, I might even make an attempt at climbing to the top of Gilbert Peak, high point in the Goat Rocks.
The night before the big trip, I drove down to Peggy and Caleb’s house to spend the night, and we enjoyed a good dinner at Reeeaaaad Robins, YUM! And indulged in a favorite pastime of mine, devouring cheeseburgers slathered in mushrooms…Never seems to disappoint…Full of carbs and protein, we make it back to their home, and I turn in early, wanting to leave at 5 am…
“…I have no intention of re-creating the running of the bulls…”
3215ft gain/929ft loss, 10.33 miles.
After a lengthy drive in the dark, over White Pass, and several more miles on forest roads, I arrive at the trailhead for Surprise Lake around 8:30am, and it’s an interesting start, as the trail heads through private land, here at Conrad Meadows. The trail wanders across the wide expanse of grassland, amid mostly pines and free range cattle. At first light, it’s pretty, the rays light up the grass, creating stark contrast to the dark borders of the forest. The cattle keep a wary eye on me, and I on them, trying not to spook them. I have no intention of re-creating the running of the bulls… For the most part, they’re more interested in chomping away at grass, busily recycling it for the next cow pattie…Not that there was any shortage of the stuff…
As the way travels across the expansive meadows, it is fairly obvious which direction to go, following the trail most worn, but on occasion, there are branch roads and trails leading left and right that can be a little confusing. I do believe that most of the trails lead to the old logging road that bisects the trail north and south. Once at the road, look for the sign that states “South Fork Tieton Trail 1120”, and just about 50 or 60 yards from the road, in the pines, you’ll see the trailhead marker, where you will need to self-register before heading out. From here, the way continues through the pine forest and stays flat and easy over dusty ground.
The trail winds along the South Fork Tieton River, and the trees give way occasionally to beautiful green meadows, the borders of which are carved by the river on the southern ends, and the tree line hugging the hills on the north. The lazy waters chuckling over rocks and around bends, a welcome breeze weaving through the branches above, and birds chirping all create the peaceful soundtrack that follows you for the first few miles, making the distance fade easily.
At the 4.4 mile mark, you will reach the junction where you can turn right or left to follow this loop trail, and I chose left, taking me by Surprise Lake the first day. You can go either way, of course, I just preferred this route, and this is the way that I will use to describe the rest of the trail, for directions, landmarks, etc. You cross another footbridge, that takes you across the river, and begin a bunch of switchbacks that take you up to the lake, but no worries, this is still pretty easy hiking, the trail still soft dirt and sand, (although a little dusty) and easy to follow. The nice thing about this side of the mountains is that the underbrush is scarce, and you can see through the trees for some distance.
Now, the pines are beginning to give way to fir, hemlock, and cedar, and are considerably taller. By the time you reach Surprise Lake at 6.7 miles, 5260ft mark. A good place to stop and take a break, after eating so much dust on the trail up…The only people I saw on the way up were 4 women on horseback that passed me by during the switchbacks.
Surprise Lake is closed in by trees on all sides, so it made it difficult to get a good picture of it, until you reach the far end. Here, at the western end, there are some good campsites, if the first ones at the east end are already filled. Leaving the lake, the trail continues through the tree line for the next mile growing steadily thinner, and by the time you hike another half mile, you reach hillside meadows, and the leading edge of rocky Klickton divide, a wall of rock that eventually becomes the Goat Rocks.
“…which is good because I was busy rubbernecking…”
But, here at its base, the trail traverses it, and where ever there is an opening in the trees, becomes a park like meadow filled with green grass, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and a variety of other yellow and purple flowers. Also, since this part of the trail follows the contour lines of the ridge, its once again relatively flat and easy hiking for the next mile, which is good because I was busy rubbernecking, looking at the views that surrounded me instead of paying closer attention to the trail below me, which could have easily resulted in a fall on my face.
“…However, before I lead you astray, let me stop the story here for a moment, and interject some quick lessons learned…”
I had diligently done my homework, looked over several different maps and read several other trail reports on the area, and all mentioned some trails that “seemed” to go uphill towards the lake, and “they might “possibly” be the way up, who knew?” type of comments, so I was just as diligent to note these possible locations for trails up and over this wall of rock on my GPS. The first such trail I encountered at the 7.85 mile mark. But, being cautious, I chose what surely must be a longer route, by following the USGS TOPO map, which showed a stock trail that appeared to go up and over a clearly marked saddle at the low point of this ridge line, a little over a mile away. So, I marked this possible trail heading uphill for later, in hopes that I might find a quicker way up from this side once I was on top. However, before I lead you astray, let me stop the story here for a moment, and
interject some quick lessons learned…
This was not the trail to the lake! And, neither was the next trail that took off to the left, appearing to go uphill. How do I know that? I’ll be sure and mention this later, but for now, let me get you to the trailhead that makes the most sense in getting safely to the top. At the 8.09 mile mark with my GPS, is the trailhead that is completely hidden!!! From the trail that you’re on, you will surely walk right by it as it looks like nothing but a dry wash, created by the early season snow melt.’
“It seems lots of Elk, too, have used this to reach the upper bench…”
There’s a couple logs lying across this unassuming little wash, parallel with trail 1120, and then a couple more feet uphill, the “wash” disappears into the edges of the trees, small cedars, to be exact. So, if you walk past it, as I did, you will cross the most prominent section of the South fork Tieton River, looking like a small, but steady stream coming down the rocky cliffs above. STOP! Turn around, and at a normal walking pace, walk back 3 minutes, and look uphill for a rock wash with two logs laying across it parallel to the trail, and follow this wash up through the trees, and there, you will most likely see the remains of a footpath, that will lead you uphill to your destination! It becomes faint under the old growth trees here, the needles almost obscuring it, but if you look closely, you can see the definite path that winds through the trees. Another word of caution: After you’ve been on this route for about .35 of a mile, you’ll see another “Y”, stay on the uphill section, to your left. Once in the clearing of the rocky hill beyond, the trail becomes more evident as it goes uphill; the trail is defined by the cut in the hillside, filled with larger rocks to keep it from washing out completely. It seems lots of Elk, too, have used this to reach the upper bench.
“… to call it a path would be to give it too much credit…”
Now, back to the story…Of course, I walked by this trailhead, across the river, and for about another mile, before deciding that the trail either no longer existed, or I had somehow missed it, so I turned back, hoping to pick it up…No luck. I decided to follow an elk path, (ok, where a few elk had obviously headed uphill here, to call it a path would be to give it too much credit), that and the fact that it was close to where it looked as if the rock cliffs might be passable, as large groups of trees followed the ravine uphill. I followed this onto the next bench, until it became evident that I was going to have to go straight up the hillside, and I did that until…I crossed the cut out path that I mentioned earlier, filled with rocks to keep it from washing out, and followed this all the way to the top!
Looking back down the hillside, I could now see the trail, but from below, it blended into the rocky face here, impossible to see until I was level with it. Perfect! I followed this all the way to the top and came into a grassy clearing with more trails leading this way, and that…When you reach this point, at the 5980ft mark, you will have only covered about 200 feet or so from the top of the bench you just came up over. Two well defined trails merge here, looking like an inverted Y from your perspective. Stop here, and look left, and you should be able to make out a faint trail heading up a small ridge. Follow this trail, for it will lead you to Warm Lake. Occasionally, you will lose the “trail” for I think it’s not much more than a game trail, but I’m sure you’ll see a few boot prints as well. Finally, as you reach the top of this ridge, the views become fantastic! The forest is mostly gone, just growing now along the ridges, like a Mohawk haircut, and the valley below is green and open meadow, a
small stream running down its middle from the snow melting out of the snowfields that cling to the slopes of the Klickton Divide, and the Meade glacier.
“…Once on the valley floor, the full magnitude of Gilbert Peak is now readily evident…”
A waterfall rushes down between pillars of rock, melt coming from the Meade glacier, and can be heard clear across to the ridge you will be standing on, and if you watch, you will get a quick glimpse of it between some trees. Stay high along the ridge until .5 miles past where you turned left to head this way, and it will become obvious that you need to drop down into the valley floor below. Once on the valley floor, the full magnitude of Gilbert Peak is now readily evident, rising up to a massive point above the remains of the Meade Glacier at its base. A massive, black rock wall is off to the left of Gilbert peak, as if it’s constantly in the shadows of the orange and yellow tinted horn of Gilbert Peak. To the right of the high point, is a mound of red hued rock, looking as if it where the sands of time piled high. Very pretty here, but, you’re not at the lake yet. Cross the valley floor, and up a small incline to reach Warm Lake, at 10.3 miles.
It’s a small, round lake that is simple, but pretty, meadows line the north shore, while the southern edges are hedged in by small copses of trees, dwarfed by the winds that howl here, and the short growing season. They are densely packed in a couple of places, but still leave enough bare ground to create a perfect campsite on the southern shore. And, there, I see two people standing; with several horses…I’m not alone, after all! I walk over to them, and we make quick introductions. Seems they might have tried to follow those trails that I had seen earlier in the day, and they said they just kind of disappeared. Their names are John, and Cait, and by the end of the first day here, I feel as if I’ve known them forever, they make me feel comfortable and at ease, and later that night, we swap stories of ventures past around the campfire. You meet the nicest people on the trail! With camp set up, I spend some time marveling at the beauty that surrounds us, rugged and sheer cliffs, next to smooth mountains of what look like sandstone, or something you would see in the painted deserts, all together as a backdrop over the green valley below. I’m sure they’re just rock, but it’s just how they look that is intriguing. And there, above it all stands the tip of Gilbert Peak sticking up above everything like a Rhino horn, something that I hope to climb to the top of tomorrow.
“…Hey!” I yelled, as if the wind was going to stop and politely hand over my pilfered seat cushion…”
Stowing camera gear, I prep dinner, and watch John fish at the lake. We’ve all seen fish jump here; they just refuse to bite today. After dinner, we set around a nice small campfire, and that’s when the wind starts to howl…Trading stories of our different adventures, I re-count our trip into the Enchantments, and how it always seemed to blow while we were there, and as if jealous that the wind here did not merit a mention, it really picked up. Steadily, to the point that it rocked me on my feet when I stood up! With one particularly nasty gust, John and Cait’s tent practically collapsed on itself, and would surely have been blown away, if they had not ran to it, and started weighting it down with all their gear. Shouting was the only way we could be heard over the constant screeching of the wind, and then the seat pad I had been gripping in my hand was ripped from my grasp, and sent sailing, end over end into what I was sure was oblivion, being so close to the edge of the ridge…”Hey!” I yelled, as if the wind was going to stop and politely hand over my pilfered seat cushion, chasing after it as it disappeared into the night. While they struggled with their tent turned sail, I searched for the seat cushion, my headlight darting towards the gulley that led downhill, sure that it would head there first…Not finding it anywhere, I headed back towards the fire, and just happened to glance over at a small group of trees, and there it was, flailing around in their limbs as if trying desperately to break free! Awesome! I resist the urge to yell in my best Tom Hanks impersonation, “Wilsooooooonnnn!!!”
“…It’s no wonder the trees here are small…”
Returning to the fire, with a much firmer grip, wind still howling, I watch John and Cait as they continue to struggle with the tent, the steady gusts doing their best to snatch the tent off the ground and send it cartwheeling. Finally, the wind began to subside, and they got the tent secured. We let the fire go out, and say goodnight, hoping the wind will not continue its assault. It’s no wonder the trees here are small…