From Packwood, drive 4.5 miles east on US 12. Turn south onto Forest Service Road 46 and drive 9.2 miles to the end of the road. The road is in good condition, the last quarter mile gets a little steeper and rocker, but nothing a passenger car can't handle.
The Goat Rocks are full of great loop trips, and the Clear Fork Loop easily ranks as one of the most spectacular. Alpine meadows, spectacular valleys, and beautiful lakes are sprinkled throughout the trip, and because two-thirds fo the trip lies in the alpine country, rugged mountain vistas are nearly constant.
From the trailhead, the path heads south for 2.5 miles, passing Lily Lake, a marshy, reed-filled pond, and several smaller marshes before descending slightly to meet a four way fork and the Skeeter Shelter.
To begin the loop trip, take a right at the fork just before the shelter, following the signs for the clear-lost trail. The path begins it's steady climb through the woods, with the trees growing smaller as the climb proceeds, eventually leveling off near the 4,000' level in semi-alpine country. The path passes a small tarn just after reaching the saddle, and views north towards Mt. Rainier grow increasingly better. Two-and-a-half miles from the trail intersection the path reaches a small lake and campsite nestled in the meadowed valley bottom. Continuing through the meadows, the path can become unrecognizable and difficult to follow, but just look for a small cairn about 100 yards beyond the lake, marking the trail as it begins it's climb up the north wall of the valley (the trail takes off up the hill just past a rock outcrop). The trail switchbacks a few times, and keeps a fairly rigorous grade until dropping into an alpine bowl and Lost Hat Lake.
Lost Hat Lake fluctuates quite a bit throughout the year. For our trip during labor day weekend, we encountered a descent sized and still picturesque lake, but it looks as though earlier in the year it is about twice as large. Camping around the lake seems to be somewhat limited. We found one descent, but small campsite along the lake. We camped in what appeared to be a dried meltwater basin that may not be available earlier in the year.
Contnuing with the trip, the trail climbs above the lake through a meadowed hillside. Great views all around. Mt. Rainier rising to the north, and an ever-increasing panorama of the Goat Rocks rising to the south as you climb through open-apline country. The only unfortuanate aspect of this portion of trail is the site of Highway 12, and the occassional audible reassurance that it exists some 3,000 feet below and three miles away. It's by no means terrible, but I did notice the sounds of autos every so often.
The trail tops out on Lost Lake Mountain with great views all around. Take a break here, eat some lunch, and take lots of pictures. After the summit, the trail drops for another mile to reach Lost Lake, a beautiful greenish-blue lake, nestled in the cirque of a forested valley. There are numerous campsites around the lake. The area makes for an excellent stopover.
A half mile beyond the lake, the trail meets up with the a trail which leads down to Packwood Lake. Take a left at the intersection, following the sign for the Coyote Trail as it makes a quick switchback. Beyond the intersection, the trail stays mostly in the trees, with a few views towards the west. At 1.5 miles from the intersection, the trail crosses Beaver Bill Creek; a wildflower-lined brook, running through a nice meadow. A small campsite lies next to the creek. An unnamed 6,700' peak forms the backdrop for the meadows.
After rounding the flanks of a 6,400' peak, the first views of the spectacular Packwood Valley appear in jaw-dropping fashion, with 7,488' Johnson Peak guarding the entrance of the valley, and Old Snowy Mountain rising at the head of the valley. The views remain great as the trail works it's way under Chimney Rock, and eventually meets the barren, descending ridge line which leads the hiker down to Packwood Saddle.
There is one campsite at the trail intersection at Packwood Saddle, and couple more campsites along a side trail to the south of the saddle. Because Packwood saddle is mostly forested, the views are not quite as spectacular.
The views improve as you leave the saddle, and begin climbing towards the Pacific Crest Trail through wildflower meadows. The PCT is met 1.5 miles later and 1200' higher on a treeless, view packed-ridge at Elk Pass. The PCT travels north, and around a small peak before settling down into alpine meadows. There are a couple campsites in the alpine meadows, one about one mile from the PCT junction, and one a little further down in the lower meadow. After crossing a tributary of the clear fork, the trail climbs over a small ridge, and at the top, yet another spectacular view overlooking McCall Basin and the jagged ridges to the south.
Beyond the pass, the trail passes another camp before reaching a side trail leading a half mile down to McCall Basin.
Returning to the loop, the trail soon passes Lutz lake, with three campsites, and reaches Tieton Pass 1.25 miles from the McCall Basin trail fork. The four-way intersection at Tieton Pass can easily send hikers on the wrong trail. To return to your car, make sure you take the left most fork, which actually looks like a brushy rainwater runoff for the PCT (the PCT stays level and is very well-worn from the intersection).
The Clear Fork Trail drops steadily from the intersection through the heavily wooded valley and reaches the Clear Fork Cowlitz River 2.5 miles from the intersection. The river crossing was easily crossed with only wet boots for our Labor Day hike. It doesn't look like it would be too much worse earlier in the season.
On the western shore of the creek, there are several campsites. The trail climbs above the creek (the trail was blocked by a fallen tree during our trip, just climb up the little gully that the tree fell into, and reach the trail at the top) and onto easy walking through the valley bottom. The trail stays level, but fairly distant from the river.
A mile-and-a-half from the river crossing, the trail crosses Chimney Creek, and another 1.5 miles further, crosses Coyote Creek which has in the past flooded the trees around it, creating a forest of snags, rocks, and dried stream channels. Rock Cairns mark the way through the section, and the crossing of the creek can be accomplished by rock hopping.
Beyond Coyote Creek, the trail climbs quickly in two quick switchbacks and then tames a bit as it climbs 1.5 miles to the Skeeter Shelter. To finish the trip, just hike continue back past Lily Lake and to the trailhead.
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