Editor’s Note – To get the full story on Jim’s trip to Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, check out his article Hiking with Horses: How Aging Hikers Can Take on the Wilderness.


Pasayten Wilderness
At sunset, the granite turned from grey to amber and to gold red before blending into the black of night. Photos by Linda Knutson.

The Pasayten Wilderness Area in Washington State has many glorious spots, both intimate and expansive, but the massive, 1,000-foot-high granite spires of Amphitheater Mountain are, I think, the most dramatic. They wrap themselves around Upper Cathedral Lake, packaging it like a precious gem in ever-changing hues of grey and ochre and violet and red. At dusk, when the focus is typically the sunset itself, you, instead, turn your back to the west and watch the half-hour light show on stone and water. It’s breathtaking to see— in a silence so complete that your mind plays its own symphony of sounds.

Our group spent seven days camping on a rise above the western lakeshore, fishing Upper Cathedral in the evenings after a full day of hiking to surrounding lakes and features. Mornings came early, partly because most of us were used to getting up before six, but mostly because we would hear hooves on the granite boulders near our tents: tiny hooves of mountain goat kids scurrying up, then skidding down the rocks in playful games of King of the Mountain.

Pasayten Wilderness
Each morning we awoke to the clattering of tiny hooves on boulders in our campground.

Before this trip, sighting a goat on a distant ledge was reason for excitement, but the dozen or so goats that showed up each morning at our campsite were not shy of humans. They encircled us, coming within a few feet, the kids playing games while the nannies nibbled the new grasses and plants that grew at that 7,400-foot elevation. Although we were worried at first, we soon realized that, though they were curious, they showed no signs of aggression, nor did they seem a bit worried that we would harm them or their offspring.

Pasayten Wilderness
This male was clearly submissive to Geraldine, the matriarch.

We soon discovered that the goats were likely there to “harvest” the salts from campers’ food waste and urine, a far less romantic reason than we had hoped. We had all camped at elevations where goats were known to live, yet none of us had ever heard of goats doing this. Why here? The season at that remote site is short and access is only for long distance hikers and horseback riders, yet the mountain goats had learned to associate with humans much like their domestic counterparts in the lowlands.

Pasayten Wilderness
Linda Knutson excitedly captures the first day’s visit of “our” mountain goats. By week’s end, the goats’ morning ritual was ignored. Photo by Vicki Black.

Each day the goats would spend the morning in our camp, then about noon and in small groups, head up the talus slopes of Amphitheater, often to one of the remaining snow patches, then circle the lake and come down again on the northeast shore, presumably to visit other camps for new salt deposits. By early morning, they were back, playing noisily on the granite boulders.

Watching them, particularly the kids and a stately dominant female we named Geraldine, became the highlight of this most remarkable trip.

Pasayten Wilderness
Geraldine, our name for the dominate female of the herd, was unfazed by horse or human, clearly owning the space we called home for a week.

 

Tricky Trails

During our days there, each couple took a different trail route that fit our personal interests and physical abilities, but we learned quickly that the available maps were not reliable. Lower Cathedral Lake, we learned, was best reached by way of an “unmaintained trail,” which was signed as such just west of Upper Cathedral, but was not marked on any of our maps. With much easier hiking, and an often shady trail, this route went fairly direct from one lake to the other, with a view of Lower Cathedral that helped us keep our bearing. There were some rocky patches and felled logs that crossed the path in places, but nothing too difficult to climb around. (It is not a trail for horse travel.) The primary route to Lower Cathedral, however, was considerably longer with several hundred feet of trail underwater in a wide meadow. It, too, was easy to walk around on higher ground, but with a longer route and less interesting scenery, we couldn’t see the point.

Hiking to the top of 8,358-foot-high Amphitheater Mountain was accessed by an unmarked, but clear, trail a few hundred feet east of the junction of trail 533 (to Lower Cathedral Lake) with trail 565. We didn’t attempt to summit Amphitheatre due to time, but expect the final assent to be as easy to follow as the unmarked trail around the mountain’s base. Again, the trail to what we suspect is an incredible view, is not marked on either the forest service or Green Trails maps we had.

Pasayten Wilderness
This trail to Remmel Lake accessed the lake from the north with Remmel Mountain in the distance. Our maps showed no trail on the north side, but instead positioned the trail along the southern shore.

The third trail I’ll note was even more confusing, however. It is marked on all maps we referenced, but from what we could see, all are wrong. Finding Remmel Lake, became a challenge. One couple in our group had actually seen a glimpse of Remmel early in the week, but assumed it was a pothole rather than the third lake we most wanted to see. All of our maps placed trail number 510 running along the south shore of Remmel Lake. However, the trail from which we accessed Remmel was on the north side of the lake. We assume that at some time the trail was rerouted to the north side of this picturesque lake, but the maps never updated. If there is a south-side trail, we did not find it. Inaccurate and incomplete maps and inadequate trail signage seem to be the rule in that part of the Pasayten. Fortunately, the forest is open enough and peaks are prominent enough to find your bearings.

The mountain goats and sunsets were easily the most exciting things to see on this adventure, but the time with great friends in the magical Pasayten will be the lasting joy. Few places on earth can evoke the glory of nature better.

Pasayten Wilderness
The dramatic face of Amphitheater Mountain rose 1,000 feet above our campground.
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