Sunday, September 13, 2015

Warm Lake Via South Tieton River - Goat Rocks

We hadn’t been to Goat Rocks in quite some time so Emily and I decided to grab McNeill and try a new way into the mountains to check out Conrad Basin and perhaps even run up Mount Curtis Gilbert, the highpoint, if we had time.  We didn’t want to take too much time off of work with Africa coming up so it had to be a quick overnight.  Well, what I had planned as an easy loop overnight turned into quite the journey… read on…

We left on Friday night, stopping for dinner at our old Salmon Creek exit for Panda Express (hardly the best before a hike).  I drove like a bat out of hell to get us all the way to the Conrad Meadows Trailhead by about 11pm where we set up camp for the night amid a bunch of other hunting campers, some with horses tied up.  Leo as usual was on his best behavior and stayed with us.  It was a bit chilly and we didn’t have a fire like everyone else so we just set up the tent quickly and went to bed.  

The hike in was a little hard to follow from Conrad Meadows and we passed a lot of cows in pastures before we met up with the signed trail leading up towards Surprise Lake.  We started hiking at about 10am and except for a couple stream crossings the trail was exceptionally boring up to Surprise Lake.  I guess the name fits because out of nowhere there was a small elongated lake tucked into the corner of the hillside.  There were no views of any peaks from anywhere around the shore of the lake so instead of camping there we decided to continue upwards towards what I read was a side trail leading to Warm Lake.  

Well, we were lucky enough to spot the well-hidden side path towards Warm Lake but for the life of us we couldn’t figure how to get to the actual lake!  We ended up following the lollipop loop of the basin we were in which was the headwaters of the South Tieton River.  Once we found the path we headed up a super steep herd path towards a ridge.  At the top of the ridge, still confused, we did a bunch of searching and decided to ultimately drop down the other side of it towards a flat area we assumed must contain Warm Lake.  Now, I usually am far more prepared for this, but after hiking last weekend and busy week I made a lot of assumptions and with Warm Lake not visible on the topo maps I downloaded for my phone we needed to do a bit of exploring.

We ended up in a beautiful basin just below Meade Glacier with a stream running through it.  There was a guy camping just above the stream and he indicated that he saw some hikers earlier heading up the stream towards Warm Lake so we took his advice and started following the stream upwards assuming we would hit the lake at any moment.  There was no trail to follow while carrying our heavy packs (I packed a lot of camera gear assuming an easy hike).   We did get to traverse past a beautiful alpine waterfall coming down from what we assumed must be the lake.

We made it up to a pretty alpine glacier basin just below Klickton Divide by about 3pm having been hiking non-stop since we left the trailhead.  We were all really exhausted but Eric and I headed uphill once more (having dropped our packs though) to search for Warm Lake at the base of a big glacial cirque.  To our horror we topped out in a moonscape of rock above the waterfall we had seen on the way up, but with no lake to be seen!  Eric made a valiant effort to explore the barren field of rock looking for a small lake but found nothing.

At this point we were mentally as well as physically exhausted.  We had literally searched all around the basin with no lake to be seen.  At this point I had enough and started looking for a nearby campsite as we had a small stream flowing through the basin for us.  Within minutes I had discovered an amazing site with a campfire ring right in the middle of it and logs for seats.  We followed the rules and didn’t light a fire, but we did crack open the box of wine and cook dinner while relaxing in the sun!

Before settling down in camp to watch a movie and set up the camera and tripod for some sunset and star photos I wanted to explore a trail I saw leading up the hillside… could it be???? Warm Lake.  No shit.. yup… about 15 minutes further up the trail from where we had stopped our search!  There were a few tents set up around the lake with a guy fishing in it as well.  It was a perfect alpine swimming hole with a nice rock to jump off of as well!  Two hours earlier in the hot afternoon sun we definitely would have been jumping in but after relaxing and cooling off under the setting sun I wasn’t feeling it.  Instead, I took some pictures for proof to Emily and Eric and headed back down to them for the night.

Whenever we had gone to Goat Rocks in the past we had seen scores of goats around Goat Lake but on this trip we only saw one far up the basin under the cliffs below Klickton Divide where we also heard people traversing, probably after having summited Curtis Gilbert Peak.  I had long given up on trying for that summit after the exhausting day we had!  I had no clue how to access the ridge safely far above us and I certainly wasn’t going to try for it in the early morning knowing that we had to walk the same distance up and around a ridge to just get back to the loop hike we had come in on!

Thankfully, that night the stars were out in full force and I was able to get some great photos of them shining over the peaks above us as well as reflecting off a small pool of water near our campsite.  I was aiming to get as much practice as I could before our trip to Africa in a couple months.  We awoke to blue skies and the mountains beautifully illuminated by the morning sun.  We ate some breakfast and relaxed in the sun a bit before hitting the trail around 9:30am.  

It was very tempting to try to find a shortcut back to the lollipop loop trail we had come in on but instead we wisely decided to go back the same way we had come in, knowing that it would be safe for Leo as well.  Thankfully, we were able to find a few shortcuts and at least we were descending with our heavy packs instead of climbing this time so we made great time despite me stopping on many occasions to get photos of the mountains that were now illuminated perfectly for me.  We even got to see a marmot on the way out!

Once we got back to the loop hike we continued on the trail around the top of the steep basin past some really beautiful yellow leafy trees and then down into the South Tieton river valley below which led us eventually back out to Conrad Meadows.  On the way out we noticed a side trail that was definitely used by hunters to gain access via shortcut to Conrad Basin which we passed through on our way to our campsite.  Perhaps next time instead of looping past boring Surprise Lake we’d come this way to reach Warm Lake quicker and set up for a summit attempt at Curtis Gilbert, if we could take 3 days for the trip.  What I thought would be a quick 14-15 mile hike turned out to be a 20 mile overnight with double the elevation gain I expected.  Thankfully the views made it totally worth the effort!

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