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sec 6 image6. Packwood

Updated September 2011

PackwoodUse this sequence of buses to reach the southern part of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail (including the highest elevation of that trail in the entire state). Get right-up-close views of Mount Rainier from the Tatoosh Range. Visit isolated Goat Rocks Wilderness walk along the crumbling rim of an ancient, long-dead supervolcano.

Use these buses to gain north-side views of Mount St. Helens. If the water level is low along Riffe Lake, as it often is in early Spring before the upland snow starts to melt, the remnants of the former logging town of Cosmos, drowned sixty years ago by the building of the Mossyrock Dam, may be visible.

Trail options:

A - Vanson Meadow / Deadman's Lake

Vanson meadowBus stop to trailhead: 7 miles
Loop trip from trailhead: 19 miles

On the way to Packwood, the Lewis County bus almost touches the east end of Riffe Lake about five miles east of the town of Morton.

Take the bridge across the corner of the lake and continue south along the shore road, crossing the Cowlitz River in about two miles. Take a right once more, then the next two lefts to get onto Road 2750, which will lead you to the trailhead, just inside the boundary of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

This loop mostly hugs ridges, from which nice views of the blown-out north side of Helen can be had. A handful of tiny lakes beckon, as well as sidetrips to Vanson Peak and nearby meadows.

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B - Snowgrass Flat

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Snowgrass flat

Bus stop to trailhead: 16 miles
Trailhead to Flat, round trip: 8 miles

I know, I know…Sixteen miles is an awfully long way. And it’s sixteen very steep, gravel road miles—but it’s worth it.

Leave L.E.W.I.S. at the Johnson Creek Road (Road 21), about three miles before the bus reaches Packwood. That should be at about a quarter to three in the afternoon; unless you manage to hitch a ride you probably won’t make it all the way to the trailhead before dark. There are plenty of places off the side of the road where makeshift camping is possible. But the trailhead is very popular, and the road, though gravel, is well-maintained. One of the draws is that folks can drive all the way to 4800 feet; the four miles of trail to the Flat only gains another 1000 feet.

Walk Road 21 all the way to Hugo Lake (13 miles, so far). A few yards past the lake you’ll reach an elaborate intersection of roads and trails. You could take Trail 7A (Klickitat Horse Trail) up to the Berry Patch trailhead, and it’s pleasant enough, but you’ll never get a ride that way. I’d suggest leaving 21, and angling left onto 2150, which will take you to the Snowgrass Flat trailhead in just under 3 miles.

The trail itself is level or slightly downhill for the first two miles, then switchbacks steadily upward for the next two, at which point you’ve reached the Flat.

Flat, of course, is a relative term: the whole area is tipped twenty degrees or so, but it’s flat compared to the surrounding terrain. There’s a ridge to the west, another to the east (the remnants of a very ancient, extinct supervolcano. Once you reach 7000 feet or so, you can see Mount Rainier to the north. And turn to the south to behold Mount Adams and St. Helens (and on a clear day, Mount Hood, in Oregon, as well). It’s rather a stunning place.

Side trips to Cispus Pass (to the east) and Goat Lake (to the northwest) are possible. At the Flat you will connect with the Pacific Crest Trail, which you can follow north along the side of Old Snowy Mountain, passing the highest point of the Crest Trail in the state, and eventually dropping down into the Packwood Lake drainage. It makes for an excellent and memorable late-season excursion (but remember: at it’s high point—7600 feet, above Packwood Glacier—inclement weather can descend at any time, and some years the snow in the trail never melts).

C - Goat Ridge:

Goat RidgeBus to trailhead 9 miles
Trailhead to Goat Lake, roundtrip 20 miles

A pleasant, if obscure, ridge-running trail, with views to Lake Packwood steeply below to the north, Lily Basin to the south, and little white specks on the side of Johnson Peak to the east, if you're lucky.

Disembark the Lewis County bus about 1.5 miles south of Packwood (as in, before you reach town), just opposite the power station. You're looking for Road 48. Tell your bus driver what you're trying to do; they're usually glad to help.

You'll gain a lot of elevation on 48. It's not paved at all, it's a coarse, steep gravel road. Several springs are listed on the maps; though they have been reliable in the past, this year in September (2011) they were dry. First reliable water is five miles in on the trail, so pack water in. A lot of it.

Note that you're walking along a ridge where cougars pad silently, too, as there is a large resident elk population in the Packwood drainage, and goats thereabouts, as well. High point, about 7500 feet, is just west of Goat Lake.

This ridge connects, eventually, with the Pacific Crest Trail, and one could easily head north, crossing Elk Pass and heading back out through the Packwood drainage.

D - Packwood Lake:

Packwood lakeBus stop to trailhead: 6.5 miles
Round trip, trailhead to Packwood Lake: 8 miles
Round trip: trailhead to Lost Lake

From the Packwood Ranger Station (currently closed) at the north end of town (don’t worry, it’s only about a half mile from the south end of town), walk east along Road 1260. You’ll switchback a couple of long times.

Bus drops you off in Packwood at about three in the afternoon. It’s about nine miles total to Packwood Lake. The first five miles are steeply uphill, but you should be able to reach the lake before dark. Or before it gets too dark...

Just before you reach the Packwood Lake trailhead, Road 066, a service road for the technicians servicing the tiny dam at the lake, offers a fast, straight shot to the lake. Truth to tell, I’ve never actually walked the regular trail to the lake: the service road is quite scenic, with great views of Rainier and the Packwood Valley behind you, and you’ll have none of the elevation gain and loss you’d have on the trail. Don’t worry—the real treasures are above the lake, anyway.

Packwood Lake itself looks kind of goofy, as its water level is controlled by the dam. The lake doubtlessly gets a lot of fishing action in summer (the service road shows signs of ATV use, and is narrow, so be alert), but by September, during the weekdays, you’ll have it to yourself.

There area couple of small lakes steeply to the east, but I think the real treasures are to be found starting at the far end of Packwood Lake, where the Upper Lake Trail will lead you past prime elk country, through tunnels of alder and vine maple (try this one in late Fall), and eventually to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (including the highest-elevation of the Crest Trail in the state of Washington).

E - Tatoosh Wilderness

Tatoosh wildernessBus stop to trailhead: 7 miles
Round trip, trailhead to Tatoosh Lakes: 15 miles

A ridge trail through the heart of the Tatoosh Wilderness, just south of Mount Rainier, offers great closeup views of Rainier, as well as St. Helens and Adams.

From Packwood, cross the bridge over the Cowlitz River and turn right onto Cannon Road, which becomes Road 5290. Follow this road past the gate as it heads uphill, remaining on 5290 when it forks, soon reaching the trailhead. The trail starts steeply, gaining 1800 feet in two miles. Attaining the ridge, the trail passes through alpine meadows, and at five miles a spur trail climbs to a high lookout. At seven miles, another spur trail drops down the other side of the ridge to a pair of lakes.

The trip is also possible as a loop trip, dropping down the west side of the ridge and connecting with Road 5260 to return to Packwood.

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You have two options to get from Seattle to Packwood:

  1. mostly local, and filling the gap with Greyhound; and
  2. a bit more pricey, but oh-so-elegant-and-quick Amtrak to Centralia, and one local transit bus the rest of the way

(Until Fall 2013, there was an entirely local transit sequence, but that has fallen with the latest round of budget cuts. So it goes.)

Either of the two listed options works Monday through Friday only (excluding major holidays). The limiting factor here, L.E.W.I.S. (County) Mountain Highway Transit does not run at all on the weekends (or those major holidays). So, departing Packwood, if youʼre not on that 2:30 bus on Friday afternoon, youʼll be leaving Monday.

Option 1: Seattle to Packwood (Monday through Friday)

Sound Transit 590

Leaves 2nd & University

@6:21 AM,38 AM 6:

Arr. Tacoma Dome Station

@ 7:12 AM, 7:29 AM

IntercityTransit 603 (Oly Express)

Leaves Tacoma Done Station

@7:30 AM

Arr. Olympia Greyhound

@8:45 AM

Greyhouse (southbound)

Leaves Olympia Greyhound

@9:05 AM

Arr. Centralia Chevon**

@9:40 AM


Leaves Centralia Amtrak

@11:55 AM

Arr. Packwood Senior Center

@2:46 PM

* I listed a couple of times; you might opt for the earlier one in case of heavy commuter traffic on I-5.

**The Centralia Chevron acts as the Greyhound station for the town; the gas station is also the ticket agent if youʼre boarding from that point. The Centralia Amtrak station that you need to get to is about half a mile south; you could wait for any city bus (they all make a stop at the train station), or hoof it. Youʼve got more than two hours, and not a lot else to do. Your call.

Hereʼs my advice: take the following option. Greyhound isnʼt that much cheaper than Amtrak, their times are unreliable, youʼll get to sleep in a bit, and, most importantly, there are some scary-ass people riding around on Greyhound. Seriously, folks. Iʼve faced off with cougars and bears, but boarding the Grey Dog is a crap shoot.

So, take the train. Youʼll get to see the Mima Mounds!

Option 2: Seattle to Centralia (Monday through Friday only)

Itʼs simple enough - no chart necessary. Catch Amtrakʼs Coast Starlight, leaving Seattleʼs King Street Station at 9:45 AM daily. Reaching the station 45 minutes beforehand will leave you plenty of time to buy your ticket, if you havenʼt done so already. Iʼll admit I was a bit concerned with the time, as the train was scheduled to arrive at Centralia Station at 11:45, a mere ten minutes before the Lewis County bus was scheduled to depart, but the train was precisely on time. As it has been for the subsequent three trips. It helps that Seattle is the starting point for that train run, so there really isnʼt time to fall behind (a concern, however, when youʼre on the return trip northbound, and the trainʼs starting point was Los Angeles).

The L.E.W.I.S. (okay... it stands for, I believe, Lewis [County] East-West Information System) Mountain Highway Transit bus departs from right outside the Amtrak Station at 11:55 AM. There will be a lot of other local Lewis County Twin Transit buses in line, so be alert! Our bus is a short 12-seater.

If you do manage to miss it, donʼt despair. Talk to the other drivers; at least two of the Twin Transit buses could easily get you to the Chehalis Wal-Mart before 12:45. (Once L.E.W.I.S. departs Centralia Amtrak at 11:55, it shuttles over to a strip mall in Centraliaʼs twin city, Chehalis, where the driver takes his lunch break of about half an hour, and you can safely leave your backpack in the locked bus and find lunch, or a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks - so there would be plenty of time to catch another Twin Transit bus to catch up. Our bus will be parked right outside of the Wal-Mart.

Another L.E.W.I.S. leaves Centralia at 5:01 PM (which means you could take a later train, but also means youʼd reach Packwood just before 8:00 PM, necessitating finding accommodations in town).

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Option 1: Packwood to Seattle (Monday through Friday only)


Leaves Packwood (Senior Center)

@ 9:50AM

Arr. Centralia Chevron Station


Greyhound (northbound)

Leaves Centralia Chevron


Arr. Olympia Greyhound


IT 603 (Olympia Express)

Leaves Olympia Transit Center


Arr. Tacoma Dome Station


Intercity Transit 603

Leaves Olympia Transit Center


Arr. Tacoma Dome Station


Sound Transit 594

Leaves Tacoma Dome Station


Arr. Seattle


* There is one later bus leaving Packwood, at 2:56 PM, and reaching Centralia at 5:00 PM. You could connect with a Greyhound at 7:00 PM (or you could take Amtrak...).


Catch L.E.W.I.S. from the Senior Center in Packwood at either 9:50 AM or 2:56 PM, disembarking at Centralia Amtrak at 11:55 AM or 5:01 PM, respectively. Buy your Amtrak ticket inside (currently about $14 to Tacoma, or $22 to Seattle). If youʼve come in on the later bus, the Amtrak station there will already be closed for the day. Use your cellphone, or find a payphone and call 1 (800) USA-RAIL to make a reservation for your trip. Otherwise, the fare goes up steeply. Theyʼll also be able to tell you when the next train will arrive.

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