Packwood Lake makes for an arduous snowshoe adventure through old-growth forest in the Goat Rocks Wilderness area. Higher-elevation routes may still be waiting to melt out but views of snowy mountain peaks and precious solitude are your well-earned reward for the miles you will cover into the backcountry. Remember that with snowshoeing, there is no evident trail unless someone else has gone before you. Be sure you can navigate your way along this route without benefit of a trail under your feet.
Sitting at 2750 feet of elevation, the trailhead offers an open view of regal Mount Rainier and a convenient picnic table to check your pack for any last minute essentials before heading into the woods.
The trail starts off innocently enough on a wide path through moss draped fir and cedar old-growth forest. In .75 miles you will come to your first break in the trees and admire views across the Lake Creek drainage at Main Cowlitz Chimney, Unicorn Peak and the Tatoosh Range. Check the snow at your feet for possible prints of raccoon, cougar and deer with whom you share the trail.
Continuing to gain elevation as you skirt a ridge of Snyder Mountain, avalanches can be a concern. The trail will become narrow and the slope increases making traction snowshoes necessary on the angled traverse especially in icy conditions. Small gullies take you up and down over berms when snow is deep and downed trees may add to your workout. Reaching a high point of around 3225 feet at 1.5 miles, you will gratefully drop down again.
At a little over 2 miles and 3100 feet, you will cross into the Goat Rocks Wilderness and the trail will level out. Keeping a southeast tack, the next undulating 2 miles will draw you closer to Packwood Lake with negligible gain or loss.
The forest thins, offering peeks of bluebird skies overhead. This also translates to deeper snow and the need for navigation skills if there are no tracks to follow. Listen for the swooping of expectant whiskey jacks flitting from bent boughs burdened with winter’s cloak and keep an eye out for a notch or two on gnarled bark to mark the way.
At 4.25 miles, the route takes your first and only turn to descend 125 feet as it skirts around the northwest edge of the two mile long body of water fed by creeks flowing down from Old Snowy Mountain. There is a sign indicating that you're leaving the Goat Rocks Wilderness area in a few feet as you continue through trees that block views of your destination.
A historical guard station built in 1910 soon appears on the right and you quickly loop down to the lakeshore 4.5 miles from the trailhead. Clear a patch of snow off a boulder or log and gaze on protected Agnes Island appearing to float on the lake's glassy surface with Chimney Rock and Johnson Peak anchored on the horizon. A soaring bald eagle or blue heron may glide overhead in search of lunch.
Packwood Lake is a popular destination in summer, but you can look forward to quiet seclusion this time of year. It is important to know the ice is typically thin, so walking out onto the lake is not advised. If the lake is thawed out, snow may silently slide off branches to plop dramatically in the water and the rainbow trout could be jumping. Explore around the lake to the north on a bridge over Lake Creek and if you planned ahead you can set up camp for the night.
Most adventurers return back to the trailhead the way you came in but the Pipeline Road Trail that also leaves the lake here offers an alternate route designed for ATVs and equestrian traffic. There may not be as many views through the trees but the path is wide, stays at the lower elevation and is slightly shorter.
Note on Access: If snow is present, it's possible that you'll have to add miles to your hike, and it is important to factor that into your timeline, as the more of the road you have to walk, the longer your adventure. From the trailhead the mileage to the lake is 4.5 miles one way, additional road walking may apply. Plan for at least 8-9 hours and start early enough to allow for plenty of daylight on your return trip.