I would not say I hiked the Goat Marsh Trail. I would say I experienced the Goat Marsh Trail. And what an incredible experience it was! The trail is not just an escape from a world down the mountain but is part of a different world altogether. This world has tall trees and a meadow, a swampy marsh with a view, animals, flowers and footprints of forest dwellers. I find it hard to believe sometimes that these places exist, and that all they ever do is exist and survive. The Goat Marsh world is pure, and it is wild.
The Goat Marsh Trail is an easy 2.4-mile out and back hike. Located on the western side of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Toutle, Washington, the trail is part of a natural research area. The drive is mostly curvy mountain roads so a little slow going, but the scenery along the way almost makes you wish it would take a bit longer. Almost. Just before the road changes to gravel there are mountain views and cool breezes, a sign of the glory that awaits.
Along the narrow, rocky lane people were camped in the woods, and in their own worlds. While there are some bumpy sections, the road is for the most part well maintained — though I could not imagine it being passable in winter months. There are a few signs along the way, but I found the GPS on my phone to be more helpful. I was able to park well off the road and locate the trail right away. And just as it does every time I sense something wonderful is going to happen, my heart began to race.
Hiking Goat Marsh Trail
The trail begins as a dusty path with a slight incline. There is a dry creek bed and a few downed trees to cross which was perfect for adventuring with a young child and dog. Plenty of trail markers as well as signs kept us going until we reached the forest and fenced entrance to the research area. Here the real fun begins. The woods are quiet and mysterious, dark, and cool. The path is clear and winding with hills to one side and a clearing on the other. We headed toward the clearing realizing we had reached the edge of the marsh. We hiked down to the water to find our first postcard-worthy view. The water was clear and shallow and full of creatures, from tadpoles to lizards and plenty of frogs. Giant, plump dragonflies curiously circled and inspected our snack bags, and fallen logs in the marsh provided an ideal setting for pictures and critter observing. The sky was a true-blue, reflecting like a mirror off the water. Wildflowers dotted the tall grass into the marsh and rolling hills while the stoic mountains looked on.
Into the Woods
After finishing our snack, we noticed two hikers and a dog venturing further into the woods and decided it was time for us to leave one view to seek another. We gathered our packs and headed to the woods. Just before we reached the trees, my daughter crouched down and looking into the mud exclaimed, “Mom, there must have been a really big dog here!” Upon further inspection we determined the print must have belonged to a cougar or wolf. Suddenly I felt like I had finally made it to the real wild, the wild I knew existed but had yet to experience. Looking around at the scenery and down at the track in the mud, I felt small and alive.
Back into the forest we ventured, this time cautiously. As we walked, I felt my awareness sharpen and my appreciation for nature strengthen. I looked at the woods as a home for wildlife rather than just a shady place to take a walk. I listened to cracking sticks and bird songs, and the buzzing of insects, pondering the intention of each sound. Emerging from the trees and around a bend I was so lost in profound respect for nature that I almost stepped directly on a garter snake crossing the trail after a mouse. The snake froze, I immediately apologized for ruining its lunch and stepped around.
Mount St. Helens Views
In all the excitement I almost forgot to look up at the volcano across the marsh! There was Mount St. Helens, majestic and fearless. Snow still lined her top as we stood sweating below, imagining the power beneath the surface. The view of St. Helens is one I never would have dreamed I would see up close. I was equally as floored knowing how many ecosystems existed in the surrounding areas. A marsh full of wildflowers on the edge of a forest that looks onto a volcano is like something out of a fantasy book and is truly incredible.
Continuing, the trail led us around a hilly bend then ended with another great mountain view at the edge of the marsh. Sitting once more we admired giant lily pads and hundreds of cartoon-like salamanders who swam to the surface to greet our fingers feeling the cold water. We laughed in awe as one leapt from the water effortlessly to catch a bee for an afternoon snack. The woods were silent behind us as we stared at the rocky hills, and I wondered what the creatures who lived on the other side of those hills were doing at that very moment.
I was startled hearing voices of three hikers coming up the trail behind us, as this was the closest we had been to other people the whole day. We swapped quick stories about the impressive trail and parted ways, heading back to the car. On the way out I stopped to take a few extra pictures of the giant track we had seen earlier, but it had already been disturbed and replaced by a boot print. I was fortunate to have seen it at all.
A Glimpse Into Wilderness
When I research hiking trails, I seek out places that specifically mention a lack of crowds, places where I can hear nature’s noises, and places that might open my eyes a bit to what matters in a world so different from ours. This hike did not disappoint. It is not a long trail, but there is so much to take in. I was wowed, humbled and inspired.
Thinking back on our day, I realize these are the places people picture when they think of exploring Washington. The Goat Marsh is but a glimpse into the wilderness I have for so long wished to know — the hike that became an experience. For those seeking a memorable place for the family to see the wild up close and be home in time for dinner, this one is for you.