The first time I saw a mountain goat on a hike, it was a herd of them atop Ben Lomond Mountain in Utah. This particular peak is claimed to be the one found on the Paramount Pictures logo.
When I was a kid, my dad set a goal to summit every county highpoint in the state. He was inspired by a book called High in Utah. This trip was one of many I had the chance to join him on.
To see a wild mountain goat is an exciting experience. I am always amazed at their ability to navigate cragged rocks and climb steep cliffs with ease. It seems impossible for them to ascend and descend their native terrain with hoofs. Somehow, they do it with an unassuming grace that is fascinating to watch.
I have encountered mountain goats a handful of times on the trail. Most recently, I saw one at Sahale Glacier Camp.
For the most part, they have kept to themselves and I have enjoyed observing them from a safe distance. On one occasion, they exhibited some strange behaviors that came as a surprise.
My wife Kim and I were hiking with our dog Arrow in the Olympic Mountains. This is one of my favorite ranges, located on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. We had just reached the top of Mount Ellinor and were greeted by a herd of mountain goats. They were strewn across several boulders.
When we sat down to rest, one of the goats approached Kim. She decided to sit still and it started to lick her. Looking back, I’m glad we decided to tether Arrow to a tree. He was not happy about the ordeal and barked until the goat decided to move to its next victim. A few others were also licked by the goat.
Why Mountain Goats Lick People
Once we were back in an area with cell phone reception we looked up information on this strange behavior. We discovered that mountain goats lick people to obtain the salt and minerals from our skin.
The park service discourages people from allowing goats to do this because it furthers their habituation. When mountain goats become used to people they lose their wildness and the animals become more difficult to protect.
In 2010, a hiker was killed by a mountain goat in the Olympic Mountains. Was the goat provoked? Only the people who witnessed the tragedy know for certain. My takeaway is this: It is best to play it safe and keep a reasonable distance from mountain goats.
The 50/50 Rule
The Washington Trails Association suggests the following “50/50 Rule” to stay safe around mountain goats:
- Urinate at least 50 feet off the trail, preferably on rocks.
- Stay 50 yards (or about 150 feet) away from mountain goats at all times.
If you have never seen a mountain goat on a hike, I hope that one day you are lucky enough to have the opportunity. Remember the “50/50” rule. Make sure to stay alert and have respect for goats. If you follow these rules, you will contribute to conserving wildlife and come home in one piece.