Welcome to the Toutle Valley!

I'm starting this blog to help visitors find the many things to do around Mount St. Helens and the Toutle Valley.  Our area is surrounded by adventure, high and low, but it's sometimes genuinely hard to find information about these special places.  Before our volcano erupted, the Spirit Lake Hwy followed the Toutle River all the way to Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens with easy-to-find adventure around every bend.  The route was lined with campgrounds, river access, logging roads, trails open to all,  and vast areas to explore. 

Today its different--With all the passes, permits, and rules, it's a tangle of red tape to just understand where you can go for a walk.  Don't dispair!  I know all the secrets... and I might even be asking for your help to make the area more accessible. 

Consider this blog your Insider's Guide to the Toutle Valley.  

Posted By Toutle Trekker

January 12, 2022

Yuck, yuck yuck.  The snow is nearly melted as wet, rainy and windy storm have pushed in from the ocean.  The rivers are too muddy for fishing most of the time.  The snow level is high, with Signal Peak nearly snow free.  Forest Service Visitor Centers are closed and the highway is closed at the Hummocks Trailhead.  The good news is that many low elevation trails are melting out again, and Coldwater Lake is accessible.  On those rare sunny days, between storms, the lake and nearby trails can be quite popular with boaters and anglers and hikers.  Watch out for those strong east winds when kayaking or canoeing on Coldwater Lake in the winter.  Seaquest state park is open, with limited sites and water.  The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center (at Seaquest) is open Thursday to Monday 9 amd to 4 pm until Feb. 28.  Winter is a good time to stroll the boardwalk there with binoculars and check out the ducks and geese using the lake. 

Salmon season has passed, but fishing for steelhead remains open with changing rules until March 15.  Winter Steelhead fishing is quite popular,  Remember to release those wild fish carefully.  The rivers tend to clear up when the snow level drops, so watch the weather.

Services: It is a great time of year to visit downtown Castle Rock.  The town still has imany of ts winter lights up.    The Tower Road is now open all the way through, with a temporary bridge in place at the washout.

Earlier this year, Drew's Grocery caught fire and was severely damaged.   This family-owned business has been the heart of Toutle for nearly 85 years.  The family is has put in a double wide temporary store that is NOW OPEN.  The other new building is a Red Leaf Coffee and it is now open for business.  FUEL and GROCERIES ARE NOW AVAILABLE .  The fire damaged old store has been removed, and a new store will be built in its place.  Pay at pump fuel is open 24-hours.  The Kid Valley store is permanently closed.  The Kid Valley campground is open year around, and reservations are not needed this time of year.


Posted By Toutle Trekker

Tourism at Mount St. Helens hasn't panned out.  I've been involved with this industry from the start.  As a kid, my sister and I hammered together a few boards,  painted "volcano stand" on them, and converted our bus shed into a "business" in the summer of 1980.  We sold baggies of ash, copies of family eruption photos, and (of course) lemonaid.  By the next year, the adults had taken over, and 19 Mile House was born.  Over the years, I've seen millions of tax dollars pour into tourism facilities. A new highway 504 was dotted with FIVE visitor centers!  But these monsterous buildings seem to miss the mark. Cowlitz County's tax-funded visitor center has been sold to a church group.  The Forest Service built three of these centers, but today operates only one, at Johnston Ridge.  People drive up, watch the movie, and then leave, without sustaining any real long-term economic activity.  All the while I've been traveling the Western USA looking at other areas and comparing what they have done--right or wrong--with Mount St. Helens.  

Here's what I have learned: 

#1 People want REAL experiences.  Pavement recreation won't do.  Car rides and visitor centers and video screens are not a real experience.  Yes, fly-by tourists will drive up, spend an hour, and turn around.  But nobody stays and plays...and pays.  People want to do real activities: camping, lodging, hiking, boating, skiing, sledding, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, fishing, hunting, birding, climbing, berry picking, dining, swimming, backpacking.  

#2  Campgrounds.   The biggest whiff at Mount St. Helens is lack of camping.   The Monument intentionally didn't provide any campgrounds, and instead relied on private business for camping.  The leadership made this decision despite the fact that the Monument Act specifically instructs the Forest Service to provide campgrounds.  I've been to nearly all the National Parks Units in the West and they all have some sort of camping.  Even Craters of the Moon, in a bleak, hot, black lava bed, has carved out camping spots.  

#3 Year-round activities.  The successful outdoor recreation areas find ways to bring in people year round.  Ski resorts offer mountain biking and chairlift rides in the summer, Spring flowers and bird arrivals are promoted.  Fall colors and bugling bulls attract a wide variety of visitors.  Fortunately, Mount St. Helens has the ability to capitalize on the changing seasons.  Instead, along the Spirit Lake Highway, the Forest Service has made winter activities illegal!  No sledding, No snow play. No ski trails. No snowmobiles. No. No. No.  No wonder there are no visitors. 

#4  Access.  Last but not least, access is key.  Access to trails, access to lakes, access to and through the area.  Mount St. Helens in the opposite of accessible; it is locked up and closed off, all going against it own Management Plan.  The area is regulated to death, and people are turned off by all the threatening signs.  They simply feel unwelcome with threats of $100 fines for stepping off the trail around every bend.**  Here's the kicker, it was never supposed to be that way.  The 1985 Monument Management Plan is much more reasonable than what is on-the-ground today.  It calls for a trail along the shore of Spirit Lake for fishing, has a snowpark at Coldwater Lake, a dock and camping spot at the end of the lake, a trail to connect north and south areas, and easements to trailheads if they are ever blocked by private landowners (which they are now).  Currently, there are entire regions of the Monument that are locked behind private gates with trailheads only usable by people who purchase $350 private Weyerhaeuser permits.  

A Brighter Future?  Currently, the Mount St. Helens Institute, a non-profit that has taken over management of the old Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, is proposing some of these very items for the site, including overnight lodging and a campground.  Although this is in the future, any move to add real experiences can only help the region.  I, however, would suggest the Forest Service spend a minimum amount on securing access to existing trailheads, which would broadly expand things to do, with very minimum of investment.  Beyond that, a designated winter snowplay area is also an inexpensive and key addition.

**I'm still investigating but it appears the decades of "administrative closure" were actually illegal (no kidding!) As of July, 2022,  the Monument has not renewed its administrative closures on much of the Monument, including all the land along the Spirit Lake Highway. This may be true, but I haven't seen any $100 fine signs come down yet.  

Posted By Toutle Trekker

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, including the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, is proposing to raise the cost of accessing our public lands.  Areas at Mount St. Helens that are now free, such as Coldwater Lake and the Loowit Viewpoint, will add a parking fee, and the cost to enter Johnston Ridge may go from $8 to $12 per pserson.  Even today, with many visitors taking advantage of Golden Age and America the Beautiful passes, the Visitor Center can rake in over $5000 per day in entry fees! 

Fees seem to be the new normal, but I worry that the administration of fees--the extra personel needed to sell passes or emply envelopes or monitor compliance will eat into any profits that may go to on-the-ground improvements.  Please comment.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest - News & Events (usda.gov)

Posted By Toutle Trekker

Yesterday evening my family drove up the Spirit Lake Highway to check out the snow level and go for a hike up the ridge.  The snow is deeper than it was a month ago, but we did hike up the the logging equipment on the South Coldwater Trail.  What a treat!  We were the only people up on the ridge at this time, and the animals were out everywhere.  We saw, on the drive and hike, nearly 200 elk.  The elk must be migrating up from the valley to the ridges toward the snowline.  Of all the elk we saw moving, only one bull was limping, a sign of "hoof rot disease" that is plaguing our herds.  The sooty grouse (aka blue grouse) were whooting and whopping all around.  Often they are heard but not seen.  I did track down and watch two roosters strutting their stuff.  The violet-green swallows and yellow-rumped warblers were back for the summer.  A pack of coyotes yipped down by the lake, and a pair of black-tailed deer watched us trek by.  Of all this wild activity, the highlight of the hike was the beautiful, shiny black bear that we watched as it wandered down an old road.  The bear would stand up on its hind legs and scratch its back on alder trees.  It had been hunting ants and winter killed carcasses, no doubt, and we found where it tore into an ant hill by the trail.  

Wildlife Viewing Pointers: Hike in the morning or evening on a non-weekend day, stay quiet and keep alert, listen for wildife which are often heard before they are seen, and don't forget binoculars (like we did).  All these critters are spooky, so don't get too close, just watch quietly.

Posted By Toutle Trekker

I'm done pussyfooting around.  I've teased; I've hinted; I've even written a post or two that touched on the subject.  Now I'm ready to jump in head first.  I'm going to tell everyone how to open gates to landlocked state land. And I'm going to give you all the links and sources to prove it!   I have the passcode, the combination, the Magic Number.  Here it is: 1-9-6-7.  That's it folks--1967 is the key to unlocking private timber company gates that block public access to public land.  


Gates like this one on the 500 Road. It's one of the main access routes to Weyerhaeuser's St. Helens Tree Farm.  Maybe you even paid Weyerhaeuser for a permit and key.  Despite what the signs warn, "permit required for all access", the 500 Road is a shared road, and the state of Washington has legal access rights on it.  Just a few miles past that gate lies 15,000 acres of State DNR land.  

So how does "1967" open that gate?  It turns out that the 40th legislative session in 1967 was unquestionably the most important for outdoor recreation EVER.  Washington was the fastest growing state in the nation.  Sprawl was effecting farms, forests, and open space.  Governor Dan Evans was concerned about this loss of quality-of-life, and he intended to do something about it.  He even gave a special speech to highlight his outdoor recreation priorities.  He called for a scenic highway system, protection of the seashore, and broad cooperation between public and private entities.  Then he challenged the legislature to do even more...and they did.  Many significant laws were passed, including three that effect that gate on the 500 Road. 

First, the legislature passed recreational immunity (RCW 4.24.210).  For years the old Department of Game, along with large private landowners, had been pushing for a this change that would protect private landowners from lawsuits if they allowed free public recreation.  It passed in 1967.  Next, the State DNR obtained the legal authority to provide recreation and recreation access routes to public land. (RCW 79.10.140)  This law put the DNR squarely in the public access business.  And, most importantly, "current use taxation" finally passed in 1967.  This was the start of the process to fundamentally change how land is taxed.  It was a BIG deal, with a multi-step and multi-year process.  The next year, the people would vote to change in the state constitution to allow it.  And after that, in the decade that followed, the legislature would refine and tweak how current use taxation would operate for different types of open-space land, like farms, ranches, and forest land.  The change had the support of timber companies because it would mean a big tax break for them, but real estate entities lobbied against it, and stated in the 1968 voter's pamphlet that "this is a calculated effort by the major timber companies to shift the burden of real estate taxes to other types of property."

During this long process the timber companies needed to keep the people on their side.  Imagine the repercussions if they had started their expensive recreational permits while "current use taxation" was still in its design phase.  People would have been outraged!  The vote in 1968 would have failed.  And the generous tax breaks that passed in the subsequent years would have crashed and burned.  Instead, they (wisely) embraced free public recreation.  Private landowners heeded Dan Evan's call for cooperation and partnership in outdoor recreation. All through the 1970's and 1980's private timberland was wide open for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and biking.  This was not a coincidence.

And, most importantly for the 500 Road, the easement language between timber companies and the state of Washington changed virtually overnight.  Before the 1967 legislative session, the road easements between these entities have a restrictive clause that limited the use to "land management and administrative activities".  After the legislative session, this restricting clause was removed.  The easement on the 500 Road was signed in October of 1967, and it has a purpose of using existing roads to "provide access to and from the lands of the parties hereto." PERIOD.  No limiting clause tacked onto the end.  

easement map

The DNR knows all about these broadly worded easements, calling them a legal "grey" area. With the power and influence of the nation's largest landowners threatening them, the agency treats pre- and post-1967 easements the same.  They have simply forgotten the deals and promises, concessions and tax breaks, laws and agreements of 1967.  We all should be able to use these routes to access public land without being molested by corporate cops or the game wardens in their pocket.  

Help Out: Imagine how much public land would be accessible if our leaders confirmed that we could use these routes!  Contact Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz at the DNR, the Department of Fish and Wildlife leadership, or Governor Inslee's office (which has shown some interest).   Write legislators and remind them that the the broad and open wording of post -1967 easements were bought and paid for by the public! Do your own research.  Maybe that gate near you that blocks access to public land also has a lost and forgotten easement.

Learn More:  Check the history out for yourself, then spread the word.

Lewis County has all their easement online: Lewis County Auditor - Disclaimer (lewiscountywa.gov)  The Green River Easement is Auditor File 720413. 

Read Governor Evan's speech and all 1967 laws here: Legislative Information Center Floor Journals (wa.gov)

The "current use tax law' is here: RCW 84.33.010: Legislative findings. (wa.gov)  Read the legislative intent on forestland taxation, which states that providing  "recreational spaces" is part of the reason for the tax break.  The 1968 Voter's pamphlet link: https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/elections/voters' pamphlet 1968.pdf

 DNR Biennial Report (pg 19) 3aae2994-e920-4e2e-8bae-89046ff7d06e (wa.gov)  DNR states that these roads are open to public recreational use.




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