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

With the upcoming hunting season in "sight", my family headed to the local shooting range to "scope" out our rifles.  (Puns intended!)  We had never been there before, and I was a bit uneasy about practicing at an official range.  But with smoke around and high fire danger the range was a better choice for practicing instead of the family's tree farm.  Afterward, we were all glad we tried the official route for sighting in our deer rifles.  It was so much fun that we have added a new activity for rainy days this winter, too.

The Cowlitz Public Shooting Range is operated by the Cowlitz Game and Angler's Club, but is owned by Cowlitz County Parks.  It is located at the end of Toutle Park Road on spoils dredged from the Toutle River.  As you shoot here, you are standing on the old top of Mount St. Helens which traveled down the river as a massive mudflow.   The US Army Corps of Engineers acquired several areas of property to store this mountain of sand and ash, and when all that work was completed the land was given to the County Parks for a public purpose.  The site is ideal, since the sandy mudflow material could be piled and scooped to form the backstops and berms needed for a range.

 As one would imagine, getting a new gun range started is a red-tape nightmare, and it took years of grants, volunteer hours, unexpected expenses, forty-four special provisions, lawsuit threats, and political name calling to see this new range built.  But, with partnerships and dedication, and a last second donation of large equipment hours, the range was finally opened to use in 2013.  (If you are interested in backstory politics, just search the archives of The Longview Daily News.)

When you arrive at the range, the volunteers will fill you in on all the safety procedures.  It takes a few "rounds" to fully understand the rules, some of which seem arbitrary, like do not touch paper targets during a no shooting time, but there is a good reason for each one.  Children and spectators are allowed, and since the shooting shed is open, face coverings are not required if six feet can be maintained.  Be sure to bring your own firearm and targets along with ear and eye protection.  The shooting benches are very solid, and sandbags are also available.  Targets can be set out between 50 to 300 yards, and there are seperate pistol and long-gun areas.  The range is currently applying for a state grant to expand the trap shooting area.  Check out the details at the range's website.


Posted By Toutle Trekker


The online mapping company OnX Maps is looking for landlocked trails and public access "Hotspots". Please help put the gated and held-for-ransom trails at Mount St. Helens National Monument on their radar.  There are several official, United States Forest Service trails that are locked behind Weyerhaeuser pay-to-enter gates.  These are some of the oldest, most historic, trails in the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and they access some of the most spectacular parts of the National Monument.

Green River Trail 213   

T11NR5E sect. 31  Lat: 46degree23'16.62"N Long:122degree13'36.61"W

Even before Mount St. Helens erupted, advocates were working on a National Monument that would protect the spectacular old growth forests, waterfalls, rushing streams, and unique habitats of the Green River Valley.  When the volcano erupted, a combinations of luck and geography sheltered this valley of the giants from the killing blast.  Today, trails open to horses, mountain bikes, and hikers loop through the deep timber and rugged landscape passing lakes and streams along the way. While the far (east) end is accessible from Forest Service roads, the western (Toutle side) of the trail is locked behind Weyerhaeuser gates.  The historic route to the Green River Trail was from Toutle on trails, and later via the 2500 logging road, which was shared by the public and private landowners along it. When the USFS was planning for the Monument they relied on the traditional, open-gate policy of timber companies that was common at the time to supply access, but assured the public that the government would aquire rights to these roads if the situation changed.  Well it sure has changed! Now only a limited number of paying customers can drive to those Monument trailheads. We need to put the Green River Trail on a priority list for an easement.

Landers Trail 217

This trail which connects with Green River Trail, is also locked behind gates.  It accesses Deadman's and Vanson Lakes, as well as the old Vanson Lookout site, and on toward Goat Mountain, Goat Creek Falls, or even farther.  Here's the location: T11NR5E Section 22  Lat 46degree24'54.83"N, Long: 122degree 10'27.45"W

How to Help: From this website add the location of these two trailheads.  The category most appropriate is "easement to improve access".  Lets finally re-gain access to these key historic trails!


Posted By Toutle Trekker

The region has several different opportunities for visitors to enjoy our great rivers and lakes, with boat launches that range from hard to find primitive coves to full-service launches with ample parking.

Lets start with full service:

Cowlitz River: Al Helenberg Boat launch in Castle Rock. restrooms, shower, life jacket loaner, ample parking and day use fee.  Access to Cowlitz River, which is primo for steelhead and salmon.  Sometimes in high water its a bit fast for small craft.  Directions: From either end of the City of Castle Rock at flashing red light, turn (instead of going straight), cross the Cowlitz River bridge and travel straight to the 4-way stop at Four-Corners, then take right and follow signs.  If you get to the high school, you've gone too far.

Kerr Road: WDFW developed boat launch for Silver Lake.  Nasty pit-toilet, ample parking with picnic area.  Discover Pass required. From Castle Rock follow 504 about 8 miles, look for small brown recreation-type sign at Kerr Road.  Follow to end.

Coldwater Lake: non-motorized only.  No fee. Nice restroom, area and trails nearby. Floating launch with small beach and limited shore area. Follow 504 to milepost 45.

Toledo:  Cowlitz River access with tight but developed boat launch near 505 bridge over Cowlitz River. From SR504 take SR505 to Toledo, or travel North on I-5 to Toledo exits then through town. Launch is near bridge.

Primitive launches: areas where you can launch without any facilities.

Cowlitz River:  Cook-Ferry Road/Camelot- From Four-Corners 4-way stop described earlier turn left, follow Westside Highway to Camelot or Cook Ferry Roads.  Routes lead to sandbars across from "The Rock" and are popular with plunking and some launching. There is also a very primitive sand road behind the BMX bike track that leads to the shore of the Cowlitz.

Toutle River: WDFW volunteers maintain a four-acre area adjacent to Tower Road bridge for launching small craft and accessing the mainstem Toutle River.  Some whitewater folks float from the 504 bridge just outside Toutle to the Tower bridge.  Tower Road loops into the Spirit Lake Highway (504) at both ends.  Another place for primitive take out/launch is the end of Basie Road, which intersects with Tower Road.  The Tower bridge is closer when accessed from the Castle Rock end.  Turn near the gas station by the KOA campground.

Silver Lake: Kayaks can launch from Canal Road culverts (see earlier posts) and a small niche near the east end of the boardwalk at Seaquest State Park.

South Toutle River: Harry Gardner Park and 4100 Road.  Both offer access to South Toutle River for small, packable boats.  

Bridges: Legally, where a public road crosses a navigible river on a bridge, the river may be access from the road right-of-way, although it may not be easy!  

Private launches and Boat Rentals:  Several businesses at rent boats and/or provide moorage and launching.

Silver Lake Resort: Along SR 504 at milepost 7, this resort has launching, moorage and rental services for everything from a paddleboard to a motorboat.  (360)274-6141

Silver Cove Resort: 351 Hall Road. Boat and Kayak rentals on Silver Lake to public (360)967-2057

Streeter's Resort; 120 Lake Road, Silver Lake, Wa.   Bumper boat rentals at Silver Lake (360)967-2318

Coldwater Lake: Summer kayak rentals (on hold during COVID)

Rapid Rides, North Toutle River.  (360)463-3830 tube ad kayak rentals



Posted By Toutle Trekker

Toutle River bolt drive (Cowlitz Co. Historical Museum photo)Cowlitz Co. Museum Photo

While sitting here on virus lockdown, I’ve had some time to research the history of the Toutle River.  Sometimes the past is key to the present, and nowhere is this truer than in river access.  In Washington, the state owns the beds and shores of “navigable” rivers.  In the cases where a river has moved, or the state has sold the bed,  navigable rivers are still subject to a public easement for river based activities like boating and fishing, even where they flow over private land.  This principle is called the “Public Trust Doctrine” and basically it says, the public always has certain rights to waterways, even if the title is privately held. 

OK, I’m no lawyer, and some of this is a bit grey-area, but if you want to learn more, check out online “The Public Trust Doctrine and the Coastal Management Zone in Washington” by the state Department of Ecology. 

The key question then becomes, “What makes a river navigable?”  There are state and federal standards, but the basic rule is that if a river is used, or capable of being used, for useful commerce in its natural condition, then it is a navigable river.  The courts decide navigability, and the history of how a river was used at statehood is the deciding factor. 

Digging through online newspapers, history books, and numerous Cowlitz Historic Quarterlies, I’ve compiled evidence that the Toutle River was our original highway of commerce.  Even locals might be surprised to learn that the region’s first industry wasn’t logging timber for lumber, but was cutting cedar shingle bolts for roofing.  By 1883 Castle Rock had its first cedar mill on the banks of the Cowlitz River, and the bolts to supply it, were floated in from the Toutle River.  For nearly forty years, the industry was the cornerstone of settlement and development in the Toutle valley.  Homesteaders relied on the sale of shingle bolts for nearly all of their hard cash.  Laborers lived from one cedar drive to the next.  Censuses of the time have listed occupations such as “riverman” and “river driving laborer”.  In the 1890’s, when floods flushed bolts out to sea, the economy of Toutle nearly collapsed. 

My great-grandfather had a bolt camp in Kid Valley across from where 19 Mile House is today.  He lived on-site and employed several workers.  Great-grandma was the cook.  They cut the cedar into lengths of about 56 inches, and would create a chute of logs to slide the bolts down to the river bank.  Each bolt was branded with the owners mark, and with the higher water, the lengths of cedar were floated downstream in annual “bolt drives”.  Men walked along the shore, prodding the bolts along and breaking up jams.  Because drives could take weeks, a cook boat and blanket boat followed with supplies.  I’ve found references to bolt drives from Spirit Lake down the entire North Toutle River, from Soda Springs on Green River, and far up the South Toutle.  One famous photo shows 5000 cords (a stack 4’ x 4’x 8’) of bolts in a jam on the South Toutle River!  Smaller creeks were also used to move bolts, sometimes with the aid of “splash” dams, which would release water to flush the bolts downstream. To a lesser extent, logs, ties, and specialized 7-foot bolts also took the trip.

By 1930 much of the cedar along the rivers and streams had been cut, and soon logging trains and roads replaced the rivers for getting the wood out.  But the history of these forgotten cedar drives could be the gift of the past to the present.  Someday a judge or court could affirm that the Toutle River is “navigable” based on this robust history of commerce, ensuring that we can float or fish forever.  But that determination has not been made yet. 

What does all this mean for today?  Can you float by: YES, absolutely.  Can you walk along the shore?  Most probably.   Always stay below the high water mark, do not cross private uplands, and for good measure carry a fishing pole and a fishing license, since "fishing" is listed as a right  alongside navigation.

See it: The Castle Rock Riverfront Trail passes the location of cedar mills on the Cowlitz River, with an interpretive board about that history.  From Exit 49, turn toward downtown Castle Rock, cross the railroad bridge, and take the next right into the trailhead parking lot.  The mill site is "downstream" 1/4 mile.

Posted By Toutle Trekker

Forty years ago today I woke up and I wandered down the stairs to the kitchen where Mom was cooking up huckleberry hotcakes.  We'd picked the berries up near Spirit Lake the previous fall.  We were planning to pour cement for the new house that day, and a few people were coming to help.  My grandfather came into the house and said, breathlessly, “I think the mountain just blew up.”

Everyone at the kitchen table rushed outside, but I took my time.  After all, we’d been watching the volcano puff and sputter since March.  I’d even collected a thimble-full of ash by sweeping it from our car windows with a paint brush.  Gramps wasn’t used to seeing eruptions: No big deal. 

But when I stepped outside, the whole sky was boiling in and enormous blue-black cloud.  Comparing THIS with previous eruptions was like comparing a bb-gun with a nuclear bomb.  A hundred nuclear bombs.  The cloud stretched out, and started to block out the sun.  It was filled with blue lightning, but we didn’t hear a sound.  The wind shifted and it was eerily quiet.  Turns out we were so close, the sound bounced over us, and people hundreds of miles away heard a blast and felt a shudder.  My dad had a little instamatic camera and he started clicking off pictures.  I remember, specifically, looking directly overhead and up to the cloud, and then turning around.  It was above us and behind us.  Even in my 10-year old mind, I knew that was a bad thing. 

Mom, who was pregnant, started to panic.  She dragged my sister and me to our rooms and started tossing clothes into suitcases.  I checked the TV for information, but it was just regular Sunday shows.  Within half an hour, Mom had hustled us kids into the car and we started evacuating ourselves.  Since we lived on a hill, Dad figured it was safe to keep watch on the farm.  I remember turning on the radio, but there was nothing but static.  As we drove away, toward the beach, I was stationed by the back window.  “It’s still back there; it’s still following us,” I’d report.  After an hour, we stopped at a small store to grab some food.  The radio was now coming in, and reported, “Mount St. Helens has had a major eruption.  The towns of Toutle and Castle Rock are being evacuated.”  Our lives in Toutle were never the same….




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