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

We just passed the first Saturday in May, which around here means steelhead fishing is wide open in our rivers.  There was a week long "soft" opening on parts of the Green and South Toutle, but now all of the mainstem Toutle and South Toutle is open to steelhead fishing.  The limit is three HATCHERY (adipose fin-clipped) steelhead.

Fishing for our signature species has gotten increasingly complex since certain runs of Lower Columbia fish have been labeled endangered or threatened.  Fishery managers use gear restrictions, timing adjustments, and wild fish release requirements to increase hatchery harvest and limit wild spawning mortality.  And all this takes more money to coordinate and navigate.  Thus, unfortunately, river fishing gets complicated, and keeping a pamphlet of rules handy won't necessarily cover you because the rules can (and do) change mid-season.  EEKKK

So, is it even worth it for a newbie to try steelhead fishing?  You bet.  There is no better way to experience the beauty and power of the local rivers than casting a spinner or floating a jig for a steelie. 

Here is what you need to know to get started.

Go to a local store like Drew's Grocery, Sportsman's Warehouse, or Bob's in Longview and purchase a Washington state freshwater or combination fishing license along with a Columbia River endorsement.  An out-of-state one-day license and endorsement costs about $30.     A punchcard, where you write down your catch, comes with the licenses.  Be sure to get steelhead as a species.  Sign your license and pick up a regulation pamphlet, along with a few spinners or spoons.  The sales people should be well versed in local tackle. 

This weekend, June 9-10 is "free fishing weekend" and a license is not needed, but if you plan to fish for steelhead, you still need a catch record card (punchcard) and a Columbia River endorsement. 

The tackle requirements on the Toutle, Green and South Toutle are constantly changing with the date, but between the first Saturday in June and Aug. 1 it appears, after careful study of the pamphlet, that bait and barbed, and treble hooks are currently legal on the South Toutle, but barbless hooks are required on the mainstem and North Toutle.  This barbless/barbed issue is so confusing, I just use a barbless single hook at all times.  (The WDFW is supposed to be simplifying the rules now, so maybe things will get easier.)   

Here is a link to the current rules for you to make your own decision on barbed/barbless:  https://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01914/wdfw01914.pdf

OK.  So now you have your license, Columbia River endorsement, catch record card, and a legal lure (or bait) and are ready to fish.  Where to go.

The easiest place to start is the South Toutle.  It is planted with young hatchery steelhead (smolts) that will be arriving from the Cowlitz throughout the summer and fall.  Start at Harry Gardner county park, which has river access where the North and South Toutle meet.  Cast your lure upstream, at a slight angle, into the bottom end of pools and reel toward you.  Don't be afraid to move to a new pool or ripple often.  Steelhead sometimes lie in slow water below log jams or rocks.  Yes, you may bet hooked-up on these obstructions, but that is part of the game.  Be ready to wade and get wet, and if you are lucky enough to get a "hit" you will know it.  Steelhead fight, jump, shake, and fight some more.  Keep the tip up and the line tight. 

When landing your fish, first check to see if it has an adipose fin.  If it does, it must be carefully released without removing the fish from the water.  If it doesn't, current rules say that these hatchery fish must be kept (which is a very fine meal!).  The adipose fin is a small fleshy nob of a fin located between the tail fin and the dorsal (back) fin.  A hatchery fish (aka keeper) has a healed lump instead of an actual fleshy fin.  As soon as you land your hatchery steelhead, write down the information about the fish (river code, species, hatchery) on the catch record card with an inkpen.  The WDFW has cards with the river code that can be kept with the catch record card, or the codes are in the pamphlet along with a description of how to properly record your catch on pages 8 and 9.

Dispatch a steelhead with a strong blow to the head with a rock, and treat the cleaning process like you would any large trout.  Steelhead can be filleted like salmon, baked or barbequed whole while wrapped in tin foil, or cut into steaks.  Yummy.

 

 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, of which Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a sub-section, is planning to plan again.  This time they actually want to remove facilities like restrooms, picnic tables, and parking spaces.  Mount St. Helens has some of the most extensive (and expensive) sites in the Forest, with water systems, buildings, actual flush toilets and paved parking lots.  For years locals like myself have pushed for more "things to do" and less regulation at the Monument, especially along the Spirit Lake Hwy (SR 504), where the posted rules far exceed the planned rules.  A few years ago, in a response to a push to transfer Mount St. Helens to the Park Service, a new plan, called the Strategic Investment Plan, proposed adding amenities and activities to the Monument.  Some ideas included purchasing the High Lakes area, adding campsites along Coldwater Lake, allowing camping or overnight parking at Coldwater Science and Learning Center, and building new trails including a short connector trail linking the Lakes and South Coldwater trails and a route to Castle Lake.  A brand new campground along the Kalama River was in the works.  Some preliminary planning was completed, but now all those improvement ideas are on-hold, and the USFS is focused on removing infrastructure! 

If you want to comment, here's the link, with the survey in the middle of the page.

https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/giffordpinchot/recreation/?cid=FSEPRD578910

Tell the Forest Service to improve opportunities at Mount St. Helens as promised in the Strategic Investment Plan, not remove sites. 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Spring is a great time to hike the Coldwater Lake area.  With much of the deep backcountry of the Cascades still burried under piles of snow, the trails near Coldwater melt out early and provide great places for early season hiking.  This Mother's Day was the perfect time to hike the "Coldwater loop", which isn't a true loop trail, but a short section of hiking the shoulder of Hwy 504 makes a loop connecting several trails. 

We parked at the Hummocks Trailhead because the South Coldwater Trailhead is still locked behind the gate (until May 16).  Because the forecast called for heat, we started out early, and climbed the hill first.  We walked the 3/4 of a mile up the closed highway to the S. Coldwater Trail (trail 230A) then started up the hill.  I have climbed this many times, in all weather, but today the new shade the alders are providing made it a pleasant uphill climb.  After an uphill mile, you will reach the logging equipment which was destroyed in the eruption.  (The loggers who were working here were distant relatives of mine, and survived only because the mountain erupted on a Sunday.)  Past the equipment the shade becomes scarcer as the trail follows old logging roads with some gradual up and down, past an upturned logging "shovel", and to a junction.  Trailside snow for cold and refreshing slushies will only last another day or so.  At the junction with trail 230, the left fork "down" heads to the lake, and the right fork "up" heads toward Coldwater Peak and the Mt. Margaret backcountry, still with plenty of snow.  In two miles down hill, losing most of the elevation you have gained, you reach a lovely bridge across Coldwater Creek and soon after, a junction with Trail 211 (Lakes Trail).  The trail needs some fresh brushing out in places, but overall it is not too bad for blowdown.  We headed west (left) toward the Coldwater Lake access area about 1/2 mile down the trail.  It was heating up so wading in the cold lake was refreshing.  The fish were biting best for "Mom" and she caught one whopper.  (The regulations for Coldwater require single barbless hooks and no bait).  Only one fish over 16 inches can be kept--but fisheries managers may change the rules to allow two fish, so check the regulation pamphlets that come out in June.

The lake access at the far end of Coldwater is by far the nicest place on the shore, with a wide sandy area and deep water near enough to cast to.  A few years ago the Forest Service was considering adding some boat-in or hike-in campsites, but like many improvement projects at Mount St. Helens, the idea was sidelined. 

After an extended lunch & fishin' stop, we hiked the 4 1/2 miles back to the boat launch, and from there a half mile on the road to the Hummocks Trail.   There is another official lake access area closer to the boat launch, but it is not very appealing.  The whole loop is about 12 miles, with 1500 feet elevation gain.

Like I mentioned, the Coldwater Lake area is getting popular with early season hikers, and quite a few folks were out enjoying the trail and lake.  Kayakers and electric motor boats are also a fun way to explore Coldwater, and in the summer there has been a kayak tour group operating there. 

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

It's May Day, which means that the entire 6560-acre Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area and its units are OPEN to public non-motorized access.  The Mudflow portion (2700 acres) has been closed to entry since December 1 to protect wintering elk.  For those unfamiliar with the history of the Wildlife Area, most of the Toutle River valley floor between the Sediment Retention Structure (aka SRS or Dam) and the Mount St. Helens Monument boundary has been acquired by the state.  Some of this land was donated for elk winter range back in the early 1990's, and some was acquired as part of the SRS project.  Currently the land is managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for recreation and habitat, with elk winter range as a priority.  Visitors traveling toward Mount St. Helens on SR 504 can stop at pull-offs such as the Forest Learning Center and scan the valley floor for elk.  In winter, when the population is on an upswing, many hundreds of elk can be seen scattered along the gray "hummocks", and in summer and fall, all aspects of an elk's lifecycle from birth of calves to the eerie mating calls (bugles) can be heard and observed.

The original Spirit Lake Highway is buried under those hummocks, which are actually chunks of Mount St. Helens.  On May 18, 1980, the north slope of the volcano collapsed and roared through Spirit Lake and down the N. Toutle River, creating the largest landslide in recorded history.  The highway was buried over 100 feet deep.  Mudflows created from melted snow and glacier seeped to the top of the landslide and coursed down the river past Toutle, Castle Rock, Longview and on to the Columbia.  Afterward the North Toutle had no set channel, and it has been wandering back and forth across the valley ever since. 

The sediment dam was built in 1989 to hold back as much of this loose material as possible, to prevent flooding and continuous dredging in the lower valley and Columbia shipping channels.  Unfortunatly, the North Toutle, with its salmon and steelhead runs, was sacrificed.  With each raise of the dam, fresh new habitat or new river channels, are inundated with more sediment, setting the recovery process back.

You can see much of this wandering river from the Spirit Lake Highway, and visitors can hike, bicycle ride, or horseback ride along the old roads on the wildlife area.  Its a fun place to explore, with abundant wildlife, hidden homesteads, and numerous ponds and wetlands.  The 3100 logging road down to the valley floor, and the roads on the bottom are very popular with horseback riders and mountain bikers.  These links provide additional information about each unit, and a new management plan (that promises to prioritize access) is in the works.

Mudflow Unit Map:https://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/mount_saint_helens/Mudflow

Hoffsatdt Unit Map:https://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/mount_saint_helens/Hoffstadt%20/

Although the SRS project required the land behind the sediment dam to be used for habitat and recreation, there are no open roads or "public use" easements to this state land.  The lack of access means that Weyerhaeuser controls public access here, and they can (and do) charge you to walk across their land to reach the Wildlife Area. In one place Weyerhaeuser's 150-foot wide strip blocks access to nearly 7,000 acres of public land!  To legally access the Wildlife Area from the Highway, follow the 3100 logging road several miles to the valley floor. 

Because the wildlife area is "landlocked" the WDFW is currently applying for a grant to purchase some of the land wedged between the highway and the Wildlife Area.  If successful, this public land would no longer be controlled by private interests, and could be accessed by the public and become eligible for recreation improvements such as trails, camping areas, and restrooms.  Some of the land could even become a winter recreation area. 

 

 

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

The swallows and their feathered friends are starting to arrive in the lowlands of the Toutle Valley.   Each morning it seems I hear a new migrant that has completed the long journey from the tropics.  With snow still hanging on in the mountains, it's a good time to talk about "birding" opportunities in the Valley.  With Silver Lake, Seaquest State Park, and the varied habitat near Johnston Ridge, the Toutle Valley is a great area for both beginning and advanced birders.  Today I will talk about the birding and wildlife viewing opportunities around Silver Lake.

Where to go:

Seaquest State Park:  Silver Lake has great opportunities to find wetland species.  Start at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, where a boardwalk trail follows the edge of the lake on an old railroad grade.  Several miles of looping trails across the highway in Seaquest State Park provide classic older forest habitat. 

Hall Road WDFW units:  There are also some hidden parcels of state wildlife land toward the east end of the lake.  About 1/4 mile east of Hall Road, watch for a small, grassy parking area on the left (north).  With your Discover Pass or WDFW vehicle pass, park here and follow elk trails to the edge of the cattail marshes.  Rubber boots are helpful.  This quiet edge is a birding gem, with waterfowl and brushy habitats for wood warblers and forest dwellers. 

Canal Road: The WDFW Canal Road unit is perhaps the best birding and wildife viewing spot on the lake.  Across from Drew's Grocery, turn right (south) onto Sightly Road.  Watch for swallows, and kestrels on the powerlines, and waterfowl in the flooded fields along the road.  For the last several springs, four or five pairs of wood ducks have been stopping in the flooded fields on their way to nesting areas.  At the sharp corner (1 1/2 miles) veer right onto Canal Road, past more flooded fields, and go straight at the first junction, where the road narrows.  The Wildlife Area is the wetlands on both sides of the road.  Explore up to a gate and parking area on a small rise.  Besides birds, don't be surprised to spot elk, blacktailed deer, beavers or otters, and wild horses.  Fishing access is also available, and there are areas where small boats can reach Silver Lake. No passes required here or Canal Road.

Canal Rd

The flooded farmer's fields along Moore Road are also good places to spot waterfowl from the road. 

Silver Lake Dam: This spot is for the brave and adventurous and a GPS is helpful to stay on public land. More WDFW land is accessible from Hansen Road, across from the Toutle Highschool softball fields.  Follow Hansen Road approxiamately a half mile until it swings left, just before crossing the Outlet Creek.  A gated gravel road leads through private land on an easement, to the Silver Lake Flood Control dam and more WDFW land.  The high school track team sometimes keeps the trail/road open for running. 

This link identifies the Department of Wildlife land parcels at Silver Lake: Canal and Hall Road Units.  Follow the links to "detailed land ownership map"

https://wdfw.wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/county/Cowlitz/


 

 

 
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