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

Did you know a big-time Hollywood movie was filmed in the Toutle Valley?  In 1937 "God's Country and the Woman", a logging-adventure-love story, was filmed in several locations in Cowlitz County.  I've seen the movie a few times on classic television, and I made a VHS copy of it once.  It's really cool to see the places we locals are all familiar with on the big screen, especially the shots of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens from before the eruption.   Another famous scene is of the rocky Toutle River Gorge, dubbed "Hollywood Gorge" after the film.  Spoiler alert! They created an artificial log jam, blasted it wide open, and ran a train engine into the river all for the movie.  My father grew up on the banks of the river here, and as a child, I fished the very near where the action occurred all those years ago.

Today, it is more difficult to see Hollywood Gorge. Much of the land and the main access road to the heart of the Gorge is now posted, but the river remains public.  Experienced kayakers and boaters (and I emphasize experienced!) float the Toutle through the Gorge for high adventure during high water. Most whitewater enthusiasts put in at the main Toutle bridge just past Drew's Grocery and float to the takeout on Tower Road.  The rapids can be class 4 with high, muddy and log filled waters adding to the adventure and danger.  Over the years, commercial rafting company's have offered trips.  If you are into this type of thing here's a site with the details: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/2253/

There are also some YouTube videos posted for a "virtual" run down the Toutle.

If you want a view of the gorge from dry land, here are a few places to see it.  The first bridge across the Toutle was called Coal Banks Bridge, and it crossed at a narrow, rocky point about a half-mile downstream of the current bridge on Hwy 504.  The Coal Banks Bridge was replaced by a new bridge about 1970.  When the eruption wiped out the new bridge, the Army Corps of Engineers resurrected the old Coal Banks location and put in a Bailey bridge.  After the eruption kids like me road the school bus across that narrow Army Baily bridge for a few years.  (National Geographic magazine photographers even rode with us once.)  High in a school bus on the Bailey bridge, you could really get a good view of the roiling water at the heart of the Gorge.  I know I wouldn't be going down there in a kayak or raft!

The Bailey bridge was removed when a new post-eruption bridge was built, but the route remains.  Park at either end of the old Coal Banks Road gates and walk the old pavement to where the bridge used to cross the river.  (Because a state law that prevents counties from giving up road access to waters, these routes are open to the public.)  The route on the east side of the new bridge is shorter. This location gives you an idea of the wildness of Hollywood Gorge.  Driving along Tower Road, which loops between Castle Rock and Toutle, also provides pull-offs and glimpses of the canyon and Gorge in several places.  The WDFW manages the take-out location where Tower Rd. crosses the River.  Pull off here to walk down to the water. 

Posted By Toutle Trekker

kayaking on Silver lake
Sometimes we tend to overlook great places that are right out the back door.  It always surprises me to hear people who live in Cowlitz County but have never been "up the highway" to Johnston Ridge.  People come from all over the world to see Mount St. Helens, but sometimes locals don't. 

I was that way with kayaking Silver Lake, and what fun I've been missing.  It was just a quick trip in a borrowed kayak, but the evening was quiet, the water smooth, and the views and sunset-- stunning.

Here where I went.  Take Sightly Road to Canal Road, which swings right.  Canal Road drops to single lane with no center lane stripe and heads toward the lake along Hemlock Creek.  In the past canals and ponds were dug here for drainage, thus the name.  There is a tight parking spot just past the culverts on the right.  This is also the "launch".  I put in here and followed the main channel west toward the main lake.  The vegetation, mostly spirea, willows, and ash trees, holds many signs of wetland life.  Birds and beavers are abundant.  Just when you think you've run out of room to paddle, you notice that some of the brances have been snipped, creating a narrow tunnel in the brush.  Yes, this is the way.  Push and pull along,  under and through to the other side where the water opens up again, and the lake proper is in sight. Side channels lead to other areas to explore.  As darkness neared, I turned around before hitting the main lake, but the return views of Mount St. Helens were spectacular. 

Posted By Toutle Trekker

It the preamble to this Blog, I mentioned all the restrictions that face visitors when accessing the Toutle Valley.  Now, alas, it is time to get specific about those dreaded passes, permits, and fees.

There are three types of passes here-- 

Federal:  When it comes right down to it, the only real place you need any federal pass is at the Johnston Ridge Observatory area.  Unlike the Forest Service's Northwest Forest pass, which is used for vehicles parked at trailheads, at Johnston Ridge, a per-person fee is charged, and each visitor must wear a bright wrist band when visiting the Observatory.  They are only sold at the door.  "Technically" Coldwater Lake also requires a pass, but there is no way to purchase one at the lake, nobody really enforces this, and many times it is impossible to comply because Johnston Ridge is closed.   If you--or a senior citizen traveling with you-- has one of the federal passes (Senior Pass, America the Beautiful, Disabled Vet etc.) a certain number of people can use that for admittance to the Observatory. NW Forest Passes aren't good for anything here, and the trailheads here do not require a pass.  When hiking the Boundary Trail at Johnston Ridge, I always park by the far north trailhead and bypass the Observatory area.  There is a sign saying a pass is required, but when only using the trailhead to reach the backcountry, its more of a suggestion.  The Loowit Viewpoint, South Coldwater Trailhead, and Hummocks Trailhead do not require the wrist pass or the NW Forest Pass.  The bottom line--buy a pass if you want to see the great eruption movie they show at the Observatory, or better yet, bring a grandparent with you, have them use (or buy) their senior lifetime pass, and all watch the movie together.

State:  It is more useful to invest the $30 in a Washington Discover Pass.  The pass has space for two vehicle license plate numbers.  Although you can get the pass online or at stores like Drew's, if you buy one at Seaquest State Park, you save a few dollars in dealer fees.  Discover Passes are for parking and driving on or through state-owned lands.  The St. Helens Wildlife Area on the Toutle mudflow has no public road access, therefore no pass is required for entry.  Locally, a Discover Pass is accepted at Seaquest and Lewis & Clark State Parks, at the Green River Hatchery, the Hall Road birding area, Tower Road and Kerr Road boat launches, and while visiting the Toutle State Forest or other state land.  If you want to visit the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Seaquest you will need to pay an entry fee.  You can just pay the fee and not purchase a Discover Pass if you are only interested in the Visitor Center area. 

If you have purchased a Washington state hunting or fishing license, you were given a different pass--a Vehicle Access Pass--that is only valid on Department of Wildlife (not Department of Natural Resources or State Parks) land.  Yes, it is confusing, and yes, the state has plans to eliminate or simplify the system, but I'm not holding my breath.

Here's more information  https://discoverpass.wa.gov/

Private:  A few years back the largest landowner in the Toutle Valley  (which is also the largest private landowner in the United States) started requiring passes for entering their commercial timberland.   Weyerhaeuser Company, bringing in a practice from the Southeast, limits and controls access to much of Southwest Washington, including over half of Cowlitz County.  Most industrial timberland companies have instituted these passes despite "open space" laws passed by voters that shifts much property tax burden from timberland owners to their neighbors.  These laws were put in place to help preserve open space, and the public benefits those areas provide.  For timberland, one public benefit specifically listed in the law is "recreational spaces".  But since the law has no requirements to provide those pubic benefits for free, the companies are essentially double-dipping--charging for recreational spaces while enjoying the full tax break.  The really sad part is that public land gets locked behind private gates.  There are even several Mount St. Helens National Monument trailheads that are trapped behind Weyerhaeuser gates!   Obviously, I'm not a fan, and I fight this tooth and nail, but to really get into the back woods these passes are the new reality.  Information is on the Weyerhaeuser website, and the cost for a motorized pass for the Longview area has been $300, a walk-in $50, with limited quotas of each.  Sales usually start in the spring.  https://wyrecreation.com/permits

Free:  County and city-owned parks and lands, like Harry Gardner Park, and city of Castle Rock parks and trails are free.  Most Monument trailheads and trails are free.  Companies like Sierra Pacific, Port Blakely, and Merrill & Ring allow free non-motorized access for hunters and hikers. The "access corridors" through Weyerhaeuser land to public land or along the South Toutle River (see older blogs) are free.  Army Corps of Engineer's land and facilities near the Sediment Dam is free.   

Bottom Line:  If you like to hike, bike, ski, swim or fish, many areas are still free, and you can visit and enjoy the Toutle Valley without spending much (or any) money on passes, permits, and fees.  


Posted By Toutle Trekker

Green River Fish Hatchery
Fall is a wonderful time to visit the Green River Fish Hatchery--with or without a pole!  Last week I took my two year old nephew to see the salmon.  We saw mommy salmon, daddy salmon, and piles of baby salmon.  We walked down an anglers' trail and waded in the water where several spawned-out Chinook lay dead, their nutrients adding to the next generation.  Because it was the middle of a warm, fall day, the anglers that sometimes flock here to catch returning salmon, were gone for the day.  

The Department of Wildlife places a barrier across the Green River to direct salmon to the ladder leading to the hatchery holding ponds.  Several pairs of Chinook were guarding their "redds", or salmon nests, just downstream of the barrier.  The salmon are easey to see, even for a toddler, as they zip back and forth.  The concrete holding areas were full of salmon, too, and my nephew had a blast watching these huge Chinook leap and splash.  Other rearing areas held thousands of young salmon that swam close in swarms, no doubt looking to be fed.  

Visiting the hatchery is a fun way to spend an afternoon for wildlife viewing, hiking the road along the river, or trying your had at catching a salmon.  Check the fishing regulations and the emergency rules.  The Green River is closed to Chinook retention, and several areas right near the hatchery are always closed to fishing to give returning salmon a safe area, but Coho fishing and steelhead fishing is currently open.  An access road follows the river upstream and makes a nice hike.  

The trick here is actually finding the fish hatchery.  Start at the 1900 logging road that loops below Kid Valley Campground.  Stay right and cross the North Toutle River below 19 Mile House restaurant, then stay to the right on the open (ungated) gravel road.  This 1901 logging road has side roads gated, requiring an expensive Weyerhaeuser permit.  Follow the gravel road uphill to the big yellow gate, which may be open or closed.  Do not go past the gate, but stay to the right and on the "main drag".  Several other logging roads intersect, but they are either gated or signed with Weyerhaeuser's permit required signs.  Stay on the road that has been used the most (508), which winds gradually down to the hatchery.  At one point you will be tempted to go straight, but the 508 main road turns left.  In 1.8 miles you reach another yellow gate that is open with a sign describing rules for using the hatchery area.  Go past the sign and drop down to the hatchery parking. A state Discover Pass or a vehicle access pass that comes with your fishing license is required for parking here.  The best place to see salmon is to the right, past the hatchery buildings, just below the ladder.   Short access trails lead to the river.  

Before the eruption, a paved road crossed the Toutle River and went to the hatchery.  I even road the school bus here one time to visit my uncle who was working the salmon, and one of my school buddies lived in one of the homes that stood here.  All that changed on May 18, 1980, when the area was inundated with mud.  Later, the mud was scraped away, some of the better homes were moved, and the hatchery restarted.  The county road was not rebuilt, so, like much of Southwest Washington, Weyerhaeuser controls access now, and could shut off public access to the hatchery at any time. 

If you do not want to drive on logging roads, and aren't afraid to get your feet wet, you can also wade across the Green River to the hatchery.   From Kid Valley, head east on SR504.  As soon as you cross the North Toutle River, look for a green, gated road on the left.  Park along the highway near here.  Hike past the gate and down an old road that follows a finger ridge between the dirtier North Toutle and the clear Green River.  This road is lined with some remant old growth and is worthy of its own trip (and its own Blog post).   It might take some bushwhacking, but angler trails are usually abundant.  This time of year the Green River is low, and a wader usually doesn't get wet past the knees.  Work upstream until you reach the trail from the hatchery.  If you come to the cable across the river (that marks the edge of the no fishing area) you've come too far.  Look for trails up the bank that lead to the hatchery.  

The Department of Wildife just obtained ownership of the wedge of land between the rivers here and the should be incorporating it into the St. Helens Wildife Area.  Perhaps better public access will be incorporated into any future plans.  


Posted By Toutle Trekker

So far I have been telling everyone about the numerous outdoor activities in the Toutle Valley--hiking, skiing, fishing, swimmng--but the small town charm of our biggest "city" is worth a day all to itself.

Castle Rock, which sits at the junction of Interstate 5 and the Spirit Lake Highway (SR 504) provides the visitor with so much to do and see.  The town is undergoing a rebirth based on a strong team of volunteers, and a can-do community spirit.  Late summer is a great time to visit, with flower baskets overflowing, new shops opening, and fishing heating up.  The new visitor center at Exit 49 is the perfect place to start your exploration, and before you visit, watch this year's "America in Bloom" video about Castle Rock.


The town has paved walking/biking path that follows the Cowlitz River, north to south, passing the bike skills path and the namesake "Rock". Across the river sits the fairgrounds, boat launch, and the North County Sports Complex with playing fields, a walking paths, and outdoor exercise equiptment.  Anglers can also access the river from Cook Ferry Road, and you will see "plunkers" waiting patiently for the bite of a salmon or steelhead.   

Specialty shops and eats include the fun bookstore "The Vault", the local metal art at "Focus Art and Frame" and the volcano donuts at the Castle Rock Bakery.  If you are going on a picnic, stop at the grocery store and pick up some scrumptious Kalama Sourdough rolls (hummy!).  Locals in SW Washington judge all pizza against Papa Pete's Pizza, and all burgers against the ones from the Shell Gas Station across the street.  C & L has shakes and burgers we love, too.  Lacy Rae's in downtown offers a homey lunch.  It seems like new shops are opening every week, giving even locals a reason to keep visiting.

The town also has several festivals, including a small-town fair, adventure mud race, and Christmas parade with a Festival of Lights.  There is far more to do and see in Caslte Rock than one blog post can cover, so I will continue to add more in the future!






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