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

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

May 4, 2022

The mid-April snow that the region received is going to have long term effects on hiking at higher elevations this spring, and possibly summer.  There is significant snow about 3500 feet, covering all the higher trails, including the trails at Johnston Ridge.  Drifts are still three or four feet deep along the highway at Elk Rock!  

The Spirit Lake Highway has been recently plowed and opened to the Johnston Ridge area, but visitor centers at Johnston Ridge and at Seaquest are still closed. The Coldwater Ridge Science and Learning Center is open to the public on weekends.  Additionally, Harry Gardner Park reopened to camping on April 11, and the South Toutle Bridge is open to all traffic.  Tower Road remains washed out near Hollywood Gorge. 

Trails:  I hiked up South Coldwater to the logging equipment.  The trail is snow free to that point, with intermittent snow the next half mile.  After that, the trail is snow covered with large drifts and quite a few broken and bent alders.  The Boundry Trail up from the Hummocks Trail is clear of snow to the top of ridge, with heavy drifts past the creek.  Trails at Johnston Ridge are covered with large drifts and won't be ready for hiking for awhile.  The trails along Coldwater Lake and the Hummocks Trail loop are snow free.

Earlier this year, Drew's Grocery caught fire and was severly damaged.   This family-owned business has been the heart of Toutle for nearly 85 years.  The store is closed, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  The new building going up is a Red Leaf Coffee.  Currently, fuel is not available in Toutle or Kid Valley.  For travelers, you must fill up in Toledo or Castle Rock before heading up toward Mount St. Helens.  


 
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.  

gatesign
 

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: Chapter 84.34 RCW: OPEN SPACE, AGRICULTURAL, TIMBERLANDS—CURRENT USE—CONSERVATION FUTURES (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.


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

The Spirit Lake Highway is not like other mountain passes in the winter.  It is not plowed, sanded and de-iced on a regular basis.  The Department of Transportation doesn't publish hourly pass reports or send out alerts for dangerous conditions. The only working camera, at the Forest Learning Center, shows the snow covered parking lot, not the conditions on the roadway.  Sometimes the Department just plows a big berm near the runaway truck ramp, or at Elk Rock, and that is where driving ends until a big melt.  And when regional snows hit, it is the last road to get attention.

Today (1/2/2022) my family took our heavy, lifted and studded 4x4 up to see if the skiing was any good.  We knew it would be windy at Elk Rock, and the blizzard like ice pellets belting our skin sure stung.  But we did not have a chance to ski.  We instead spent over two hours digging and pulling and pushing other people out of the snow.  I knew I had to post a few rules for driving up the Spirit Lake Highway in the winter.  

First, and foremost, BRING A SHOVEL.  Not a pair of snowshoes to be used as a shovel (like today) but a real shovel.  I've seen folks digging with a clawhammer, a stick, or their bare hands, but in all the times we've helped people get unstuck, they have never had their own shovel.  Everyone should know that you simply do not venture into the snow without a shovel of some type.

Second, all-wheel drive does not a snowmobile make.  For some reason it is assumed by many that if they have four wheel drive they can drive in any amount of snow.  Subarus are the most deceptive because people use them all the time to get to ski resorts.  Today, after pushing and pulling a mid-sized SUV back onto the roadway, the next little sedan that showed up insisted they had all-wheel drive so they were fine. We told them without high clearance they would get stuck, and we wouldn't be available to pull anyone else out.  The real problem was there was no place to turn around, so many of these hapless vehicles just kept going, up and up.  The wind at Elk Rock was blowing drifts of several feet into the plowed-last-week roadway.  These drifts would clog up under any low clearance vehicle, and there they would sit, high centered, in the middle of the highway.  

And finally, if you do have a big, high, 4x4 with good snow tires and you remember your shovel, also add tire chains and strong tow rope.  Not those rinky dink cable chains either, but real, heavy tire chains.  They are especially helpful when you can't get enough traction while pulling a Subaru out of the ditch.  If you actually need to chain up your big 4x4 truck to unstuck yourself, you've already gone too far and should have turned around when you had the chance.  Now you dig. 

 

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

When I grew up, in the 1970's, elk hunting was a lifestyle, a die-hard tradition that was passed down like religion.  I remember my first trip to Elk Camp on the 200-line.  (Logging roads are numbered and the railroad term "line" denotes a road.)  The main camp was fashioned from old railroad ties with an Army tarp roof. It was located in the old growth on Weyerhaeuser land way up high on a ridge.  It had a barrel stove and dirt floor.  It smelled like smoke and mud and whiskey.  I loved it.  But things sure have changed...

The eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted this region in unprecedented ways.  Big game and big game hunting went for a roller coaster ride.  First, the animals were wiped out by the eruption, and in response all hunting stopped.  Then, as the fireweed and other good elk food returned, so did the animals.  Elk birth rates doubled, and their numbers exploded.  By 1985 hunting returned but was limited to draw permits.  Success rates approached 100%.  Permit applications (and funds generated) soared.  Everyone was happy and elk were EVERYWHERE.  Herds with 200 elk were common.  In the winter, sometimes 1000 elk would gather in the North Toutle valley.   All the while, the little trees planted outside the Monument were growing fast, too. 10 years passed, then 20 years, and those little trees started to shade out all that good elk food.  By now the animals were clearly overpopulated.  In 2006, it all came crashing down.  Elk were starving; politicians chimed in with finger pointing; the public was outraged.  The state instituted emergency feeding a few times.  The population needed to be reduced, so the hundreds of cow tags were added.  But by now it was too late.  Another elk killer--hoof rot--was chewing into the St. Helens herd.  (It always amazes me how nature moves faster than human bureaucracy can react.)  The state was too slow to start the herd reduction, and too slow to stop it.  The elk today must deal with a trifecta of pressures: little feed, many cow tags, and hoof rot.  Consequently, now even seing a single elk on a day hunting in the blast zone is a success.

And hunting has changed in big ways.  Now families need to purchase permits from Weyerhaeuser just to hunt timberland.  Public lands have their own permit requiremens, and federal and state lands are often locked behind private pay-for-entry gates.  High-tech mapping applications that identify land ownership are needed more than map and compass.  Elk are no longer public resources held in trust for the benefit of all forever.  Game animals are now commodities being peddled by both public and private interests for the biggest returns.  And management of our game is now being sold and subcontracted to interests like Weyerhaeuser.  After a day hunting, my family was pulled over by private security and state WDFW enforcement working together for the benefit of Weyerhaeuser's permit system.  With three hunters, the state game warden was only interested in the license and tags of the youngest member of the group.  Why?  Because this teen might need his own $350 Weyerhaeuser permit and his license proved his age!

All is not lost.  There are still a few places to hunt by following only public rules on public land.  Unfortunately, the public Toutle State Forest is entirely in a draw only area for elk, but it is open for general deer, bear and other game.   The WInston Block of DNR land is accessible behind Weyerhaeuser's locked gate on the 1900 road. The DNR has not confirmed that that route is a legal easement that the public can use, so to be safe, have a Weyerhaeuser permit or a very good lawyer if you head to state land via the 1900!  While we wait, the Winston Block can be accessed from the north off Highway 12 near Mossyrock.  Additional blocks of state land exist along county roads along the Cowlitz/Lewis County property line.  Federal land, if you can get to it, is open.  Most hunters focus on the Lewis River Valley south of Mount St. Helens.  

  More information on public land opWDFW Hunt Planner (wa.gov)en to hunting:

 


 

 

 
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