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

June 26, 2022

 Johnston Ridge Observatory is open with an entrance fee, and the ridge trails are melted out.  Coldwaer Peak Trail is still snow covered.  The Forest Learning Center is open.  The Coldwater Ridge Science and Learning Center is supposed to be open to the public on weekends (supposed to is the key here).  The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Seaquest State Park is open 9 am to 4 pm.  Admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children.   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:   A group of us hiked the South Coldwater to Lakes Trail June 6 (out the boat launch) loop.  The Lakes Trail was brushed out this past week to about a mile past the bridge (toward Snow Lake).  The South Coldwater Trail is brushed out all the way past the logging equipment and part way down toward the lake on the other side.  The gap that isn't brushed out requires some ducking and weaving below between logs and low hanging trees.  There were lots of birds to see in the willowy ponds at the end of the lake.   Be aware there is a black bear that has been roaming around on the ridge, digging into ant nests.  I've seen it once this spring, and watched it for a half hour.   All higher elevation trails (Mount Margaret, Loowit Trail, Tumwater,  Deadman's) are buried in snow. On June 25 I hiked to Deadman's Lake from the Lander's Creek (Weyerhaeuser controlled) trailhead.  There were drifts at the trailhead, but the first hill was melted.  Above about 4700 feet, the trail was snow covered with drifts up to 6 feet deep!  The lake is melted out and the campsites are open.  Blow down was minimal but snow was similar to mid-May (not late June).  Consequently, because of heavy snow melt, the rivers are still ice cold and/or milky.

Services: 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 store is closed, but the family is has put in a double wide that will soon be a mini store (but not yet).  The other new building going up is a Red Leaf Coffee.  FUEL IS NOW AVAILABLE .  Pay at pump and open 24-hours.  Fire Mountain Grill at 19 Mile House and North Fork Survivors are open for the season. 


 
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

Imagine the ideal State park.  Of course there would be camping and the typical marshmallow-coated fun, but my “dream” park would have things to do year round.  In summer I could camp, bicycle, or hike the park’s trails, and in the winter I could snowshoe, sled, or cross-country ski there.  The best parks also have water.  I would connect my “dream” park with a beautiful lake.  Don’t forget the fish, because I love fishing…and make them big.  Add features like a boat launch, trails, restrooms, and picnic area at the lake.  It’s nice when camping to have park paths connect with larger trail systems.  Wake up in the morning and leave the tent or RV and hike or bicycle past the lake and deep in the backcountry.  The park should be fairly large, at several hundred acres, and easy to get to.  Make it on a paved road, and not too far to drive, perhaps near a national treasure that is already attracting visitors.  Put it near a science center and a visitor center for extra pizazz.  It helps if the land is already public, and wrap it all in a spectacular view.  That is my ideal park ...and here it is:

 

DNR land could make a great park
320 acres of isolated and unused state Department of Natural Resources land sits surrounded by the Mount St Helens National Monument.  In fact, all of the maps on Monument billboards have the land marked as part of the Monument.  It isn’t.  State law allows DNR land to be transferred or leased for park and recreation purposes. 

The land is hilly, but not steep, and could support a camping park, snow park, day-use area, or a combination of all of these.  Old logging roads lead to both Coldwater Lake and the Castle Lake viewpoint and toward Elk Rock.  These old roads could easily be converted to trails, linking with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Boundary National Scenic Trail.  Coldwater Lake has full facilities and would be a short two-mile walk, snowshoe, bicycle, ski or jog away.   But for now its just a dream...


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Where is the missing top of Mount St. Helens?  Many people think that the top of the volcano was blasted into the sky and became the cloud of ash that circled the world.  But that isn't true.  The ash that was erupted was "new" material from deep within the earth.  The "old" top of Mount St. Helens slid into the Toutle River Valley.  This landslide filled the valley up to 300 feet deep with chunks of the old summit.  The material consisted of loose layers of rock and ash along with pieces of glacier.  The largest mudflow resulted from the de-watering of this huge landslide. These "lahars" inundated all the low lying areas along the Toutle, filled the Cowlitz, and clogged the Columbia River shipping channel.  

In response, mass-dredging ensued. The Army Corps of Engineers also quickly built a sediment dam across the North Toutle valley in an attempt to hold the material in place.  This first dam (called N-1) was quickly overwhelmed.  Over the years, the Toutle River has continued to erode this material downstream, creating big problems for people along the river.  The sand along the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers is old ash and rock from volcanic activity.

In 1990 the Corps came up with a solution.  They would build one huge sediment dam on the North Toutle and stop the erosion! The idea was simple; slow the river down with a shallow lake behind a big dam.  The sand drops out, and the water flows out over a spillway.  Now towns could be safe. Cowlitz County lifted the building moratorium on mudflow areas and housing developments popped up along our rivers, protected by the dam and higher levies. 

Anyone could see, however, that this "solution" didn't stabilize the river or get rid of the landslide material, it just held it in the upper valley a little longer.  And that is where we are today.  The dam is full, the river above the dam has become a shallow bay of mud, and the Cowlitz River is still clogged with sand.  The Toutle has no stable channel, and wanders over the sediment plain, now picking up material and moving it downstream.  The spillway on the dam has already been raised once to hold more material, with two more raises planned.  Oh, and the dam has no fish ladder.  Returning endangered salmon must be trucked around the mess.  Baby salmon (smolts) must navigate a web of shallow muddy channels downstream on their way to the ocean. Recently, agencies have tried a few creative ideas to hold sediment in place and to reduce the erosive action of the river.  You can see log dikes and piles along the Toutle River in places like Harry Gardner Park or the Mudflow Wildife Area.  These features are designed to improve fish habitat and hold the loose material in place long enough for vegetation to establish.

Learn More: https://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/mount-st-helens/overview/

See it:  Harry Gardner Park is the best place to see the erosion control and habitat enhancement structures.  Along Interstate 5, north of Castle Rock, you may notice large piles of dredge spoils along the Toutle and Cowlitz River.  Some of these sites are publicly owned.  In the upper Toutle Valley,  scan the sediment plain with binoculars for log structure and other erosion control measures. From the Hoffstadt Bridge area the remains of N-1 dam are visible in the valley.  

Trail across sediment dam
 

Hike it:  From Kid Valley travel east on 504 to Sediment Dam Road, which is actually the old Spirit Lake Highway.  Travel about 2 miles to the parking lot at the end.  The trail starts past the restroom, and leads to a dam viewpoint and continues to the dam itself.  It's a nice walk, half on dirt trail and half on old road.
The view from the dam shows the massive expanse of sediment held in place there.  Elk are also common, so be aware.  Sometimes herds of elk graze in the grassy field around the dam.  If you follow the signs and the old roads, the hike makes a nice 1.2 mile loop.  

 


 
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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