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

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

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

With winter making a late stand, there is one more area to enjoy the snow in the Toutle Valley, and I've saved the best for last.   

Bad news first.  If you don't dig a bit, you may never even know this land existed.  It has no trails, campgrounds, picnic sites, or official snowparks. There are no brown and white recreation signs.  The DNR website is silent.  In fact, it has no recreation investments at all, except a single "Discover Pass required" sign.  

Now the good news.  The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) owns 35,000 acres between the North and South Toutle Rivers.  The Toutle State Forest is open to most forms of outdoor recreation, including camping, horseback riding, bicycles, ATV's and snowmobiles. The views are spectacular, with five volcanoes and three huge lakes, surrounding you.  There are miles of logging roads to explore, and back-routes into the Mount St. Helens Monument and its trails (more on that when the snow melts). 
Toutle State Forest snowshoe trek

Weyerhaeuser, which has this 35,000 acres "landlocked", does usually allow free motorized access on a 'public access corridor' to the state forest. 

Directions: From the Toutle on SR 504, turn south onto South Toutle Road, which is just across from Drew's Grocery (the only store in town).  Follow S. Toutle Road over the river, past Harry Gardner County park, about three miles to a large gravel road the merges to the right.  Take this road and stay right. (If you go under two bridges you have gone too far.)   The gravel road is the 4100 logging road, but it may not be marked.   Follow the 4100 road a few miles paralleling the S. Toutle River.  Soon afer crossing a small creek,  there will be a large open area on the right which is often used to store culvert and other forestry supplies.  This is the old 12-mile logging camp that was destroyed by the eruption.  On the left, across from the storage area, a gravel road goes up hill (4200 rd).  Take the 4200 road and follow it gradually uphill to the DNR forest.  After seven miles, if you watch carefully, you may notice the Discover Pass sign which is the only mark that you have entered public land (the timber also gets larger, too). 

Depending on snow level, let the exploration begin.  The area is becoming more popular, especially with light 4x4's on weekends, so expect some company.  The photo shows a nice snowshoe route to the top of Signal Peak. 

The best map is the Mount St. Helens quadrangle map published by the DNR are available from the website for state printing:   https://prtonline.myprintdesk.net/DSF/storefront.aspx.   You can also check out public land on the Washington State Department of Wildlife's GoHunt web mapping tool, which has DNR roads. http://apps.wdfw.wa.gov/gohunt/


Posted By Toutle Trekker

Last time I mentioned that the Hummocks Trail, which is a 2-mile loop, and the closed highway to Johnston Ridge can be good places to cross-country ski or snow shoe.  The Lakes Trail, which may be dicey for skiing because of steep drop offs into the lake, can provide a nice winter snowshoe route when the snow is deep, or a boot hike with minimal snow.  Often, in March or April, the Lakes Trail has little or no snow, and early season hikers are discovering that the Coldwater Lake area is a good place to start the hiking season.  Other Forest Service trails include the lower Boundary Trail where it intersects with the Hummocks Trail, and a snowshoe hike up the highway a mile to the South Coldwater Trail that leads uphill to great views and miles of trekking. 

For a shorter trip, try the nature trail just below the Forest Learning Center playground.  This hike drops through the noble fir trees, crosses a wet area on a boardwalk, and drops to a logging road.  Round trip is about two miles.  It can be done with snowshoes right now.

The 3100 logging road provides another area to get off the highway.  About a half-mile past Hoffstadt Bridge is an intersection of logging roads.  On the south side, the 3100 rd drops to state wildlife land in the valley floor.  In winter, parts of the wildlife area are closed to entry to protect wintering elk, but the 3100 access road can be used as a winter trail. 

Posted By Toutle Trekker

The Spirit Lake Highway leads from Interstate 5 at Castle Rock and travels 51 miles to an elevation of over 4000 feet at Johnston Ridge, but has no "official" snowpark.  That's the bad news--but it is also the good news.  No bonafide snowpark means no hassle with an expensive Washington Sno*Park pass.  When the snow level is low, as it is right now, we have several areas that provide free snow parking. One place where many people come to sled and play in the snow is the runaway truck ramp just past the Forest Learning Center.  The Department of Transportation is now plowing the shoulder to provide a parking area.  There is a push at the local level to create a real snowplay area somewhere near here, but nothing official yet.  People use the ramp for sledding, but expect crowds on weekends. Its located near mp 34.

Skiing the Hummocks Trail

The truck ramp isn't very useful if you really want to ski, fat-tire bike, or snow shoe.  Elk Rock has historically been a great place for winter adventure, but, sadly, it falls under Weyerhaeuser's permit system, despite Elk Rock's history as a site of community significance and heritage. With deep snow, the highway right-of-way can also be a place to snowshoe or cross country ski.  With a big dump of snow, sometimes the plows do not go past the truck ramp or Elk Rock.  When this happens the entire highway cooridor becomes a long trail for snow adventure, with even snowmobile use legal per state law!   

If the plows have been running (as is the case today) drive to the "road closed" gate at the Hummocks Trailhead about mile post 45.  From here there are several options for snow adventure, including crosscountry skiing or snowshoeing along the Hummocks Trail (photo) or heading up the closed highway seven miles toward Johnston Ridge.  My family skied up the highway two days ago, and we noted a fat tire bike and a snow shoer had been there recently.  The tricky part to skiing here is that the snow pack is inconsistent, and the wind can turn things icy.  The conditions were great going up and a bit sticky coming down.

Snowshoers (and brave skiers) have more options, with all the Forest Service trails open to them, with a caveat that a person stays on the trail.  I have lobbied the Forest Service to allow snowshoers and skiiers to use old service roads near the highway as winter snow trails, but so far, nothing has been done.  With my urging, they did remove the "no trespassing" signs that prevented winter use on the closed portion of the Spirit Lake Highway--it took two years!  Maybe if the Monument heard from a few more people they could be motivated to open existing roads to snowshoers or skiiers.  (Hint, hint)  It wouldn't take much to add several great snowshoe routes here following service roads and roads used during the construction.

With a GPS you might even discover that the state Department of Natural Resources has over 300 acres along the highway that can be accessed off trail. 

Have fun while the snow lasts!




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