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

Most mountain trails are still buried in deep snowdrifts, but the trails near Coldwater Lake melt out early because of their treeless, southern facing slopes.  Today, my family hiked to the Loowit viewpoint from the Hummocks trailhead via the Boundary Trail #1.  Its a great get-in-shape for the summer hike, and we've done it twice in the last few weeks.  The entire hike, up and back, is about 8 1/2 miles with 1500 feet of elevation gain.  It was spitting snowflakes, but the Hummocks parking lot was snow free, as was the trail until the creek crossing 20 minutes from the top, where snow lasted a few hundred yards.  Often, on sunny spring days, many hikers head to the Lakes Trail along Coldwater or the 2 1/2 mile Hummocks Trail loop, but usually the Boundary Trail has little traffic.  It is a climb afterall.  The trail is in good shape, with only a few bushes leaning into the tread, along with the one spot of snow.   To get to the Boundary trail, travel SR 504 to the Hummocks Trailhead parking lot just past the outlet to Coldwater Lake.  First, starting at the information sign boards, follow the Hummocks trail for 1/2 mile to the junction with the Boundary trail.  Follow the boundary trail left (east) until it intersects with SR 504 at the Loowit Viewpoint.  Currently the highway is gated until May.  When the snow melts, the Boundary Trail can be followed all the way to Council Lake by Mount Adams. 

Besides great exercise, the trail often provides unique wildlife watching.  The migrating birds are starting to arrive, and we heard a few western meadowlarks and warblers.  The mountain bluebirds are also returning.  Nearly every pond that we hiked past on the Hummocks Trail had a pair of buffleheads swimming side by side.  Once on the ridge, we spotted a few elk in the valley below.  On the return trip we noticed, just below the snow patches, two mountain goats.  Goats have been making a spectacular comeback at Mount St. Helens, and in the summer they can be seen in the Mount Margaret backcountry, on the volcano itself, and in the cliffs by Castle Lake.  They drop lower in the winter, and one even showed up just outside of the town of Toutle!  This is the first I've seen them on Johnston Ridge.  Goats in lower right of photo.

 

Goats on Johnston Ridge
 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Spring is in full bloom in downtown Castle Rock with bulbs and flowering trees putting on a grand display.  I spent a few hours walking around town the other day, and with the mountains still locked in snow, it is a great time for a lowland stroll.  I started at the north Riverfront Trailhead at Castle Rock, which can be reached from exit 49 by turning toward downtown, past the Welcome Center.  At the trailhead, I hit the path along the river (left) toward the bike park and "The Rock".  The Cowlitz was running a bit high with snowmelt, and a few anglers were plying the waters for steelhead.  The high dike the trail follows gives a rooftop perspective of the town.  I passed under the bridge and toward the bike skills park, where families with BMX bikes were practicing.  Instead of following the pavement here, I stayed to the right on a gravel path/road.  This "scenic route" wasn't the most beautiful, with a bank of briars on one side and glimpses of the river on the other.  (Perhaps not the best route to take on a dark or quiet time, but there were lots of people around).  The road swings around, past the wastewater treatment plant, and provides access to the banks of the Cowlitz.  On one of the first nice days of spring, a half-dozen vehicles were parked along the river here.  I reconnected with the paved main trail, and followed it to the base of Castle Rock.  Veering again onto the gravel, up I went.

Now in the summer I hike trails that are this steep for MILES, but it's early in the year and I was puffing just to get to the top, which is only about 150 feet of elevation gain.  There is a pleasant picnic spot at the top with peek-a-boo views of the river and town.  Dropping back down, I had a choice of continuing on to Lion's Pride Park at the south entrance of Castle Rock town, or returning to my car.  I walked sidewalks past the elementary school and past the bakery (I didn't stop this time) and made a circle of about 3 miles. 

A nice spring jaunt, but if you want something more strenuous, Cowlitz Valley Runners sponsors a run to the top and back.  This year's "I Topped the Rock" color run 5K run is scheduled for May 19 and starts at Lion's Pride Park (south entrance).  I hope to be there...watching my kids run!


 
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.

 https://youtu.be/7PBzgVViTH8

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!

More....

https://www.facebook.com/CastleRockBlooms/


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Most of the snow has melted and the higher trails are opening up.  One good hike for a cool, clear day, or a hot day with an ver early start, is Coldwater Peak.  If you tackle this  hike during the heat, remember there is no real shade so be prepared for a hot hike with the sun beating down.   Start at Johnston Ridge and head east on the Boundary Trail.  At 1.5 miles the trail now cuts behind a steep cliff known as Devil's Elbow.  Pass the Truman Trail that drops toward (but not to) Spirit Lake and climb through an alder tunnel before cesting the ridge at the "spillover" where parts of the landslide from 1980 actually crested the ridge and flowed down the other side into South Coldwater Creek.  Loop around the backside of the ridge to a saddle above Spirit Lake where you will pass the junction to Harry's Ridge trail.  This short ( 1 mile) but steep spur can be an alternate destination. Just past Harry's Ridge another trail (South Coldwater) comes in from the left.  With two vehicles you could make a loop.  Horned larks and mountain bluebirds are common along this stretch, and the views of Mount St. Helens, Sprit Lake, and Mount Adams are grand.  Continue on up the ridge, zigzagging past strawberry and huckleberries, to views of St. Helens Lake.  Drop down a sidehill and travel through a natural "hole-in-the-wall", then traverse a side hill with Coldwater Peak above, and St. Helens Lake below.  The lake was once a popular backpacking and fishing destination, but now only a "secret" for- scientists-only trail drops to the lake.  The deep swimming lake trout that were planted there decades ago survived the eruption and still lurk in the depths.

 

St. Helens Lake
The 3/4 mile trail to the summit of Coldwater Peak is on the left, just above the young hiker's white hat in the photo.  At the top there are numerous scientific and weather monitors.  Before the eruption, a firelookout stood here. and bits of glass from the lookout scatter the summit.  Check the valleys below for herds of elk and watch for mountain goats, too.  Round trip 13 miles with 2000 feet elevation gain.


 
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. 

 

 

 


 

 

 
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