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

Toutle River bolt drive (Cowlitz Co. Historical Museum photo)Cowlitz Co. Museum Photo

While sitting here on virus lockdown, I’ve had some time to research the history of the Toutle River.  Sometimes the past is key to the present, and nowhere is this truer than in river access.  In Washington, the state owns the beds and shores of “navigable” rivers.  In the cases where a river has moved, or the state has sold the bed,  navigable rivers are still subject to a public easement for river based activities like boating and fishing, even where they flow over private land.  This principle is called the “Public Trust Doctrine” and basically it says, the public always has certain rights to waterways, even if the title is privately held. 

OK, I’m no lawyer, and some of this is a bit grey-area, but if you want to learn more, check out online “The Public Trust Doctrine and the Coastal Management Zone in Washington” by the state Department of Ecology. 

The key question then becomes, “What makes a river navigable?”  There are state and federal standards, but the basic rule is that if a river is used, or capable of being used, for useful commerce in its natural condition, then it is a navigable river.  The courts decide navigability, and the history of how a river was used at statehood is the deciding factor. 

Digging through online newspapers, history books, and numerous Cowlitz Historic Quarterlies, I’ve compiled evidence that the Toutle River was our original highway of commerce.  Even locals might be surprised to learn that the region’s first industry wasn’t logging timber for lumber, but was cutting cedar shingle bolts for roofing.  By 1883 Castle Rock had its first cedar mill on the banks of the Cowlitz River, and the bolts to supply it, were floated in from the Toutle River.  For nearly forty years, the industry was the cornerstone of settlement and development in the Toutle valley.  Homesteaders relied on the sale of shingle bolts for nearly all of their hard cash.  Laborers lived from one cedar drive to the next.  Censuses of the time have listed occupations such as “riverman” and “river driving laborer”.  In the 1890’s, when floods flushed bolts out to sea, the economy of Toutle nearly collapsed. 

My great-grandfather had a bolt camp in Kid Valley across from where 19 Mile House is today.  He lived on-site and employed several workers.  Great-grandma was the cook.  They cut the cedar into lengths of about 56 inches, and would create a chute of logs to slide the bolts down to the river bank.  Each bolt was branded with the owners mark, and with the higher water, the lengths of cedar were floated downstream in annual “bolt drives”.  Men walked along the shore, prodding the bolts along and breaking up jams.  Because drives could take weeks, a cook boat and blanket boat followed with supplies.  I’ve found references to bolt drives from Spirit Lake down the entire North Toutle River, from Soda Springs on Green River, and far up the South Toutle.  One famous photo shows 5000 cords (a stack 4’ x 4’x 8’) of bolts in a jam on the South Toutle River!  Smaller creeks were also used to move bolts, sometimes with the aid of “splash” dams, which would release water to flush the bolts downstream. To a lesser extent, logs, ties, and specialized 7-foot bolts also took the trip.

By 1930 much of the cedar along the rivers and streams had been cut, and soon logging trains and roads replaced the rivers for getting the wood out.  But the history of these forgotten cedar drives could be the gift of the past to the present.  Someday a judge or court could affirm that the Toutle River is “navigable” based on this robust history of commerce, ensuring that we can float or fish forever.  But that determination has not been made yet. 

What does all this mean for today?  Can you float by: YES, absolutely.  Can you walk along the shore?  Most probably.   Always stay below the high water mark, do not cross private uplands, and for good measure carry a fishing pole and a fishing license, since "fishing" is listed as a right  alongside navigation.

See it: The Castle Rock Riverfront Trail passes the location of cedar mills on the Cowlitz River, with an interpretive board about that history.  From Exit 49, turn toward downtown Castle Rock, cross the railroad bridge, and take the next right into the trailhead parking lot.  The mill site is "downstream" 1/4 mile.


 
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….


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

A little gem of hidden land with two rivers, old growth trees, a huge snag, and an amazing history lies just off the Spirit Lake Highway across from the Fish Collection Facility.  If you take an afternoon to explore, you can stand on the banks and watch the emerald waters of the Green River combine with the (usually) murky North Toutle. 

 Big Trees

In summer both rivers are clear, cool and inviting, and in the fall salmon migrate past to the hatchery.   The "trail" here is a series of old roads, with the potential for some off-trail bushwacking.  Travel east on 504, past Kid Valley and the buried A-frame.  Follow the highway below the cliffs and cross the next bridge over the North Toutle.  Immediately after the bridge, park by the green gate on the left that is marked "road closed".  This old road follows a finger of ancient mudflow down toward the juncture of the Green and Toutle Rivers with side roads that are easy to follow except for a few windfalls.   Explore these old roads through a remnant of old growth timber dotted with views of the fish collection facility on the left, and the Green River Fish Hatchery on the right.  The easiest way to drop down to the May 18 mudflow and the rivers is to follow an old road to the right, toward the hatchery.  When I walked here, I kept on top of the ridge until I ran out of old road, then kept working my way to the end of the finger ridge.  With steep mudflow drop-offs on both sides, I found an elk trail down to the flat.  Once you hit the bottom, let exploration begin, with old roads, angler trails, and game trails all headed to the river junctions and a popular fishing hole.  Looking up at the steep grey walls from the bottom, it is easy to visualize how the ridge was created as the rivers gouged into the ancient mudflow.  (This is the same 2000 year old mudflow that created Silver Lake, and underlies the flatter areas around Toutle.)

The area across Green River and atop the rocky cliffs in front of you was once a community called Lithow.  The earliest route to Mount St. Helens and the Spirit Lake, along with the Green River mines, passed through here.  The wagon road worked its way past homesteads winding from Toledo.  It generally followed the route of the 1800 and 1900 logging roads near Hatchet Mountain, then dropped down to cross the Green River near here.  The road had to swithchback up the steep finger ridge of ancient mudflow, then drop again to follow the North Toutle up the valley to the Mountain.  One homesite remains, along with the Green River hatchery.    When the road was punched in from Castle Rock, and especially after the new Coal Banks bridge (circa 1927) outside Toutle was built, the route from Toledo was abandoned.   

The May 18, 1980 mudflow filled all the lowlands here with sand, rock, and debris.  Later, the hatchery was cleaned up and restarted.  The hatchery buildings are some of the few remaining structures that were inundated with mudflow and are still in use today.   The finger ridge of remnant old growth was preserved as a mitigation area for the construction of the new highway.  Recently, the land has been transferred to the Department of Wildlife.   The WDFW has an "official" river access just across the North Toutle adjacent to the Fish Collection Facility.  Expect some activity there soon as the state and federal government rebuild and improve the Facility.  On your return trip, look for the access road to the WDFW on the other side of the bridge, heading west on 504, its the first road to the right.  An angler's trail leads to the river directly across from where you just visited. 
 


 

 

 
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