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 online mapping company OnX Maps is looking for landlocked trails and public access "Hotspots". Please help put the gated and held-for-ransom trails at Mount St. Helens National Monument on their radar.  There are several official, United States Forest Service trails that are locked behind Weyerhaeuser pay-to-enter gates.  These are some of the oldest, most historic, trails in the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and they access some of the most spectacular parts of the National Monument.

Green River Trail 213   

T11NR5E sect. 31  Lat: 46° 23'16.62"N Long:122° 13'36.61"W 

Even before Mount St. Helens erupted, advocates were working on a National Monument that would protect the spectacular old growth forests, waterfalls, rushing streams, and unique habitats of the Green River Valley.  When the volcano erupted, a combinations of luck and geography sheltered this valley of the giants from the killing blast.  Today, trails open to horses, mountain bikes, and hikers loop through the deep timber and rugged landscape passing lakes and streams along the way. While the far (east) end is accessible from Forest Service roads, the western (Toutle side) of the trail is locked behind Weyerhaeuser gates.  The historic route to the Green River Trail was from Toutle on trails, and later via the 2500 logging road, which was shared by the public and private landowners along it. When the USFS was planning for the Monument they relied on the traditional, open-gate policy of timber companies that was common at the time to supply access, but assured the public that the government would aquire rights to these roads if the situation changed.  Well it sure has changed! Now only a limited number of paying customers can drive to those Monument trailheads. We need to put the Green River Trail on a priority list for an easement.

Landers Trail 217

This trail which connects with Green River Trail, is also locked behind gates.  It accesses Deadman's and Vanson Lakes, as well as the old Vanson Lookout site, and on toward Goat Mountain, Goat Creek Falls, or even farther.  Here's the location: T11NR5E Section 22  Lat 46°24'54.83"N, Long: 122 10'27°45"W

How to Help: From this website add the location of these two trailheads.  The category most appropriate is "easement to improve access".  Lets finally re-gain access to these key historic trails!


Posted By Toutle Trekker

So now it is time to jump into some bit of controversy concerning access to our public lands in the Toutle Valley (and around the state).  I've already talked about "official" access routes to various parcels of state and federal land in the valley, but, behind the scenes, I have been pushing government agencies and elected officials about a more hidden layer of access: road easements.  It turns out that many of the gated roads that you might run into that are posted by Weyerhaeuser may have state easements on them that go to public land.  These roads are currently posted with signs that claim that a Weyerhaeuser permit is required for all recreational access, even if these roads go to state land.  In fact, the gate nearest the sediment dam (below) blocks a road with TWO government easements on it, both of which could allow public access to adjacent public land.  Weyerhaeuser owns the land on the right side of the road.  Now, keep in mind, these easements do not let folks walk or hunt or hike on private land, they only allow access through on certain roads leading to public land. 

Posted gate

Most of these easements are between timber companies and the state Department of Natural Resources.  Many were written in the 1960's and 1970's when both entities where logging new territory, and they needed to pass each other's lands.  One relavent easement, the Green River Easement, was written in October of 1967 and has no restrictions on how the road can be used. The easement simply provides access to and from lands of the parties.  The DNR says that public use of these easements is a "grey" area, but a closer look at the history shows that broadly worded easements were written this way in response to pro-recreation laws that passed the Washington legislature in mid-1967.  Unfortunately, easements written before mid-1967 often have restrictive language that limits use to "land management and administrative activities".

What this means for the Toutle Valley:  Right now access to our state lands is mostly at the whim of Weyerhaeuser.  The WDFW does have and "administrative-type" easement on the 3100 road, but the public isn't covered by that.  If the DNR could confirm that the public could at least walk or bicycle on roads covered under the Green River Easement, access routes would open up to the Winston Block of DNR land (16,000 acres just north of Kid Valley), the 8,000-acre Wildlife Area would have three or four additional access routes, and the 35,000-acre Toutle State Forest could be accessed from Sediment Dam Road. 

It's complicated, but right now is the time to contact your legislator, the heads of the DNR, and WDFW and to encourage them to confirm that the public may used these easement routes to access state land. 


Posted By Toutle Trekker

I went down to the Canal Road Wildlife Area yesterday to look for a rare plant that grows in the area.  I didn't find it, but the whole area was teeming with life.  The wild horse band was out in the field owned by Cowlitz County.  I could see one new white foal from this spring.  Summer resident birds are abundant, including several types of swallows.  I heard marsh wrens and common yellowthroats, saw a bald eagle, and startled a bullfrog.   Its a fun little nook to do some bird watching, catch a few photos of the wild horses, or bring a kayak or canoe for a trip through the canals.

The Canal Road wildlife area is reached via Sightly Rd, which is across from Drews grocery.  Follow it to the sharp corner, turn right, and stay straight at the next corner.  As the road narrows, and you aproach wetlands, the Wildlife area is on both sides of the road.  Park by the gate and walk back along the road with your binoculars or fishing pole.


Posted By Toutle Trekker

It the preamble to this Blog, I mentioned all the restrictions that face visitors when accessing the Toutle Valley.  Now, alas, it is time to get specific about those dreaded passes, permits, and fees.

There are three types of passes here-- 

Federal:  When it comes right down to it, the only real place you need any federal pass is at the Johnston Ridge Observatory area.  Unlike the Forest Service's Northwest Forest pass, which is used for vehicles parked at trailheads, at Johnston Ridge, a per-person fee is charged, and each visitor must wear a bright wrist band when visiting the Observatory.  They are only sold at the door.  "Technically" Coldwater Lake also requires a pass, but there is no way to purchase one at the lake, nobody really enforces this, and many times it is impossible to comply because Johnston Ridge is closed.   If you--or a senior citizen traveling with you-- has one of the federal passes (Senior Pass, America the Beautiful, Disabled Vet etc.) a certain number of people can use that for admittance to the Observatory. NW Forest Passes aren't good for anything here, and the trailheads here do not require a pass.  When hiking the Boundary Trail at Johnston Ridge, I always park by the far north trailhead and bypass the Observatory area.  There is a sign saying a pass is required, but when only using the trailhead to reach the backcountry, its more of a suggestion.  The Loowit Viewpoint, South Coldwater Trailhead, and Hummocks Trailhead do not require the wrist pass or the NW Forest Pass.  The bottom line--buy a pass if you want to see the great eruption movie they show at the Observatory, or better yet, bring a grandparent with you, have them use (or buy) their senior lifetime pass, and all watch the movie together.

State:  It is more useful to invest the $30 in a Washington Discover Pass.  The pass has space for two vehicle license plate numbers.  Although you can get the pass online or at stores like Drew's, if you buy one at Seaquest State Park, you save a few dollars in dealer fees.  Discover Passes are for parking and driving on or through state-owned lands.  The St. Helens Wildlife Area on the Toutle mudflow has no public road access, therefore no pass is required for entry.  Locally, a Discover Pass is accepted at Seaquest and Lewis & Clark State Parks, at the Green River Hatchery, the Hall Road birding area, Tower Road and Kerr Road boat launches, and while visiting the Toutle State Forest or other state land.  If you want to visit the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Seaquest you will need to pay an entry fee.  You can just pay the fee and not purchase a Discover Pass if you are only interested in the Visitor Center area. 

If you have purchased a Washington state hunting or fishing license, you were given a different pass--a Vehicle Access Pass--that is only valid on Department of Wildlife (not Department of Natural Resources or State Parks) land.  Yes, it is confusing, and yes, the state has plans to eliminate or simplify the system, but I'm not holding my breath.

Here's more information  https://discoverpass.wa.gov/

Private:  A few years back the largest landowner in the Toutle Valley  (which is also the largest private landowner in the United States) started requiring passes for entering their commercial timberland.   Weyerhaeuser Company, bringing in a practice from the Southeast, limits and controls access to much of Southwest Washington, including over half of Cowlitz County.  Most industrial timberland companies have instituted these passes despite "open space" laws passed by voters that shifts much property tax burden from timberland owners to their neighbors.  These laws were put in place to help preserve open space, and the public benefits those areas provide.  For timberland, one public benefit specifically listed in the law is "recreational spaces".  But since the law has no requirements to provide those pubic benefits for free, the companies are essentially double-dipping--charging for recreational spaces while enjoying the full tax break.  The really sad part is that public land gets locked behind private gates.  There are even several Mount St. Helens National Monument trailheads that are trapped behind Weyerhaeuser gates!   Obviously, I'm not a fan, and I fight this tooth and nail, but to really get into the back woods these passes are the new reality.  Information is on the Weyerhaeuser website, and the cost for a motorized pass for the Longview area has been $300, a walk-in $50, with limited quotas of each.  Sales usually start in the spring.  https://wyrecreation.com/permits

Free:  County and city-owned parks and lands, like Harry Gardner Park, and city of Castle Rock parks and trails are free.  Most Monument trailheads and trails are free.  Companies like Sierra Pacific, Port Blakely, and Merrill & Ring allow free non-motorized access for hunters and hikers. The "access corridors" through Weyerhaeuser land to public land or along the South Toutle River (see older blogs) are free.  Army Corps of Engineer's land and facilities near the Sediment Dam is free.   

Bottom Line:  If you like to hike, bike, ski, swim or fish, many areas are still free, and you can visit and enjoy the Toutle Valley without spending much (or any) money on passes, permits, and fees.  


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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