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

January 23

Road is clear and snow is melting fast, with about a foot of snow in the shade by the logging road that climbs Elk Rock.  The highway is open to Hummocks Trail, but there really isn't enough snow to ski or snowshoe.  Hikers will hit patchy show, with southern exposures melting out.  We need some powder!

January 17

Sink hole now repaired and SR 504 is open past Riverdale Raceway.

January 9, 2022

Drove up this evening to check out the snow, much of which has melted on south slopes and at lower elevations.  The highway bare and dry up to Forest Learning Center with a few icy spots in the shade (watch out around the cliffs by the river at Kid Valley).  Runaway truck ramp is snow covered, with ample plowed parking at this point.  Beyond the truck ramp, the road is sort of plowed, between 1 1/2 and (rarely) two lanes to the top of Elk Rock.  The road is an absolute ice rink in many places. We were slipping with studded tires and four wheel drive.  The logging road that goes to the top of Elk Rock was covered with 3 plus feet of snow with absolutely no roadside parking possible.  The Elk Rock Viewpoint has not been plowed and has about 3.5 feet of snow.  There are no plowed parking spots and a very limited turnaround area.  At dark tonight eight vehicles were using one lane for parking along the road.  Folks were obviously snowshoeing or skiing down the highway from here.  It did look like one snowplow tried to go furthur, but gave up.   If you try going up there, do not block the turnaround area!


 
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 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

When I grew up, in the 1970's, elk hunting was a lifestyle, a die-hard tradition that was passed down like religion.  I remember my first trip to Elk Camp on the 200-line.  (Logging roads are numbered and the railroad term "line" denotes a road.)  The main camp was fashioned from old railroad ties with an Army tarp roof. It was located in the old growth on Weyerhaeuser land way up high on a ridge.  It had a barrel stove and dirt floor.  It smelled like smoke and mud and whiskey.  I loved it.  But things sure have changed...

The eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted this region in unprecedented ways.  Big game and big game hunting went for a roller coaster ride.  First, the animals were wiped out by the eruption, and in response all hunting stopped.  Then, as the fireweed and other good elk food returned, so did the animals.  Elk birth rates doubled, and their numbers exploded.  By 1985 hunting returned but was limited to draw permits.  Success rates approached 100%.  Permit applications (and funds generated) soared.  Everyone was happy and elk were EVERYWHERE.  Herds with 200 elk were common.  In the winter, sometimes 1000 elk would gather in the North Toutle valley.   All the while, the little trees planted outside the Monument were growing fast, too. 10 years passed, then 20 years, and those little trees started to shade out all that good elk food.  By now the animals were clearly overpopulated.  In 2006, it all came crashing down.  Elk were starving; politicians chimed in with finger pointing; the public was outraged.  The state instituted emergency feeding a few times.  The population needed to be reduced, so the hundreds of cow tags were added.  But by now it was too late.  Another elk killer--hoof rot--was chewing into the St. Helens herd.  (It always amazes me how nature moves faster than human bureaucracy can react.)  The state was too slow to start the herd reduction, and too slow to stop it.  The elk today must deal with a trifecta of pressures: little feed, many cow tags, and hoof rot.  Consequently, now even seing a single elk on a day hunting in the blast zone is a success.

And hunting has changed in big ways.  Now families need to purchase permits from Weyerhaeuser just to hunt timberland.  Public lands have their own permit requiremens, and federal and state lands are often locked behind private pay-for-entry gates.  High-tech mapping applications that identify land ownership are needed more than map and compass.  Elk are no longer public resources held in trust for the benefit of all forever.  Game animals are now commodities being peddled by both public and private interests for the biggest returns.  And management of our game is now being sold and subcontracted to interests like Weyerhaeuser.  After a day hunting, my family was pulled over by private security and state WDFW enforcement working together for the benefit of Weyerhaeuser's permit system.  With three hunters, the state game warden was only interested in the license and tags of the youngest member of the group.  Why?  Because this teen might need his own $350 Weyerhaeuser permit and his license proved his age!

All is not lost.  There are still a few places to hunt by following only public rules on public land.  Unfortunately, the public Toutle State Forest is entirely in a draw only area for elk, but it is open for general deer, bear and other game.   The WInston Block of DNR land is accessible behind Weyerhaeuser's locked gate on the 1900 road. The DNR has not confirmed that that route is a legal easement that the public can use, so to be safe, have a Weyerhaeuser permit or a very good lawyer if you head to state land via the 1900!  While we wait, the Winston Block can be accessed from the north off Highway 12 near Mossyrock.  Additional blocks of state land exist along county roads along the Cowlitz/Lewis County property line.  Federal land, if you can get to it, is open.  Most hunters focus on the Lewis River Valley south of Mount St. Helens.  

  More information on public land opWDFW Hunt Planner (wa.gov)en to hunting:

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

I wanted this story be about success.  I've been waiting to write for two years now, working behind the scenes.  It should have been a snap, easy-peezy.  Just one phone call and the illegal "no trespassing" signs come down, the public is allowed back in, all is operating as intended (and required).  Unfortunately, it hasn't quite work out that way.    

Posted Gate
I discovered that 260 acres of public land on the Toutle River was (is) being improperly restricted.  The land is accessed by a legal, written easement "for all road purposes associated with the ownership of the land".  Instead, the access road is gated and posted with bold "no trespassing" signs.  It should be a simple fix:   The land is in public hands and is dedicated to public use.  It was given, free of charge, to the local Conservation District by the state of Washington with along with this access road easement.   I have a copy of the easement; I have the deed requirements that outline how the land must be used. These include a provision specifically requiring uninterrupted river recreational access.  Don't take my word for it.  These documents are on the county's property website at the bottom under "conveyances" for everyone to see.

Cowlitz Property Info | Properties Listing Grid (cowlitzinfo.net

I contacted the Conservation District and made presentations.  I pointed out all the multiple agency goals for public access to our rivers and public lands. It seemed like such a little thing, an easy no-brainer win for recreation. JUST CHANGE SOME SIGNS.  But nothing is simple when dealing with Weyerhaeuser.

 It seems the mega-corporation--the largest landowner in the United States--will not allow anyone access on that 260 acres accept their paying clients.   All recreationists in the West know about how private land can block public land, giving exclusive access to private interests.  This is exactly what is happening here, with the recreational lease-holder of Weyerhaeuser's getting exclusive access to that 260 acres.  The Conservation District managing the land (with conflict of interest up to their eyeballs) doesn't want to ruffle the feathers of a powerful corporation that owns nearly half of Cowlitz County.  I've called and clawed and complained for two years now.   And what outrageous thing am I asking?  Change the "No Trespassing" signs on the gate to  "non-motorized access allowed", which is the way it was before Weyerhaeuser started their recreation fee program.  I haven't ask to open the road to vehicles, or to remove the gate, just modify the sign, and simply allow the public access to public land to walk, bicycle or horseback ride that easement route to public land.  But no.  Nope.  No way.  Big W wants to control not only their land, but everyone else's too.  The agency, after nearly two years of prodding, reluctantly asked the company about the issue, but was told in a fashion to "sit down and shut up", which they dutifully did.   Both the Consevation District and Weyerhaeuser are much more concerned about keeping the public from wandering onto the lease, than the public's right to access public land via a public easement.  And consequently, the lease holder gets virtual exclusive access to the public's land.  

Since these threatening signs are designed to keep regular hunters and anglers from legally accessing public land, they may actually be a violation of Washington law! (RCW 77.15.210) To paraphrase, it is illegal tharass, intimidate, interfere with or disrupt the lawful pursuit of hunting and fishing.  How is posting a legal access route to a river with public land NOT a violation of this law?

easement blocked
So what to do?  I'll keep chugging along, bringing the issue to more and more public officials.  Maybe someone, somewhere out there cares about the publics' rights, too.  If you know of such a person, please pass this on... 

UPDATE: The state Department of Transportation, who "gifted" the land to the Conservation District in the first place, doesn't want anything to do with enforcing their deed restrictions.  After multiple calls and a request from our state representative, the DOT finally did review the situation.  What did they say?  The same excuse that the Conservation District is using:  The public can SWIM the river to get to the land, so it is technically available for uninterrupted recreation even with the road closed and posted.  There is a lesson here for any community that has mitigation put in place to compensate for a harm.  Do not trust.  Make sure there is a strong enforcement of promises or you will lose.


 
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...


 

 

 
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