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

 

This is a photo of my first Toutle River Chinook salmon.  What a fun fight, as it beat for the rapids and I ended up with tired arms and wet feet, but I landed it. Unfortunatley, the season had just closed to keeping chinook, so I let it go--right after the photo!.  Now all hatchery fish on the Green River have a clipped addipose fin.  (note the intact adipose on this fish).

Chinook
August 1 marks the start of salmon season on the Toutle River system,.  As with steelhead, you will need a Washington state fishing license, a Columbia River endorsement, and a punchcard with salmon as an optionn.  Drews grocery can get you fixed up with all of these documents.  

The rivers might be open, but the salmon don't show up unless we get some rain.  The first fall fish to arrive will be Fall Chinook (aka Kings) headed for the Green River Fish Hatchery.  Then, if we are lucky, the silvers (aka coho) come with the next batch of rain.  Like most fishing, timing is everything.  You want rain, but not so much rain that the rivers turn to chocolate milk.  Sometimes dedicated anglers spend an entire month at Kid Valley Campground, which is a short drive from the mouth of the Green River, where many folks try their luck.  

Again, the rules are complex, especially around the hatchery.  It is so complex there that I feel there should be an accredited course put on by the locak Junior College in "fishing regulations".  To be safe, use single barbless hooks with no bait, something like number 4 Blue Fox spinners in various colors.  Salmon move through fishing holes, so you can spend several hours working one hole.  It can get frustrating seing salmon jump and splash all around you but they refuse to bite.  Because of the temptation to "snag", gear rules get more restrictive near the hatchery during prime fihing time.  Carry the regulations with you.  Anything you catch with an adipose fin must be released and not removed from the water.  Bag limits and species are in the rules, but generally only hatchery coho, chinook and hatchery steelhead can be kept.  The rules sometimes change mid-stream mid-season, so check the WDFW website for updates before you head out. 

The same areas I described in earlier posts for swimming and steelhead work for salmon, too. 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

It is HOT out there, so where can visitors go to cool off and take a swim around here? 

Coldwater Lake: Yes, you can swim here and it is popular with non-gas powered boats and kayaks.  For swimming, the Forest Service has the shore access very limited, but you may walk the shore below the high water mark from either the boat launch or the "Discovery Area"  along the outlet.  Do not use the boardwalks or boat launch to access the lake for swimming.  There is an additional water access with a restroom one mile up the Lakes Trail.  The lake is very close (jumping distance) from the trail in an additional location along hike.  The best official water access spot is near the end of the lake, at three miles.  Here there is a nice beach with good swimming or fishing access.

Silver Lake:  Great for boating and kayaking but not so great anymore for swimming and waterskiing.  These days the warm weather and shallow, nutrient rich water means nasty, and sometimes dangerous, algal blooms.  ***August 2018 Update: Water is dangerous due to toxic algae. Warnings posted**  Access points; Kerr Road boat launch, Canal Road culvert accessed via Sightly Road.

Toutle River: The Toutle is a system of several rivers, the North, South and Mainstem Toutle.  Because Harry Gardner County Park sits at the forks, it provides public access to all three segments. Across from Drews Grocery, take South Toutle Road three miles to the bridge over the S. Toutle.  Public land extends from the bridge downstream to the junction with the North Toutle, and beyond.  Cowlitz County also owns land on the North Fork here, that enters the South Fork from the east.  These rivers are prone to wander, and the swimming and fishing holes change yealry (along with the ownership of the bottom).

South Toutle: The bulk of the South Toutle River can be accessed via Weyerhaeuser logging road 4100, which is open to the public and parallels the river for miles before it is gated for permit holders only.  Follow South Toutle Rd, past Harry Park about 1 1/2 miles, to a very wide gravel road on the right.  Take that road and follow it along the river.  Most side roads are gated (except a few heading uphill).  Most pullouts have angler trails that head to fishing and swimming holes.

Mainstem Toutle: Tower Road crosses the mainstem Toutle River at a WDFW access area.  Sometimes experienced boaters float "Hollywood Gorge" between the Spirit Lake Hwy Bridge and Tower Road Bridge.  During high water the Gorge is quite dangerous with class V rapids.  With the murky water hiding submerged logs, people have died tubing or floating the Gorge even in summer. Beware.

North Toutle:  Toward Kid Valley the North Fork Toutle can be accessed via the 1900 logging road below Kid Valley Campground.  Park near the bridge below 19 Mile House.  The North Toutle can be muddy at times, and watch out for unseen hazards.  Further up river, across from the Buried A-frame, the river can be access as well.  The public owns land at the fish collection facility, which drops to the left just before the next bridge (if you get to Sediment Dam Road you've gone to far).  The North Fork can also be waded here to get to the Green River Fish Hatchery. 

Green River: On this same 1900 road follow the ungated logging roads up, down, and around to the Green River Fish Hatchery.  Fishing rules here get complex, and it gets pretty crazy when the salmon are running, but on a hot July or August day, the river is accessible for wading and swimming.  Be sure to check out the viewing area and the downstream end of the hatchery.  Salmon congregate here.

A note about navigability and ownership of shorelands.  In the state of Washington, the public owns the beds and shores of navigible waters.  The courts have decided that if a river was used, or could be used, to float shake and shingle bolts in the past, it is "navigible".  All of these rivers were used for moving shake bolts in the late 1800's and early 1900's, so if push came to shove, courts would probably consider them navigible.  Unfortunately, timber companies have been selling off and parcelling out our rivers over the last decade.  Newcomers may not realize that the public has access to the river below the high water mark.  Additionally our rivers move dramatically, and the bed of a river as it sat at statehood in 1889, could be where the public ownership still lies, sometimes high and dry.  Its a confusing mess, but the areas I have mentioned have public lands, stable channels, or a long tradition of public use. 


 
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

We just passed the first Saturday in June, which around here means steelhead fishing is wide open in our rivers.  There was a week long "soft" opening on parts of the Green and South Toutle, but now all of the mainstem Toutle and South Toutle is open to steelhead fishing.  The limit is three HATCHERY (adipose fin-clipped) steelhead.

Fishing for our signature species has gotten increasingly complex since certain runs of Lower Columbia fish have been labeled endangered or threatened.  Fishery managers use gear restrictions, timing adjustments, and wild fish release requirements to increase hatchery harvest and limit wild spawning mortality.  And all this takes more money to coordinate and navigate.  Thus, unfortunately, river fishing gets complicated, and keeping a pamphlet of rules handy won't necessarily cover you because the rules can (and do) change mid-season.  EEKKK

So, is it even worth it for a newbie to try steelhead fishing?  You bet.  There is no better way to experience the beauty and power of the local rivers than casting a spinner or floating a jig for a steelie. 

Here is what you need to know to get started.

Go to a local store like Drew's Grocery, Sportsman's Warehouse, or Bob's in Longview and purchase a Washington state freshwater or combination fishing license along with a Columbia River endorsement.  An out-of-state one-day license and endorsement costs about $30.     A punchcard, where you write down your catch, comes with the licenses.  Be sure to get steelhead as a species.  Sign your license and pick up a regulation pamphlet, along with a few spinners or spoons.  The sales people should be well versed in local tackle. 

This weekend, June 9-10 is "free fishing weekend" and a license is not needed, but if you plan to fish for steelhead, you still need a catch record card (punchcard) and a Columbia River endorsement. 

The tackle requirements on the Toutle, Green and South Toutle are constantly changing with the date, but between the first Saturday in June and Aug. 1 it appears, after careful study of the pamphlet, that bait and barbed, and treble hooks are currently legal on the South Toutle, but barbless hooks are required on the mainstem and North Toutle.  This barbless/barbed issue is so confusing, I just use a barbless single hook at all times.  (The WDFW is supposed to be simplifying the rules now, so maybe things will get easier.)   

Here is a link to the current rules for you to make your own decision on barbed/barbless:  https://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/01914/wdfw01914.pdf

OK.  So now you have your license, Columbia River endorsement, catch record card, and a legal lure (or bait) and are ready to fish.  Where to go.

The easiest place to start is the South Toutle.  It is planted with young hatchery steelhead (smolts) that will be arriving from the Cowlitz throughout the summer and fall.  Start at Harry Gardner county park, which has river access where the North and South Toutle meet.  Cast your lure upstream, at a slight angle, into the bottom end of pools and reel toward you.  Don't be afraid to move to a new pool or ripple often.  Steelhead sometimes lie in slow water below log jams or rocks.  Yes, you may bet hooked-up on these obstructions, but that is part of the game.  Be ready to wade and get wet, and if you are lucky enough to get a "hit" you will know it.  Steelhead fight, jump, shake, and fight some more.  Keep the tip up and the line tight. 

When landing your fish, first check to see if it has an adipose fin.  If it does, it must be carefully released without removing the fish from the water.  If it doesn't, current rules say that these hatchery fish must be kept (which is a very fine meal!).  The adipose fin is a small fleshy nob of a fin located between the tail fin and the dorsal (back) fin.  A hatchery fish (aka keeper) has a healed lump instead of an actual fleshy fin.  As soon as you land your hatchery steelhead, write down the information about the fish (river code, species, hatchery) on the catch record card with an inkpen.  The WDFW has cards with the river code that can be kept with the catch record card, or the codes are in the pamphlet along with a description of how to properly record your catch on pages 8 and 9.

Dispatch a steelhead with a strong blow to the head with a rock, and treat the cleaning process like you would any large trout.  Steelhead can be filleted like salmon, baked or barbequed whole while wrapped in tin foil, or cut into steaks.  Yummy.

 

 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, of which Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a sub-section, is planning to plan again.  This time they actually want to remove facilities like restrooms, picnic tables, and parking spaces.  Mount St. Helens has some of the most extensive (and expensive) sites in the Forest, with water systems, buildings, actual flush toilets and paved parking lots.  For years locals like myself have pushed for more "things to do" and less regulation at the Monument, especially along the Spirit Lake Hwy (SR 504), where the posted rules far exceed the planned rules.  A few years ago, in a response to a push to transfer Mount St. Helens to the Park Service, a new plan, called the Strategic Investment Plan, proposed adding amenities and activities to the Monument.  Some ideas included purchasing the High Lakes area, adding campsites along Coldwater Lake, allowing camping or overnight parking at Coldwater Science and Learning Center, and building new trails including a short connector trail linking the Lakes and South Coldwater trails and a route to Castle Lake.  A brand new campground along the Kalama River was in the works.  Some preliminary planning was completed, but now all those improvement ideas are on-hold, and the USFS is focused on removing infrastructure! 

If you want to comment, here's the link, with the survey in the middle of the page.

https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/giffordpinchot/recreation/?cid=FSEPRD578910

Tell the Forest Service to improve opportunities at Mount St. Helens as promised in the Strategic Investment Plan, not remove sites. 


 

 

 
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