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

When I was growing up, in the 1970's, January and February were "smelt watch" months.  The signs that the slippery, oily little fish had entered the Cowlitz River were (and are) pretty obvious: guls swooping low over the water and seals venturing up the rivers following the run.  My father would take us out to dip or "dig" smelt, and, with a special long-handled net with small mesh, we would fill 5 gallon buckets with the silver fish.  I think the limit was 25 pounds a day. The banks between Kelso and Castle Rock would be lined with dippers, and choice spots might produce a bucket of fish with one or two digs into the water.  The first batch of fried smelt was pretty good, like a traditional holiday food that is savored once a year.  The second batch, ok, but after a few weeks of off-and-on piles of fried smelt we were ready to get back to venison steak!  My father would also smoke the little fish whole, and I even took them smoked to school for lunch.  

But recently that has all changed.  Smelt are now listed as a "threatened" species.  Some blame the eruption of Mount St. Helens for the decline of runs, others claim overharvest or changing ocean conditions.  Still, some years there are enough fish returning from the ocean to spawn to open a day or two to public smelt dipping.   A few years back, when the season was open for a day, I made a point of taking my children out to dip smelt.  We only got enough for one "mess" but it was more cultural experience that a fishing trip.  Everyone who lives here needs to try smelt dipping at least once.  And lucky for us, today is one of those rare days with dipping allowed.  According to the WDFW the season will last between 8 am and 1 pm with 10 pounds of smelt allowed per person.  The river is open between the Hwy 423 Bridge and the Al Helenburg boat launch in Castle Rock today only.   I drove by the dippers this morning along the Cowlitz.  All the signs were there--seaguls squawking, seals and sealions far upriver, traffic jams along the shore...and lots and lots of buckets of memories.  

For additional openings and more information check out the WDFW website 
https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/wdfw-announces-additional-one-day-smelt-opening-cowlitz-river  

smelt
 


 
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

Fall is a great time to visit Cowlitz County's newest "old" park.  Harry Gardner Park has a great story of what a small community's "can-do" spirit can accomplish.  This park at the junction of the North and South Toutle Rivers was completely destroyed by the mudflows from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.  For years, the park was abandoned--all structures rotting half buried in the mudflow, while a new forest of invasive Scotch broom took over the land.  Partiers with bonfires and glass bottles left messes and attracted nuisance elements. 

When the Forest Service granted the Toutle Valley some economic development funds for a community action plan, one goal stood out loud and clear--We want our parks back!  After the plan was created, the citizens didn't wait or the government to act.  A group of volunteers spontaneously formed, and over time cleaned up the park.  Pulling the county along, the park was put back into official status, and with sweat equity, county funding,  and another grant, the park has been rebuilt and is open to campers, anglers, hikers, and families looking for playgrounds, sand and water.  The park area expanded significantly with a donation/sale from a local family who owned nearby land also impacted by the mudflow.  The state Department of Wildlife owns adjacent land here, too, creating the largest chunk of public land (124 acres) set aside for recreation and habitat this side of the sediment dam.  Anglers can try their luck on three rivers: the South Toutle, mainstem Toutle and the North Toutle, all from one access.  Be aware that each stretch of river has different rules.  I keep the regulations handy.

The mudflows at Harry Gardner Park area great places to view wildlife and to study wildlife tracks.  Beaver "trails" where these busy rodents have dragged brances toward the rivers crisscross the area.  You will also see the value of manmade fish recovery structures, where people have placed artificial logjams and have planted seedlings in an effort to stabilize a wandering river.  The work completed in the last few years seems to be holding, and new riparian vegetation is taking hold.

Directions: From Toutle, take South Toutle Road, across from Drew's Grocery, and  follow for 1 1/2 miles, across South Toutle Bridge, to the park enterance at Fiest Road.

Facilities: Tent and RV camping with partial hookups; restrooms; covered picnic area; playgrounds and swings; fishing access; wildlife viewing; bird watching; swimming;

Reservations available at Cowlitz County website.  www.co.cowlitz.wa.us/1277/Harry-Gardner-Park

Adjacent Gardner Wildlife Area Information:

https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas/gardner-wildlife-area-unit

 


 
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 wildl 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

Fishing in rivers and streams in the Toutle River valley opens today, the Saturday before Memorial Day.  The South Toutle has been open for steelhead for a few weeks, but now the North Toutle, mainstem Toutle and Green River are all open, as well as North and Toutle River tributarites (below the sediment dam).   The water levels on the South Toutle have been pretty low, lately, so now that the bigger rivers are open, there may be some better fishing.  The gear and tackle rules are quite complex, but in general, use barbless hooks, no bait, and release anything wild (trout, salmon or steelhead) with an adipose fin.  Bait is sometimes allowed, depending on stream section and time.  Pick up some rules and try to figure them out (good luck).  If you use a single, barbless hook with no bait and no extra weight you should be ok everywhere.  Single-barbless hook spinners are a good choice.

Most lakes are open year round, including Coldwater, Castle and Silver Lake.  I've talked about Silver Lake and Coldwater before, but there is another local option for fishing.  South Lewis County pond, in Toledo, is a nice park with fishing access.  Its a good place to "see" big fish, since it has been planted with grass carp.  You aren't supposed to fish for them, but its pretty exciting for the little ones to see these big fish swimming in the shallows.  I swear, I also saw a sturgeon cruise by like an mini-submarine.  The park around the lake is a fun place to spend an afternoon, and it has a covered area, playground, and popular walking path along with the fishing docks.  The pond is planted with trout (bait ok) and has bluegill, too.  Later in warm weather the water gets mucky and filled with algae.  Visit earlier in the year. 

Directions: South Lewis county Pond is located on SR 505 just east of Toledo.  The turnoff to the park is just east of the bridge across the Cowlitz River.  Park on the left, and walk across to the park. Some of the facilities may be closed, but the park itself is open. 


 

 

 
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