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

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. 
 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Did you know a big-time Hollywood movie was filmed in the Toutle Valley?  In 1937 "God's Country and the Woman", a logging-adventure-love story, was filmed in several locations in Cowlitz County.  I've seen the movie a few times on classic television, and I made a VHS copy of it once.  It's really cool to see the places we locals are all familiar with on the big screen, especially the shots of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens from before the eruption.   Another famous scene is of the rocky Toutle River Gorge, dubbed "Hollywood Gorge" after the film.  Spoiler alert! They created an artificial log jam, blasted it wide open, and ran a train engine into the river all for the movie.  My father grew up on the banks of the river here, and as a child, I fished the very near where the action occurred all those years ago.

Today, it is more difficult to see Hollywood Gorge. Much of the land and the main access road to the heart of the Gorge is now posted, but the river remains public.  Experienced kayakers and boaters (and I emphasize experienced!) float the Toutle through the Gorge for high adventure during high water. Most whitewater enthusiasts put in at the main Toutle bridge just past Drew's Grocery and float to the takeout on Tower Road.  The rapids can be class 4 with high, muddy and log filled waters adding to the adventure and danger.  Over the years, commercial rafting company's have offered trips.  If you are into this type of thing here's a site with the details: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/2253/

There are also some YouTube videos posted for a "virtual" run down the Toutle.

If you want a view of the gorge from dry land, here are a few places to see it.  The first bridge across the Toutle was called Coal Banks Bridge, and it crossed at a narrow, rocky point about a half-mile downstream of the current bridge on Hwy 504.  The Coal Banks Bridge was replaced by a new bridge about 1970.  When the eruption wiped out the new bridge, the Army Corps of Engineers resurrected the old Coal Banks location and put in a Bailey bridge.  After the eruption kids like me rode the school bus across that narrow Army Baily bridge for a few years.  (National Geographic magazine photographers even rode with us once.)  High in a school bus on the Bailey bridge, you could really get a good view of the roiling water at the heart of the Gorge.  I know I wouldn't be going down there in a kayak or raft!

The Bailey bridge was removed when a new post-eruption bridge was built, but the route remains.  Park at either end of the old Coal Banks Road gates and walk the old pavement to where the bridge used to cross the river.  (Because a state law that prevents counties from giving up road access to waters, these routes are open to the public.)  The route on the east side of the new bridge is shorter. This location gives you an idea of the wildness of Hollywood Gorge.  Driving along Tower Road, which loops between Castle Rock and Toutle, also provides pull-offs and glimpses of the canyon and Gorge in several places.  The WDFW manages the take-out location where Tower Rd. crosses the River.  Pull off here to walk down to the water. 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

kayaking on Silver lake
Sometimes we tend to overlook great places that are right out the back door.  It always surprises me to hear people who live in Cowlitz County but have never been "up the highway" to Johnston Ridge.  People come from all over the world to see Mount St. Helens, but sometimes locals don't. 

I was that way with kayaking Silver Lake, and what fun I've been missing.  It was just a quick trip in a borrowed kayak, but the evening was quiet, the water smooth, and the views and sunset-- stunning.

Here where I went.  Take Sightly Road to Canal Road, which swings right.  Canal Road drops to single lane with no center lane stripe and heads toward the lake along Hemlock Creek.  In the past canals and ponds were dug here for drainage, thus the name.  There is a tight parking spot just past the culverts on the right.  This is also the "launch".  I put in here and followed the main channel west toward the main lake.  The vegetation, mostly spirea, willows, and ash trees, holds many signs of wetland life.  Birds and beavers are abundant.  Just when you think you've run out of room to paddle, you notice that some of the brances have been snipped, creating a narrow tunnel in the brush.  Yes, this is the way.  Push and pull along,  under and through to the other side where the water opens up again, and the lake proper is in sight. Side channels lead to other areas to explore.  As darkness neared, I turned around before hitting the main lake, but the return views of Mount St. Helens were spectacular. 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Green River Fish Hatchery
Fall is a wonderful time to visit the Green River Fish Hatchery--with or without a pole!  Last week I took my two year old nephew to see the salmon.  We saw mommy salmon, daddy salmon, and piles of baby salmon.  We walked down an anglers' trail and waded in the water where several spawned-out Chinook lay dead, their nutrients adding to the next generation.  Because it was the middle of a warm, fall day, the anglers that sometimes flock here to catch returning salmon, were gone for the day.  

The Department of Wildlife places a barrier across the Green River to direct salmon to the ladder leading to the hatchery holding ponds.  Several pairs of Chinook were guarding their "redds", or salmon nests, just downstream of the barrier.  The salmon are easy to see, even for a toddler, as they zip back and forth.  The concrete holding areas were full of salmon, too, and my nephew had a blast watching these huge Chinook leap and splash.  Other rearing areas held thousands of young salmon that swam close in swarms, no doubt looking to be fed.  

Visiting the hatchery is a fun way to spend an afternoon for wildlife viewing, hiking the road along the river, or trying your had at catching a salmon.  Check the fishing regulations and the emergency rules.  The Green River is closed to Chinook retention, and several areas right near the hatchery are always closed to fishing to give returning salmon a safe area, but Coho fishing and steelhead fishing is currently open.  An access road follows the river upstream and makes a nice hike.  

The trick here is actually finding the fish hatchery.  Start at the 1900 logging road that loops below Kid Valley Campground.  Stay right and cross the North Toutle River below 19 Mile House restaurant, then stay to the right on the open (ungated) gravel road.  This 1901 logging road has side roads gated, requiring an expensive Weyerhaeuser permit.  Follow the gravel road uphill to the big yellow gate, which may be open or closed.  Do not go past the gate, but stay to the right and on the "main drag".  Several other logging roads intersect, but they are either gated or signed with Weyerhaeuser's permit required signs.  Stay on the road that has been used the most (508), which winds gradually down to the hatchery.  At one point you will be tempted to go straight, but the 508 main road turns left.  In 1.8 miles you reach another yellow gate that is open with a sign describing rules for using the hatchery area.  Go past the sign and drop down to the hatchery parking. A state Discover Pass or a vehicle access pass that comes with your fishing license is required for parking here.  The best place to see salmon is to the right, past the hatchery buildings, just below the ladder.   Short access trails lead to the river.  

Before the eruption, a paved road crossed the Toutle River and went to the hatchery.  I even rode the school bus here one time to visit my uncle who was working the salmon, and one of my school buddies lived in one of the homes that stood here.  All that changed on May 18, 1980, when the area was inundated with mud.  Later, the mud was scraped away, some of the better homes were moved, and the hatchery restarted.  The county road was not rebuilt, so, like much of Southwest Washington, Weyerhaeuser controls access now, and could shut off public access to the hatchery at any time. 

If you do not want to drive on logging roads, and aren't afraid to get your feet wet, you can also wade across the Green River to the hatchery.   From Kid Valley, head east on SR504.  As soon as you cross the North Toutle River, look for a green, gated road on the left.  Park along the highway near here.  Hike past the gate and down an old road that follows a finger ridge between the dirtier North Toutle and the clear Green River.  This road is lined with some remant old growth and is worthy of its own trip (and its own Blog post).   It might take some bushwhacking, but angler trails are usually abundant.  This time of year the Green River is low, and a wader usually doesn't get wet past the knees.  Work upstream until you reach the trail from the hatchery.  If you come to the cable across the river (that marks the edge of the no fishing area) you've come too far.  Look for trails up the bank that lead to the hatchery.  

The Department of Wildife just obtained ownership of the wedge of land between the rivers here and the should be incorporating it into the St. Helens Wildife Area.  Perhaps better public access will be incorporated into any future plans.  

 


 
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 local 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 fishing 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. 


 


 
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