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

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...


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Where is the missing top of Mount St. Helens?  Many people think that the top of the volcano was blasted into the sky and became the cloud of ash that circled the world.  But that isn't true.  The ash that was erupted was "new" material from deep within the earth.  The "old" top of Mount St. Helens slid into the Toutle River Valley.  This landslide filled the valley up to 300 feet deep with chunks of the old summit.  The material consisted of loose layers of rock and ash along with pieces of glacier.  The largest mudflow resulted from the de-watering of this huge landslide. These "lahars" inundated all the low lying areas along the Toutle, filled the Cowlitz, and clogged the Columbia River shipping channel.  

In response, mass-dredging ensued. The Army Corps of Engineers also quickly built a sediment dam across the North Toutle valley in an attempt to hold the material in place.  This first dam (called N-1) was quickly overwhelmed.  Over the years, the Toutle River has continued to erode this material downstream, creating big problems for people along the river.  The sand along the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers is old ash and rock from volcanic activity.

In 1990 the Corps came up with a solution.  They would build one huge sediment dam on the North Toutle and stop the erosion! The idea was simple; slow the river down with a shallow lake behind a big dam.  The sand drops out, and the water flows out over a spillway.  Now towns could be safe. Cowlitz County lifted the building moratorium on mudflow areas and housing developments popped up along our rivers, protected by the dam and higher levies. 

Anyone could see, however, that this "solution" didn't stabilize the river or get rid of the landslide material, it just held it in the upper valley a little longer.  And that is where we are today.  The dam is full, the river above the dam has become a shallow bay of mud, and the Cowlitz River is still clogged with sand.  The Toutle has no stable channel, and wanders over the sediment plain, now picking up material and moving it downstream.  The spillway on the dam has already been raised once to hold more material, with two more raises planned.  Oh, and the dam has no fish ladder.  Returning endangered salmon must be trucked around the mess.  Baby salmon (smolts) must navigate a web of shallow muddy channels downstream on their way to the ocean. Recently, agencies have tried a few creative ideas to hold sediment in place and to reduce the erosive action of the river.  You can see log dikes and piles along the Toutle River in places like Harry Gardner Park or the Mudflow Wildife Area.  These features are designed to improve fish habitat and hold the loose material in place long enough for vegetation to establish.

Learn More: https://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/mount-st-helens/overview/

See it:  Harry Gardner Park is the best place to see the erosion control and habitat enhancement structures.  Along Interstate 5, north of Castle Rock, you may notice large piles of dredge spoils along the Toutle and Cowlitz River.  Some of these sites are publicly owned.  In the upper Toutle Valley,  scan the sediment plain with binoculars for log structure and other erosion control measures. From the Hoffstadt Bridge area the remains of N-1 dam are visible in the valley.  

Trail across sediment dam
 

Hike it:  From Kid Valley travel east on 504 to Sediment Dam Road, which is actually the old Spirit Lake Highway.  Travel about 2 miles to the parking lot at the end.  The trail starts past the restroom, and leads to a dam viewpoint and continues to the dam itself.  It's a nice walk, half on dirt trail and half on old road.
The view from the dam shows the massive expanse of sediment held in place there.  Elk are also common, so be aware.  Sometimes herds of elk graze in the grassy field around the dam.  If you follow the signs and the old roads, the hike makes a nice 1.2 mile loop.  

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Forty years ago today I woke up and I wandered down the stairs to the kitchen where Mom was cooking up huckleberry hotcakes.  We'd picked the berries up near Spirit Lake the previous fall.  We were planning to pour cement for the new house that day, and a few people were coming to help.  My grandfather came into the house and said, breathlessly, “I think the mountain just blew up.”

Everyone at the kitchen table rushed outside, but I took my time.  After all, we’d been watching the volcano puff and sputter since March.  I’d even collected a thimble-full of ash by sweeping it from our car windows with a paint brush.  Gramps wasn’t used to seeing eruptions: No big deal. 

But when I stepped outside, the whole sky was boiling in and enormous blue-black cloud.  Comparing THIS with previous eruptions was like comparing a bb-gun with a nuclear bomb.  A hundred nuclear bombs.  The cloud stretched out, and started to block out the sun.  It was filled with blue lightning, but we didn’t hear a sound.  The wind shifted and it was eerily quiet.  Turns out we were so close, the sound bounced over us, and people hundreds of miles away heard a blast and felt a shudder.  My dad had a little instamatic camera and he started clicking off pictures.  I remember, specifically, looking directly overhead and up to the cloud, and then turning around.  It was above us and behind us.  Even in my 10-year old mind, I knew that was a bad thing. 

Mom, who was pregnant, started to panic.  She dragged my sister and me to our rooms and started tossing clothes into suitcases.  I checked the TV for information, but it was just regular Sunday shows.  Within half an hour, Mom had hustled us kids into the car and we started evacuating ourselves.  Since we lived on a hill, Dad figured it was safe to keep watch on the farm.  I remember turning on the radio, but there was nothing but static.  As we drove away, toward the beach, I was stationed by the back window.  “It’s still back there; it’s still following us,” I’d report.  After an hour, we stopped at a small store to grab some food.  The radio was now coming in, and reported, “Mount St. Helens has had a major eruption.  The towns of Toutle and Castle Rock are being evacuated.”  Our lives in Toutle were never the same….


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Most mountain trails are still buried in deep snowdrifts, but the trails near Coldwater Lake melt out early because of their treeless, southern facing slopes.  Today, my family hiked to the Loowit viewpoint from the Hummocks trailhead via the Boundary Trail #1.  Its a great get-in-shape for the summer hike, and we've done it twice in the last few weeks.  The entire hike, up and back, is about 8 1/2 miles with 1500 feet of elevation gain.  It was spitting snowflakes, but the Hummocks parking lot was snow free, as was the trail until the creek crossing 20 minutes from the top, where snow lasted a few hundred yards.  Often, on sunny spring days, many hikers head to the Lakes Trail along Coldwater or the 2 1/2 mile Hummocks Trail loop, but usually the Boundary Trail has little traffic.  It is a climb afterall.  The trail is in good shape, with only a few bushes leaning into the tread, along with the one spot of snow.   To get to the Boundary trail, travel SR 504 to the Hummocks Trailhead parking lot just past the outlet to Coldwater Lake.  First, starting at the information sign boards, follow the Hummocks trail for 1/2 mile to the junction with the Boundary trail.  Follow the boundary trail left (east) until it intersects with SR 504 at the Loowit Viewpoint.  Currently the highway is gated until May.  When the snow melts, the Boundary Trail can be followed all the way to Council Lake by Mount Adams. 

Besides great exercise, the trail often provides unique wildlife watching.  The migrating birds are starting to arrive, and we heard a few western meadowlarks and warblers.  The mountain bluebirds are also returning.  Nearly every pond that we hiked past on the Hummocks Trail had a pair of buffleheads swimming side by side.  Once on the ridge, we spotted a few elk in the valley below.  On the return trip we noticed, just below the snow patches, two mountain goats.  Goats have been making a spectacular comeback at Mount St. Helens, and in the summer they can be seen in the Mount Margaret backcountry, on the volcano itself, and in the cliffs by Castle Lake.  They drop lower in the winter, and one even showed up just outside of the town of Toutle!  This is the first I've seen them on Johnston Ridge.  Goats in lower right of photo.

 

Goats on Johnston Ridge
 


 
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 very 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 cresting the ridge at the "spillover" where parts of the landslide from 1980 actually topped 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, Spirit Lake, and Mount Adams are grand.  Continue on up the ridge, zigzagging past strawberries 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.


 

 

 
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