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

HELP TRAIL ACCESS PLEASE

The online mapping company OnX Maps is looking for landlocked trails and public access "Hotspots". Please help put the gated and held-for-ransom trails at Mount St. Helens National Monument on their radar.  There are several official, United States Forest Service trails that are locked behind Weyerhaeuser pay-to-enter gates.  These are some of the oldest, most historic, trails in the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and they access some of the most spectacular parts of the National Monument.

Green River Trail 213   

T11NR5E sect. 31  Lat: 46° 23'16.62"N Long:122° 13'36.61"W 

Even before Mount St. Helens erupted, advocates were working on a National Monument that would protect the spectacular old growth forests, waterfalls, rushing streams, and unique habitats of the Green River Valley.  When the volcano erupted, a combinations of luck and geography sheltered this valley of the giants from the killing blast.  Today, trails open to horses, mountain bikes, and hikers loop through the deep timber and rugged landscape passing lakes and streams along the way. While the far (east) end is accessible from Forest Service roads, the western (Toutle side) of the trail is locked behind Weyerhaeuser gates.  The historic route to the Green River Trail was from Toutle on trails, and later via the 2500 logging road, which was shared by the public and private landowners along it. When the USFS was planning for the Monument they relied on the traditional, open-gate policy of timber companies that was common at the time to supply access, but assured the public that the government would aquire rights to these roads if the situation changed.  Well it sure has changed! Now only a limited number of paying customers can drive to those Monument trailheads. We need to put the Green River Trail on a priority list for an easement.

Landers Trail 217

This trail which connects with Green River Trail, is also locked behind gates.  It accesses Deadman's and Vanson Lakes, as well as the old Vanson Lookout site, and on toward Goat Mountain, Goat Creek Falls, or even farther.  Here's the location: T11NR5E Section 22  Lat 46°24'54.83"N, Long: 122 10'27°45"W

How to Help: From this website add the location of these two trailheads.  The category most appropriate is "easement to improve access".  Lets finally re-gain access to these key historic trails!

https://www.onxmaps.com/landlocked-state-lands/report-a-land-access-opportunity


 
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

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. 
 


 


 
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