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

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

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

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

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. This is a good place to take kids because there is a playground, too.


 
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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