Read an Excerpt
South Fork Toutle River
(additions and revisions)
Length: 10.8 miles
Scenery: Old-growth forest, waterfalls in canyons, flower-filled meadows, a close-up view of Mount Saint Helens
Hiking time: 6 hours
Driving Distance: 73 miles (1 hour and 30 minutes) from Pioneer Square
Season: JuneOctober; in June, call to make sure the road is snow-free
Maps: USFS Mount St. Helens National Monument; Green Trails #364 (Mt. Saint Helens) or #364S (Mt. Saint Helens NW)
Special Comments: Late in 2006, the Blue Lake Trailhead was wiped out by a mudslide, and other slides in the area destroyed sections of the road leading to it. The Forest Service was, as of the printing of this book, evaluating its options, but did not expect to have the trailhead itself rebuilt for the 2007 hiking season. Therefore, no matter when you’re reading this, call the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument (360-247-3900) for up-to-date information.
From Portland on I-5, drive 21 miles north of the Columbia River and take Exit 21/Woodland. Turn right onto WA 503 (Lewis River Road) and travel 28 miles, then turn left onto FS 8100, between mileposts 35 and 36, following a sign for Kalama Recreation Area. Travel 11.5 miles on FS 8100 to the Blue Lake Trailhead on the right.
Without driving all the way around to the other side of Mount St. Helens, this is the most dramatic view you can get of the results of that mountain’s 1980 eruption. A major mudflow went all the way down the Toutle (toodle) River to the Columbia, where shipping was stopped for days while the debris was dredged out. This hike will show you the South Fork of that river, where the mudflow was half a mile wide, as well as a glimpse of the majesty that the eruption destroyed.
Back in 2003, this hike got a bit longer when the road beyond the Blue Lake Trailhead was washed out, cutting off a trailhead that was only half a mile from Sheep Canyon. Then, in 2006, the Blue Lake Trailhead itself was destroyed (see Special Comments). One hopes that all this will be fixed, because this happens to be one of my two or three favorite hikes in this entire book.
We’ll assume for now that the road beyond the Blue Lake Trailhead isn’t open. From that trailhead, take the trail leading left and across Coldspring Creek a bridgeless crossing which often has a rope strung up for assistance. Pass Blue Lake in less than half a mile, then go slowly up and over a low, rounded ridge through a beautiful old forest. After 2.4 miles, arrive at the Sheep Canyon Trail, coming up from the left (from the old, road-end trailhead cut off in 2003). For the easiest route to the South Fork of the Toutle, follow this trail straight ahead for 1.5 miles; but for the recommended loop, which will come back that way, turn right and start climbing gradually through a lovely forest. Just after some neat cliffs appear on the right, look for a triple-trunked tree to the right of the trail.
After a total of 4 miles (1.6 since the junction) come to an intersection with the Loowit Trail, which goes all the way around Mount St. Helens. Turn left here and climb just a little more, through a wonderful subalpine area of firs and hemlocks. In August the place will be ablaze with flowers, especially blue lupine, and in fall the mountain ash and other plants will roar with color. And the views up here, at the foot of the mountain, are fantastic.
Soon you’ll drop down and traverse an ash-filled ravine with a pond below you. Keep an eye out among the trees down there for deer or elk. After a little more climbing you’ll find yourself at the top of a cliff looking out over the canyon of the South Fork Toutle River. The river, some 800 feet below you, is in the process of recarving its way through the mudflow. The contrast between your side of the canyon and the other side, well within the blast zone, couldn’t be more stark.
The trail will now turn downhill, descending Crescent Ridge, for 1.5 miles to a junction with the Toutle Trail. Go to the right here, exploring around the edge of the mini-gorge the river has cut into the mudflow. Then go back to the Toutle Trail and follow it for 1.5 miles through old-growth forest. You’ll climb over a small ridge, but the reward is a field of huckleberries at the bridge over Sheep Canyon. Cross that spectacular span, then stay straight at the junction to retrace your steps 2.4 miles back to the car.
If you’d like to see what this eruption was all about, go see the award-winning 28-minute film on the giant screen at Castle Rock, Washington. Castle Rock is at Exit 48 on I-5, 27 miles north of Woodland. You can’t miss the theater.