Introductionclimb Mt.St.Helens from the south and look into the crater and the lava dome, but hiking the Loowit Trail will give you a new appreciation for the mountain, the landscape that was changed in May 1980, and how it has evolved since the eruption and devastation. This hike involves something over 6000 vertical feet of elevation change, and takes you completely around the mountain.
The trail is named for the Native American name for Mt.St.Helens, a woman in a love triangle legend, the keeper of fire.
Day 1 - Windy Ridge to June LakeOSAT circled Mt.St.Helens on the 35-mile Loowit Trail. We circumambulated the volcano in a clockwise direction, beginning at the Windy Ridge trailhead above Spirit Lake, northeast of the mountain. The mountain was obscured by low overcast as we started out on the first couple of miles of the Truman Trail, which are actually the closed extension of Forest Service Road 99 hugging the southeast side of Windy Ridge.
Happily the skies cleared as we had lunch. The afternoon took us across the Muddy River and Pine Creek Lahars, which gave us our first taste of gully crossings that would be typical on the west and north sides of the mountain. The last of these brought us to the crossing of the Worm Flows lava field, and several miles of up and down hiking with occasional stands of small trees and hanging meadows of wild flowers among the lava. We stopped to rest at a point where both Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood were visible, and recounted one of the versions of Native American legends about the three mountains, known as Pahto, Wy'east, and Loowit. Eventually the trail descended the lava into the old growth forest at the southeast corner of our trip, and we turned off the Loowit for the quick, steep descent to June Lake. Our first camp was between the lake and the lava flows. We were delighted to find the lake fed by a pair of 70 foot waterfalls, one free-falling and one horsetail. We set up our camp, had a hearty dinner, followed by a meeting. As our meeting drew to a close, dark clouds appeared in the west, and we prepared for showers overnight.
Day 2 - June Lake to South Toutle RiverMonitor Ridge/Swift Creek climbing route and headed toward the ridge. All of us save one of us, that is! He kept his head down, and stuck to the spring climbing route! Eventually he came to a clearing where he could see far enough ahead that he knew he’d made a wrong turn. In the meantime we had stopped to wait for him, and shortly we all began the 1-1/2-mile, 1000-foot climb up Monitor Ridge through forests and small meadows.
summer climbing route (Ptarmigan Trail), we entered the longest and most difficult of the lava flows on the entire trip. Posts, poles, and cairns pointed the way some of the time, but elsewhere conflicting cairns would take part of our group one way and others another. A slip or tumbling loose boulder here with a three-day pack could spell disaster, so we picked our way carefully across the flow. After a mile, we saw we were through the worst of it, and stopped high on the last lava ridge for lunch, looking out to the south where Mt.Hood peeked out among the clouds.
Johnston Ridge and its Observatory, but also crossing back into old growth forest.
The river crossing provided the most excitement of the day, with one of our number slipping into the swift current. Climbing out of the deep gorge cut by the river through the 1980 mudflow, we made camp above the river and settled down for a night under the stars. NOTE: Although the textual description of the Restricted Zone is "...between South Fork Toutle River and Windy Pass", close examination of the map indicates the zone does not extend all the way to the river west of where the trail currently crosses the river, which is about 1/4 mile west of the crossing indicated on topo maps.
Day 3 - South Toutle River to Windy Ridge
Spirit Lake for 30 years washed down from the slopes of Coldwater Peak and Mount Margaret leave one wondering at the thought of a 3-mile long lake sloshing hundreds of feet up the opposite hillside when the largest landslide in recorded history rushed into other end of it.
Loowit Falls side-trail. The falls hide behind cliffs and ridges as the trail gains elevation, with only a portion of the top of the falls visible. We dropped our packs at the upper intersection and hiked up the short trail to the overlook where the falls plunge about 200 feet into a deep gorge less than 2 miles from the crater’s breach. Thinking this was the last highlight of the trip, we headed further east on the trail, only to be surprised by the lush willows and vivid pink Lewis monkey flowers at a spring emerging from the pumice hillside, a mile below its presumed source at the Forsyth Glacier. We took our time filling water bottles for the last time in this little paradise among the barren slopes.
Soon we returned to the intersection where we began our circumambulation, and headed back on the final three miles of trail and road to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint and trailhead. We reveled in the experience of having hiked completely around this most famous volcano. The hike encompassed more vertical elevation than a climb to the summit, and gave us an appreciation for the entire mountain in a way a climb to the summit cannot.
Participants: Rik A, Nancy and Jeff S, Autumn C, Erik and Erika N, Kelly P, and Jacob S
Red TapeThe Loowit Trail lies entirely within the USFS-administered Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
A Northwest Forest Pass (or suitable equivalent) is required to park at trailheads for trails approaching the Loowit Trail.
Camping, bicycling, off-trail travel, fires, and pets are all prohibited in the Restricted Zone (see map), which runs across the entire north side of Mt.St.Helens from the South Fork Toutle River to Windy Pass. It appears that back-country camping is permitted on the north side of the South Toutle crossing downriver (west) from the trail crossing. Back country bikers travel the east side of the mountain from Ape Canyon to Windy Ridge including a section of the Loowit across the Plains of Abraham, but are to use the Abraham Trail in lieu of Windy Pass.
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Thanks -- Keep Climbing Mountains, and Don't Slip!