Want to peer into the mouth of St. Helens while you trek across the lands laid to waste in 1980? Want to hike through snags that are evidence of how Mother Nature makes matchsticks out of old growth firs? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and spot bugling elk across a picture-perfect mountain lake. Well, my friends, Coldwater Peak is for you if that sounds like a good time.
Located 6 and ½ miles due north of Mt. St. Helens, Coldwater Peak caught the brunt of the 1980 eruption. The southwest slopes are a wasteland while the ridge running mainly east-west to its south appears to have sheltered it’s eastern slopes to a degree. There is much more vegetation there and this area makes for a nice payoff after hiking through the desolation the first 2/3 of the hike. Coldwater Lake, on its western slope, did not even exist until the eruption. This area received a portion of what used to be the north side of St. Helens which dammed up Coldwater Creek. The lake is amazing in that it initially was filled with bubbling methane gas but within 3 years, that sludge had been eaten by bacteria while rainwater and snow filled it in to the point it became drinkable. What once was a creek is now a beautiful lake 5 miles long, half a mile wide and 200 feet deep. The slopes above the west shore show the evidence of a lateral moraine left by an ancient glacier, truly a complex and amazing place.
There are several ways to hike to the summit. From the east is the Norway Pass trailhead, 10.2 miles from the summit. One could take the Trail 230-A that goes up the southwest slopes starting from a pullout a mile or two before the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This trail meets Trail 230 and intersects the route from Johnston Ridge. The normal route begins at the Johnston Ridge Observatory though. This center lies at the end of Road 504 and is the site where the Coldwater II USGS site was situated to monitor the increasingly-active volcano in 1980. The site was supposedly situated outside the hazard zone mapped for the largest probable event. Now named for David Johnston, the USGS geologist who had the unfortunate distinction of monitoring St. Helens that fateful day, he was the one who uttered the words “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it….” before he and his trailer were blown over Coldwater Creek.
The normal trail runs east down this ridge before turning north and climbing slopes littered with bleached snags that were sheltered enough from the ridge that part of the trunks still stand. Once over this ridge, you see St. Helens Lake on Coldwater Peak’s eastern side and the lush little valley between.
The summit views on a clear day (of which I only had partially) are amazing across St. Helens Lake, Spirit Lake and into the gaping mouth of the north side of St. Helens. The summit was the site of a former lookout but now only houses some instrumentation to monitor the volcano.
One can peakbag points in this area all day but Coldwater Peak is a prize in and of itself.
For the normal route, take I-5 to Castle Rock exit 49 and follow Highway 504 for 52 miles to its end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
(If you want to visit the Observatory, there is an $8 admission and it's open from April 26 to September 26 from 10 am to 6 pm daily.
None, parking is free. Note that pets are not allowed on the trails here though. There are no food services at Johnston Ridge Visitor Center. Also, note that Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is closed to conserve resources.
Ridge Camp is located on Trail 230 between Coldwater Peak and Mt. Margaret and would be the nearest official campsite. Please see this link for info.
Please note there is no water along the way until you get to St. Helens Lake at the foot of Coldwater Peak.
Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument